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Matt at the Movies: A Series of Fortunate Events
Y'all Weekly chats with Independent Picture House Executive Director Brad Ritter as the theater celebrates its first birthday.
I sit down, coffees in hand, outside the Giddy Goat in Plaza Midwood with the smell of coffee beans roasting in the background. It’s been two days since The Independent Picture House (IPH) celebrated their one year anniversary.
Sitting across the picnic table is Brad Ritter, the executive director of The Independent Picture House, rocking an NPR shirt and Indie ballcap. I’ve chatted with Brad for many years at The Manor when I’d drive down from Lake Norman to view indie and foreign gems, long before I started writing movie reviews. We had quick thirty second conversations about what he’s seen or his thoughts on an international film I was about to view.
He and the staff always made me feel welcome and comfortable with being a movie nerd.
There have been some great local stories written about the making of the Independent. Brad, Jay Morong, and other CFS board members went full steam ahead after The Manor’s closing in May 2020.
When all the decisions were made, fundraising goals met, and construction finished, IPH opened their doors in June of 2022.
Y’all Weekly spoke with Brad for an hour and chatted about how things materialized. As we listened to Brad talk about the process, a theme kept resonating throughout: The stars seemed to align with the right circumstances, people, and events - plus lots of hard work - to make this long-standing dream of opening up an independent non-profit art house come to fruition.
The conversation below is edited for brevity and clarity.
Matt at the Movies: How did you get involved with the film industry?
Brad Ritter: I came down to Charlotte in March of 1990 and then I got a job there [at the Manor] in ‘93. One of the projectionists at the time caught the booth on fire the month before so they fired him and they needed a new projectionist. They hired me to fill that need while I was still working full time with a systems consulting company.
I would come in Thursday evenings and build up the films that were opening and break down the films that were being shipped out. Eventually I became lead projectionist and my love for cinema was cemented.
MaTM: How did you know it was time to move forward with this monumental project?
BR: When the Manor closed due to Covid, I knew we wouldn’t reopen. After Regal Ballantyne closed and Park Terrace went mainstream we knew there was a void to fill. We (Jay Morong), over the years, have always looked at opening up a theater and had three different times when we seriously thought about pulling the trigger. And each kind of failed for different reasons.
As they dove deeper into locations they faced many different challenges: a spot off Central Avenue that would have been a single screen theater didn’t work out after talking with an architect and figuring out the cost. A Camp North End-area site would have the space and location, but the math once again didn’t work out. Lastly, a South End spot was canned due to a risky seven year lease with no future guarantees.
From here, as Brad points out, the current location was just “fate.”
Stars Align for The Indy
MaTM: So how did this all come together?
BR: I reached out to Andy Kastanas of Soul Gastrolounge because I knew he had a lot of nightclubs and restaurants over the years. If anyone knew where available properties would be, Andy would be a good starting point. He put me in touch with Jay Tilyard who owned The Chop Shop and opened the BlackBox across the street (old Tryon Movie Theater) but didn’t have any space available. We looked at the transmission shop next to the Black Box and it was really cool and would have been funky but the ceilings were way too low.
So he (Jay Tilyard) pointed us across the street and called Tony Kuhn over at Flywheel Group who owned the building. We scheduled a meeting for the following week. When we walked in, the garage doors were open and we immediately saw huge twenty foot ceilings. Tony handed us a diagram of where the cinema would be and we knew right then. It was a no brainer for us and Tony has been supportive since day one. He believes in non-profits and is a movie fan.
MaTM: What was the biggest challenge for you and IPH in year one?
We went from being a non-profit group with two board meetings a year that acted more as a film club to now having to be a non-profit organization day-in, day-out. We made a lot of changes, brought on people who were like-minded in our vision, and then had the stars aligned to run into someone like Tony (Kuhn) to get us moving with a favorable lease that will go way into the future (well beyond my tenure).
We raised $750,000 to open the building which was quite a feat. Tom Eiselt was one of the first to come on board and get excited. We convinced Tom into becoming the board chair and with him already serving on the Blumenthal Board we were able to reach out to people like [Blumenthal CEO] Tom Gabbard.
