This Week on the Boxoffice Podcast: Charlotte Film Society on Bringing an Art House Theater to North Carolina’s Largest City

Image Courtesy Brad Ritter, Charlotte Film Society

This week on the Boxoffice Podcast, co-hosts Rebecca Pahle and Russ Fischer are joined by president Brad Ritter and program director Jay Morong of the Charlotte Film Society. The largest city in North Carolina and the 15th largest city in the United States, Charlotte was left without a dedicated art house cinema following the permanent closure of the two-screen Manor Theatre in May 2020, following its temporary Covid-related shutdown the previous March. Ritter and Morong, in addition to their work with the Charlotte Film Society, were the general manager and a projectionist, respectively, at the Manor. With the theater permanently shuttered and Charlotte lacking an art house space, they and the rest of the Charlotte Film Society team have redoubled their efforts to bring a nonprofit neighborhood theater to the Queen City.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Up until recently, Charlotteans had a number of theaters where they could regularly see art-house movies. What’s the state of things for art house cinema now in Charlotte, and how did it get to that point? 

Brad Ritter: It’s actually pretty easy. The state of art house right now in Charlotte is non-existent. We went from three dedicated arthouse cinemas down to zero in two and a half years. And we went from 13 dedicated screens down to zero. So it was pretty rapid. It’s not that the art houses were not profitable or losing money. It was more real estate issues, where the owners of the property decided to go in and take over and redevelop the properties that the theaters were on. In Park Terrace‘s case, it is still a theater. Regal was the tenant, and they wanted Regal to invest a lot of money into it and bring in beer and wine and food. Regal didn’t want to put that kind of investment in it, so they switched over to AMC [and now it plays mostly mainstream titles]. But [the closures of] the Ballantyne and the Manor, at the end of the day, were property-related.

The Manor closed in March due to Covid, and then in May it was confirmed that it wasn’t going to reopen. What was the reasoning there? Obviously Covid is a factor, but in Charlotte there’s always a lot of construction and business turnover happening. 

Brad: I’d been at the Manor for 27 years. The rumors have always been, ‘Oh my gosh, the Manor’s closing.’ For a long time it was going to be a Barnes and Noble. It always survived all these rumors, so we just got used to hearing them. When Covid shut the theater down back in mid-March, I honestly thought we might not reopen. The last thing I did when we closed the final day was I punched out the last ticket at the box office and gave it to my assistant manager and told her that this might be the last ticket ever punched out at the Manor. And she has since kept that ticket. I don’t know, maybe it’ll end up on eBay one day. But when we found out in May that it was going to close permanently, it really wasn’t that much of a surprise.

The Manor was first built in ’47 as a single screen. What’s been the history of the Manor in the decades since?

Jay Morong: When I started working in movie theaters in the Boston area in the 90s, and then into the 2000s, I became really fascinated with movie theater history. So when I moved to Charlotte in 2005 and started working at the Manor as a projectionist, I was like ‘What is this twin theater that’s in a strip mall in this neighborhood? What’s going on here?’ The Manor has had a very interesting history. When it started in ’47, it opened with The Egg and I, which is like a Ma and Pa Kettle, very family, Fred MacMurray-type movie. 

I read that the promotion for that movie was that they gave away chicks?

Jay: They gave away baby chicks at the premiere. I’m sure they were all—I don’t want to be depressing, but—killed by children over the next several days. By accident. You put them in a pocket, you leave them in your jacket. 

[The Manor] would go in these weird waves, historically. It seemed to operate as a very strict family cinema for a while, playing Disney films and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All of those Disney nature films that they had, where someone would befriend a tiger or a lion or something. Doris Day movies in the 50s. And then somewhere in the ’60s and into the ’70s, every once in a while there’d be these weird periods of—I’ll just call them saucier pictures. Movies with the word ‘Lust’ in the title. Probably very tame movies, but a little naughty. And then it would go back to playing whatever the family films were. And then they drop into playing some art house stuff or some foreign films in the late ’70s. But then very quickly back to playing Grease. They seemed to want to dip their toe in the water of playing foreign films or things that were a little more transgressive or daring. But, from a market standpoint—they were in a very conservative neighborhood. They were in Myers Park, which in this last election voted 70 percent for Trump. In Charlotte, a very liberal city, the neighborhood the Manor was in is very conservative. 