When Tom Gabbard came down and checked out our space, he told us if our model was like the Manor's - that all we do is sell tickets and popcorn - we’re doomed. So we wanted to make this a venue about more than just showing independent and foreign films. We want to educate and engage the entire community through the power of film.
MaTM: So with that advice, what was the vision moving forward?
BR: We understand that being a non-profit, it's more than selling popcorn. We want to provide a more enhanced experience, such as adding value to our screenings. Post screening talkbacks are popular.
For example, the Sam Shapiro International Noir series, the panel discussion after the Michael J. Fox documentary with experts on Parkinsons, and talkbacks that are just flat-out entertaining like the recent Yogi Berra discussion. Our panel discussions and talk backs are just some of the things we are working on going into 2023 and beyond.
MaTM: How has the Charlotte Film Society changed?
BR: Back in the day our old film society survived on memberships and ticket sales.
We originally designed it to show only nine films a year. Before COVID shut everything down, our CFS programming goal was to show one new movie a week and we were on track.
The entire business model has now changed to where we now have employees, insurance, and rent to pay. You know, overhead costs! Gone were the days of an all volunteer organization. We had to blow up our old fundraising model.
Today we're like every other arts non-profit, we're constantly fundraising. However with our organization, we feel we are bringing something unique to the community, something that Charlotte has never had.
MaTM: Have you noticed a change in trends the past few years of movie consumption for independent and foreign film?
BR: Covid changed everything.
One year in we're still finding our audience, which grows every day! We are still getting our loyal Manor crowd to IPH but we are definitely getting a younger crowd. It’s one reason we give away free student memberships, in order to encourage new (younger) visitors. I honestly feel cinema is becoming hip/cool again!
We are making a conscientious effort to have a presence at UNCC and other schools to give awareness to IPH and sign students up for memberships.
MaTM: Brag about your staff for a little bit.
BR: It's amazing!
We have over 260 volunteers who are always on standby. They help with things like selling raffle tickets to engaging with the public to helping usher auditoriums. The cinema staff is incredible.
Brandy (Ray) and Mikey (McCaulsin) came over with me from the Manor and I’ve worked with them for over twenty-five years. Don’t do the math on that. I don't want them to get mad at me (laughs). One of (if not) their first jobs was at the Manor, so they've grown up in the film exhibition industry. We have always had very little turnover both at the Manor and IPH. The guests enjoy seeing the same faces when they visit. We try to make this a fun place to work. We're just one small goofy family that likes movies.
As Brad goes on to talk about his staff he becomes very emotional. It’s clear that this tight crew spends endless hours together and even though things can sometimes get rough they are clearly a unit that not only works well together but cares for each other as well. He continues on…
BR: Have you heard Ivana’s (Woodcock) story? Oh man you could make a movie out of that.
I’ll let her tell you someday over a glass of wine, but she came from Slovakia then moved to London. Her husband gets a job in Charlotte and the family moves over here without knowing a soul. Before she moves she Googles and finds out about our Charlotte Film Festival. They move to Charlotte early September 2021 and she immediately volunteers to help with the festival. She was there everyday, volunteering!
Over the past year and a half she has become an invaluable contributor to IPH's success and now I'm happy to say we can pay her a salary. One of Ivana's responsibilities is to organize our volunteer list. But she goes beyond just compiling the names. She interviews and gets to know everyone which helps her determine where they can help us the most.
One day Ivana, Tom (Eiselt) and I were looking at the master volunteer list together and I saw Kendra Dodds’ name. Well by luck, her background is in development with the Michigan Theater Foundation in Ann Arbor which happens to be one of the big players in non-profit arthouses. We immediately set up a tour of IPH (still very much under construction at the time). Kendra's passion is in development and she truly saw our vision and believed in it...we brought her on board as soon as possible.
Kendra and Ivana are probably making half what they should be making but they believe in IPH and the importance of our mission. I’m so grateful to have them around each day.
We also took a minute to email with Ivana Woodcock, the Marketing Coordinator at IPH about year one.
MaTM: Year one in the books at IPH. What are your thoughts?
Ivana Woodcock: It’s been such an experience for everyone involved. So much learning about everything and anything.
I am proud that we filled the void that the closing of The Manor left behind. We created something that Charlotte needed. It’s more of a community focused arthouse built in a magnificent purpose driven mission. I feel everyone involved in this project genuinely loves films, but also Charlotte and its people. Their heart is in the right place and what a better foundation to build something as spectacular as IPH!
I am excited about all the opportunities and growth potential it has. Charlotte needs a place like this. Place where people can connect through the power of film. The amount of time I witnessed random people start discussing films after they walked out of the films. They didn’t know each other before but after they ended up chatting and interacting. We have friendships being made. I mean I came to the US in September ‘21 and didn’t know a soul.
Thanks to IPH I now know so many people… IPH is a very special place.
MaTM: How would you describe working with Brad?
IW: Working with Brad is the best! He is my kind of person. You can see he really cares. IPH is his baby really. He gives me freedom to be me, and grow, trust me and my decisions. We talk every day. He has a great sense of humor. I have lots of respect for him.
MaTM: Brad, what was your proudest moment of year one?
Brad Ritter: Opening! Just kidding.
I think the “Navalny” screening was special. It took almost five months to make it happen.
One of our supporters was at Telluride (Film Festival) and she immediately contacted us to bring it to IPH. She met Navlany’s daughter, the director, and the producer of the documentary. Due to the holidays and then the Oscar campaign it didn’t seem like it would materialize. The movie's producer worked with CNN to get us the rights to screen it and we finally showed it two weeks after it won the Best Documentary Oscar.
We did a live Zoom with Christo Grozev who was the journalist who broke the story and it was just so cool to have this come together. It was a fun challenge to coordinate and technically pull it off.
MaTM: What brings a smile to your face thinking of year one at IPH?
BR: The audience. The energy, the excitement of the crowds, and being able to watch thought provoking films with fellow cinephiles.
Also, seeing fun films like “Run Lola Run” on the big screen is pretty cool. We just celebrated our one year anniversary and to see the crowds. The people are so nice and it just never gets old.
MaTM: Year two, what are you looking forward to?
BR: Growing. Everything from fundraising to the staff (and our footprint in the Charlotte arts scene). Getting Brandy and Mikey more help. We want this area to become a place where you can spend the entire evening. Get a bite to eat, check out the gallery over at the Charlotte Art League next door, and catch a film all in one night. Our overall goal is to have the public's confidence where they can show up at IPH at any time and know there will be an interesting film to watch.
As our conversation comes to a close, it’s clear there is something special happening at The Independent Picture House. I remember watching my first film there, the animated movie about German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon’s life “Charlotte,” during their soft opening. The touches on the inside of the lobby and even bathrooms were both inviting while still being true to Charlotte’s local history.
Recently, I attended a sold out showing of Wes Anderson’s new film “Asteroid City” and the vibe was electric. On Friday, “Past Lives” made its Charlotte debut - it’s a strong early contender for Oscar nominations. The stars have aligned to give our city an independent outlet for film and the team at IPH will continue to make it a cultural destination for years to come. Prost to Brad, the cinema operations team, and the board of directors for seeing this vision become a reality.
Brad Ritter - Executive Director, Independent Picture House
Jay Morong - IPH Creative Director and Festival Director of the Charlotte Film Festival (UNCC Theater and Film Studies Instructor)
Tom Eiselt - Board Chair at IPH
Andy Kastanas - Soul Gastrolounge Owner
Jay Tilyard - Owner of BlackBox Theater
Tony Kuhn - President at Flywheel Group
Tom Gabbard - CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts
Brandy Ray - Cinema Director at IPH
Mikey McCauslin - General Manager at IPH
Kendra Dodds - Development Director at IPH
Ivana Woodcock - Marketing Coordinator at IPH
The Breakdown on Brad
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