They would show these Hollywood films. They’d drift back in forth. And when the Charlotte Film Society started doing things with them in the ’80s, they got more and more into showing foreign, art house, and independent things. People were coming there to see foreign films that weren’t getting shown anywhere else. That lasted all the way up until the early 2000s, where they would go back and forth between mainstream and art house. Around 2000, 2001, that’s when the Manor really became a stronghold for art house cinema in Charlotte. It became the first art house cinema in Charlotte. 

In the 90s and then into the 2000s, it became this place where people went, ‘Oh, that’s where you go see the stuff you can see in New York. That’s where you go to see the stuff that you read about in the New York Times.’ Those foreign, those art house—especially the indie films, the Waking Ned Devines. Not super-independent stuff, but independent enough—Miramax stuff—that wasn’t playing at the 15- or 12-screen theater.

A 2019 Charlotte Film Society event with Joe Bob Briggs, hosted at the C3 Lab. Photo Courtesy Charlotte Film Society

At this point, what are you guys doing to change the fact that there’s really not an art house scene in Charlotte? 

Brad: The Film Society has always been looking for our own venue. We’ve always been a nomadic type organization. We never had a permanent home. Starting about five or six years ago, we dipped our toe in the water and started looking around at different spaces. But nothing ever seemed right. Either the rent was too high or we didn’t have the money to invest in upfitting the location. Once it was official that the Manor was closing and was not coming back, we felt, ‘Now is the time for the Film Society to step up.’ We have the vision. We have the expertise. We’ve been around since 1982. And if there’s ever going to be a time for us to do something, now is the time. 

I found out [about the Manor closing] on a Saturday in May. It took me two phone calls. Within a week, we had found a location for the new cinema, which is just amazing. I think our jaws hit the ground the first time we saw how ideal a space it was. The day we met the landlord, he presented us with plans of how he envisioned a cinema would work in this existing warehouse. And right then we knew that we couldn’t have gotten any luckier with what we’re trying to do. 

It moved fast. When they were gutting the Manor Theater, we were able to save a lot of the equipment. The popcorn popper, the butter machine. We have about 300 of the seats in storage. It turned out the curtains that were hanging at the Manor—the ceiling at the new space is within about five inches of what the auditoriums at the Manor were. Being a non-profit, we’re trying to save money where we can, so we’re looking to use what we were able to salvage from the Manor. Once we get our feet on the ground and we’re successful, [we’ll look at] what to upgrade.

Is this the sort of space that you might not have been able to find in a year that was different from 2020? Which is to say, did Covid help this space come to you in any way?

Brad: Absolutely. We were very fortunate. One thing about being a nomadic organization is we don’t have the overhead costs that all the other theaters are struggling with right now. We don’t have to pay rent. We’re an all-volunteer staff. We’re fundraising now, and none of that is going to fixed costs. The Regals and the AMCs and the other, independent theaters that are already in existence, they have to pay rent every month.

The space was going to be there no matter what. Would it have been a cinema? Probably not. If the Manor was still around, would the Film Society have taken this opportunity to branch out like we’re doing? Probably not. That was one deterrent when the Film Society was looking in the past: Yeah, this is a great location. The rent’s pretty high. And we always had the Manor to compete with. We probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger. But it makes perfect sense now, and the location is in an up-and-coming neighborhood. It’s about a quarter mile from a light rail station, so the access to it is going to be amazing. It’s about two miles from uptown Charlotte and two and a half miles from University of North Carolina Charlotte. Everything fell into place. If Covid hadn’t happened, I don’t think we’d be talking to you today.

You have this ongoing fundraising effort—how’s it been going? I imagine, during Covid, you have a lot of established cultural institutions that are also fundraising just to stay open.

Jay: I think it’s going well. Everyone involved with the Film Society—we are film people. Brad managed the theater for 25-plus years. I’ve worked in projection and worked at movie theaters and video stores for 30 years. Other people are involved in working on film crews and film sets. We’re not fundraisers! It was going to be hard no matter what, because we’re just not good at going out and asking for money or getting grants or any of that kind of thing. We’re not really great marketers. But we’ve gotten some good advice. The Foundation for the Carolinas has been really helpful. We’ve had a couple of people from the community—one of them a longtime resident artist called Hardin Miner, whose mother used to go the Manor. She’s sort of a Charlotte institution—[the late] Cassie Miner. She’s this woman who everyone in town knew somehow. 

When we knew we were going to do this, we had no doubt that the community wanted it. It was just, how do you let them know that we’re trying to raise money for this community cinema? And the response has been great. We have a GoFundMe page. We’re close to 700 donors, and we’ve raised a great deal of money. We’re not trying to recreate the Manor. We’re trying to take the best of the Manor and combine it with the best of the Film Society. The Manor was a very special cultural place in Charlotte. Even though it was owned by a chain, it felt like this special little gem of a theater. When that went away, people immediately were like, ‘What’s the Film Society going to do?’ So that gave us an opportunity to be more successful in the fundraising than we might have been in the past.

We’re in Covid. Obviously, money’s tight for a lot of people. And we’re very conscious of that. We’re saying, ‘Hey, if you don’t have money, that’s okay. Help us spread the word. If you have five bucks, it’s a nonprofit, so it goes right into the organization.’ I think it’s been very successful. I think people have responded. And I think the goal right now is to just let as many people know that this is happening and that it’s going to be a cool place for them to come see art house and independent cinema in Charlotte once the pandemic’s over and we can start—I call it ‘Munchkinlanding.’ We’ll all pop our heads out of the bushes because the Wicked Witch is dead.

It would be ridiculous if a city like Charlotte didn’t have something.

Jay: Brad said it: We did. We had 13 screens. Which in a weird way almost feels the opposite. ‘Woah, 13 art house screens in Charlotte, North Carolina?’ There’s not that many in the Boston area!

There’s not that many in LA! 

Jay: It was sort of this weird, shocking ten-year period where [there were that many art-house screens]. There are a lot of these bigger art house films—documentaries like RGB and Searching for Sugar Man—that needed places to play, and [chains] know, ‘Well, we have to put five screens of Harry Potter or Justice League in our big cinema.’ I think Regal took a shot [with Charlotte’s art house screens]—and again, like Brad said, they were successful. Real estate always wins out, I would argue, for the most part. 

It seems weird to not have those screens. But it seemed weird, even at the time, to have thirteen. Even then, as a programmer for the Film Society, we were always like: But what about this movie? This movie’s not playing in Charlotte, this movie’s not playing in Charlotte, this movie’s not playing in Charlotte. When I when I joined the Film Society in 2010, they were doing one screening a month. In 2019, we did over 40 screenings. And we were on pace in 2020 to do more than 50. We were doing a screening a week, because the idea was there’s all this great stuff that just is not getting seen by people. 

Even today, with streaming, people go ‘Oh, streaming’s great because it levels the playing field. You have access to all this stuff.’ But I feel like more movies are getting lost than ever now. I rewatched Synchronic last night. Who even remembers that movie came out? Maybe when it gets to something like Shudder, it’ll get one more little blip in that first week. When I was rewatching the film, I was thinking: ‘This has Anthony Mackie in it. This has Jamie Dornan. This has big name actors!’ I know people who talk about a lot of weird, obscure things. Nobody’s talking about this movie. That’s why you need the theaters. You need the theaters to focus attention on the film for that brief period of time, so then at least that core group of people can say, ‘I saw that film.’ And then when it does hit streaming, they say ‘You have to go watch this immediately.’ Now it’s like every other day something new comes out on streaming.

Brad: If I can make a point on fundraising real fast: We’ve been extremely lucky in the way that cards have fallen for us. The location we’re looking is in an opportunity zone. The owners of the building get a tax credit for developing this building. If we were to normally open up our own space, probably about 5,700 square feet—Jay and I looked at a space somewhere else in town a couple years ago, and we were going to have to pay all the build-out costs of the space. Build the walls, the sound deadening materials, everything. And with the space that we’re currently looking at and [are] soon to sign a lease on, with this tax credit, the owners are getting money back for spending money. So instead of us having to raise, say, $800,000 just to provide the shell of the cinema, the owners of the building are going to spend—and it’s not that expensive—money to provide the shell. And that’s money that we don’t have to raise. The money that we’re fundraising is for projection equipment, sound equipment, installing the seats, building the concession stand, decorating the lobby. The owners and the builder are even providing finished restrooms for us. Under normal situations, there’s no way the Film Society would have been able to afford that. We’d be raising money for 10 years. You hate to think that Covid’s something positive, but in this situation it really helped us get where we are currently and progress into opening the cinema.

When I last spoke to you, you were aiming for a late 2021 opening. Is that still the case?

Brad: That’s what we’re hoping. The city of Charlotte is extremely difficult. You hear horror stories. Another space that we looked at, they opened a restaurant right next to next door to where the cinema was potentially going to be. And I think they were delayed twelve months. Because every time they went for an inspection, the inspector would flag something else. We really, really hope to be open no later than end of 2021.

Jay: I would tag on to that that Covid’s going to dictate a lot. And vaccine distribution is going to dictate a lot. I agree with Brad. I’m optimistic that the development group that owns the building has whatever relationship they have with the city and permitting and all that. Covid will really dictate, I think, when we get towards the fall and into the winter, whether or not we’re able to open. 

A Charlotte Film Society Back Alley Film Series screening of I Am a Knife With Legs, with writer/director/star Bennett Jones present. Image courtesy Brandon M Falls. 

The Manor played the larger, more mainstream indie titles—Focus Features, Searchlight, things like that. The Charlotte Film Society goes a little more obscure in its programming decisions. And then over the last year, you’re seeing more and more theaters play streaming titles from places like Netflix, Amazon, Apple. We don’t know how much that’s going to dial back once more films get released, but it’s safe to say that among exhibitors there’s a lot more flexibility than there used to be in terms of playing streaming titles. With your new theater, what’s the balance you want to strike between movies from streamers, more accessible indie stuff from the major players, and some of those smaller titles that you really want to champion?

Jay: The simple answer to that question is ‘All of the above.’ We’re understanding of the fact that we have to bring those bigger art house titles. Whether it’s because we genuinely, really love those films and want to share them with our audience, or it’s ‘This is the movie that people want to see, and they want to see it in a theater.’ There is initially this combination of bringing what the Manor brought—the Searchlight, Samuel Goldwyn, Focus Features, those kind of things—with the more obscure, art house and independent films from KimStim and Oscilloscope and places like that. But then also doing some repertory programming that we’ve never really had an opportunity to do because we didn’t have a space. 

I think the real way to solve the puzzle here is—we’ll have three screens. One more than the Manor had. One of them will be a micro-cinema. Our approach to programming is going to be not so parochial on what the Manor and Park Terrace and Ballantyne and most theaters do, which is: You gotta run a movie four times a day, seven days a week. For some movies, you might have to do that. Parasite opened at the Manor on two screens, four screenings a day. That might be a film that you have to run four screenings a day, every day in that big auditorium. And just let it run. 

Brad and I used to talk about this at the Manor all the time. We would sit there and go, ‘Why aren’t there two movies on that screen? Why aren’t there three movies?’ Most of our programming for the Film Society were one-offs up until about a year ago, we started doing week-long runs at a micro cinema at a video store, VisArt, that partners with us. You can screen a film for a weekend, and maybe run four screens a day for the weekend. You can do double-feature, retro things. We have a series at the Film Society called the Back Alley Film Series, which is more transgressive, weirder stuff. Maybe that movie only plays at nine o’clock every night during the week.

That’s the puzzle. We’re not going to be like, ‘We have three screens, and we have three movies playing this week.’ I could envision, easily, ten different films playing over the course of the week. Maybe more. Obviously, every distributor wants a full run, seven days. And you’re going to have to negotiate that with them. Focus is probably going to say, ‘We need this for this.’ But some of these distributors are like, ‘No, that’s great. Even if our film’s only playing once a day. And it’s getting marketed and it’s getting out there and people are getting to see it.’ It might mean the run is longer. So that’s how I envision the programming going. 

To mention one other thing, you talked about Netflix or other streaming services. We had already started doing that with the with the Film Society when films like Roma or Dolemite Is My Name or The Irishman or Marriage Story weren’t going to get played in theaters [in Charlotte]. We reached out to Netflix and said: We’ll rent a 180-seat cinema, and we’ll do three screenings of The Irishman or two screenings of Roma. We did a single of Marriage Story and Dolemite. We envision that that will and should continue. Because there are people who want to see certain films on a big, giant movie screen with an audience. Dolemite Is My Name is a perfect example.

The end of the movie is about the power of seeing a movie on the big screen with other people!

Jay: Brad and I have a similar philosophy: When we go to festivals, if we know a distributor has a film and we know a movie is going to play in Charlotte—why go to see that? But I went and saw Dolemite at TIFF that year, because I knew ‘This movie’s not going play in Charlotte. I want to see this movie with a crowd of people, because it’s going to be hilarious.’ And of course it was. And then as soon as you see it, you’re like, ‘Okay, we have to get this movie to people. We have to.’ Being an all-volunteer organization, being a non-profit—we are able to take some risks that maybe a corporate-minded business model just can’t. Or a smaller, mom and pop that’s like, ‘We have rent we have to pay every month.’ 

Programming-wise, everything is on the table for me. Obviously, the fundamental mission of the Film Society was, if it’s not playing Charlotte, we’re going to bring it. We’ll have to expand that a little bit. If Emma! is playing at Stonecrest, which is another theater on the other side of town, but it seems to fit our audience, yeah, we might have to bring a movie like that and throw it in. But maybe it’s only three screenings a day. And then that gives us an opportunity to put in Amulet from IFC at nine o’clock at night. So we can go, ‘Hey, there’s also this really neat little independent horror film that you can see from the UK.’

A you were doing Film Society screenings in 2019, was there any title you played that surprised you in the way people received it? Or was there anything that helped set a pattern and made you think, ‘We can do more of this sort of thing when we have our own space’? 

Brad: Our audience is very consistent. We have three different series with the Film Society. We pretty much know who’s going to be attending. We have a built-in audience for a foreign film or one of the Back Alley films. I won’t say we never get surprised, but we’re pretty consistent with who turns out.

Jay: We have a consistent audience. But what we’ve started to in 2019 with Back Alley is that people who would only go to the French comedies and the Polish dramas—the more international foreign films, Juliette Binoche-type stuff—would start to bleed over into the Back Alley [series]. There were a handful of movies—a film like Lemon, English-language, seemed like a quieter movie, didn’t seem blood and guts. We screened Harpoon at the very beginning of the year.  There became this trust a little bit: ‘Okay, we’re not really sure what these transgressive films are. And we’d probably never see them. But we’ve started to trust that maybe there’s something to them.’ 

Ultimately, when we talk programming for the cinema—Judi Dench has a Best Exotic Marigold Three coming out? Yeah. The Manor crowd, a good portion of our audience is going to love that movie. Bring it. Give it to them. There’s no reason not to. But then also there is this hunger, for some of the people in our core audience and to bring new people in—that’s where you can say, ‘Well, here’s a movie that’s completely outside the realm of anything you’ve seen.’ And if you have a space where they trust you—there will be people who go see Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and then say ‘What’s this other movie?’

Brad, what are your thoughts on that? It sounds like you’re enmeshing the Manor and the Charlotte Film Society to create a different blueprint for programming in Charlotte.

Brad: Absolutely. We came up with a slogan, “Rebuilding better.” Borrowed off of Biden’s campaign a little bit. But that’s what we’re trying to do. We obviously have to pay the bills, like Jay said, so we’re going to play the the the bigger art titles. And we want to. Absolutely. But the Film Society always prided itself on the films that maybe people don’t know about. We definitely want to build up a following, which the Film Society already has. The Manor already has. And there’s definitely a lot of overlap there. We want people to come see movies at the cinema and know that it might not be their favorite movie, but it’s interesting and they’re glad that they came. It’s building up the trust with the consumers that, ‘Yeah, I’ve never heard of this film, but shoot, if they’re playing it, I’ll go take a look.’ 

We want to play everything we can. We don’t have to play it four times a day for a week. But if we can play it one show a day for a week, I believe most of the distributors will be happy with those type of agreements. Jay and I go to Toronto and we get spoiled. I see 40, 45 movies in eight days. Probably more than half of those movies never make it to America. Jay and I talk to distributors—if we really like a movie we saw at TIFF, we’d reach out. We’ve bought movies that nowhere in the U.S. was playing, because we believe in this type of movie. 

Jay: It’s not like we’re inventing this, either. There are lots of places in the United States—the Brattle does this. It’s a one-screen, and look at their calendar they put together for a month.

Brad: One thing we haven’t even talked about are the ever-changing theatrical windows. I think that could definitely help an organization like ours. [With Universal and Focus Features’ shortened theatrical exclusivity window], if a film doesn’t gross $50 million opening weekend, it goes down to a seventeen day theatrical window. That could really reinvent the way we book films. Because I’m sure if they’re only going to give us 17 days to show a film before they start streaming it, then that will give us, I believe, freedom and flexibility to say, at the end of that period: ‘Alright, well, you’re streaming now.’ Normally, back in the days of the Manor, I was always pulling my hair out: “Why are we still showing this movie when we’re getting ten people a day for it?” I think [a new windows paradigm] is going to allow us to potentially drop films faster and thus bring more films in.

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