Filmmaker Jonathan McNeal of The Neon
In this episode, host Rodney Veals talks to filmmaker, philanthropist and general manager of The Neon, Jonathan McNeal about his passion for film, ways The Neon helps promote and grow independent films, how the pandemic has impacted the industry and what’s next for film.
[00:00:30] Rodney: I’m super excited to share a conversation with Jonathan McNeil, who is a filmmaker, the general manager of The Neon Movies and philanthropist in our community to talk about all things film and his life in general, as inspiration for moving forward and making positive change. So, Jonathan, okay.
I have to know. I had a dream as, as an art maker to be a visual artist. Did you have the dream of being always in film?
[00:01:00] Jonathan McNeal: In film in some capacity? Sure. It certainly didn’t end up exactly the way I had thought about. But, you know, the interest in film really took flight with the Wizard of Oz.
and , my adoration of that film and collecting stuff when I was little I loved the film. I loved the annual screening on TV of the film. But then a librarian, Mrs. Hildage in the Children’s Library pointed me to other Oz books and then eventually to a book called The Scrapbook of Oz. And I was enamored that there were things to collect and that there was a story. And then she said, you know, I think you’re ready to go to the adult section of the library. And she wrote me a little little tag so that I could go upstairs to the adult library and get out a book called The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Al Gene Harmatz.
And it was, you know, Completely eye-opening. The whole idea of the casting process and special effects and directors changing hands and, you know, all the behind the scenes of the creation of this film really opened my eyes to the fact that it was a business and that it was a that it was a, a, a work that took multiple people to see it.
You know, to gestate and to become a reality. So that was, that was a whole new idea to me. It wasn’t just, people putting on a show. It was a lot of people making it happen.
[00:02:31] Rodney: I love the fact that it, that your journey started in the library, which is like, cuz for me it was a very similar story of like going to the library and.
Checking out books and seeing these images of dance and visual arts and thinking this is kind of the world I wanted to be in. And so part of this podcast is that inspiration and love, the effect that it’s the Wizard of Oz of, I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. True. So once you discovered The Wizard of Oz and you discovered this book about the making of.
I mean, did, did it just take over, did it become sort of an obsession of how film and films
are made for you?
[00:03:09] Jonathan McNeal: Um, Oz took over for sure. Oz, you know, Oz became a big part of my life. I mean, I was collecting stuff. I was you know, eventually in 89 was the 50th anniversary of the, of the movie. And more books came out and more kind of stuff became available.
And so I started meeting authors and then I, you know, I went to a conventions, met authors, and ended up meeting munchkins. At one point, I mean, I was 16 years old going on a plane by myself to Racine, Wisconsin to, people that owned Ruby slippers and , things like that. I mean, it was Oz took over my life.
But also the notion of, of film certainly did too. I was from a small town, Salem, Ohio, so small town, not a whole lot of resources when it came to film. We did not even own a VCR until I was in high school. It was always one of those you could rent a VCR for the weekend with three movies for $10 kind of thing.
Okay. And we didn’t have a camcorder, never had one of those. So I never really had my hands on a camera to really kind of understand film before I decided I wanted to go to film school. And, you know, being a middle class family, we were not, my parents were not interested in sending me anywhere outside of state. So we had to find somewhere in state, and that’s where even in junior high, I had determined that Wright State was the best film program in the state and that that’s where I was probably going to go for college. So, I mean, I kind of knew by like eighth grade that that’s the direction I wanted to go.
[00:04:52] Rodney: I love that. And, and you know, that was my next question because you, cuz you did land at Wright State, which I do also consider probably one of the great, one of the, one of the best film schools in the, in the, in the state. , it is very clear to me that you, you went through the process, which is like discovery.
You like, you, you, you knew and you understood in the eighth grade. So you were, you were leading yourself up to it. So now you’re, you’ve applied to, to Wright State’s film program. And you’re there. What was that experience like for you if you’ve never touched a camera and you’ve only dealt with film on a renting of a VCR for 10 bucks?
[00:05:28] Jonathan McNeal: Right. I you know, interestingly, we came to look at the university first, my mother and I, and I remember Joe Hill, the equipment room manager at the time, taking us on a tour. You know, seeing kids working on Steenbecks, which are those reel to real machines where people were editing 16 millimeter film and working with sound and film at the same time.
And it was all really fascinating to me. But the guy, Joe was honest and said, you know, a lot of people apply to this program and don’t make it. You know, don’t make it all the way through. And, you know, there was a bit of a reality check kind of giving us some numbers and knowing that dozens and dozens of people would, would apply and even start the program and then not make it to the junior year.
So then in incoming as a freshman realizing that there were a hundred plus kids who had declared motion pictures was gonna be their major. And knowing that the cut would be to about nine to 12 people in the junior year immediately, some people bailed, you know, right away. And the coursework was tough.
There was a lot of, as much theory as there was hands-on practical filmmaking. But you know, I remember going home from that visit with my mother in the car and saying, well, I’m gonna be one of those people that. Goes all the way with it. And, you know, so she’s an artist too. She was a musician, she’s a keyboard artist, you know, piano, harpsichord, organ.
And she’s always said to me, the arts are feast or famine. You’ve gotta really want to do it if that’s what you want to do. So but I was, I was adamant that I would make it through the program.
[00:07:11] Rodney: Wow. I mean, I, I love the fact that you’ve And, and my, and our, and my knowledge of you and, and knowing you and having met you, you always seem to be very focused, like, and very determined.
Like unfazed. I mean, I mean that would, that would scare most people. The notion that a hundred people show up and only nine survive that is like . That odds are pretty, a pretty sure. Or. Fa and, and not in your favor, I mean…
[00:07:35] Jonathan McNeal: Right, right. No, it is a little daunting. And you know, I, I will have to say, I did have beyond Vh s my father had when we were very, very little, used a super eight camera.
So he never used it when, when I was interested in it. I mean, it wasn’t really, you know, it was kind of falling out of fashion for sure. But we had those reels of super 8 movies at home, and I loved threading that projector. I loved, projecting the film onto the back of a white door, I loved that whole process.
And the you know, the clicking and clacking of the, of you know, these silent films that we would watch and I almost kind of forgot that that was something that I really loved at home. And I would rent movies from the library.
They had super eight movies. They would have silent reels of, you know Disney stuff. Or maybe like a boiled down, you know, 20 minute version of Mary Poppins kind of thing. But it was silent, you know, you’re watching this with no sound. And, but I still was fascinated by it. So, so when I got to film school, that was the very first thing you shot on was Super eight.
So I had some. Understanding of frames and sprockets and you know, how things kind of worked in that regard. But it was all new to me as far as aperture settings and lenses and understanding depth of field and, all those kinds of things that go into shooting on film. So, so all of that was was a big, big learning curve for me.
[00:09:10] Rodney: Okay. So, and you talked about theory because that’s one of the things when I went to to school for dance theory took over from technique. Because this is a podcast for people who are hopefully gonna get inspired to maybe say, you know what, like, I’m not gonna be so afraid of my child going to film school or being a dancer or an artist.
What would you say to the for, cause it sounds like your parents are really supportive. also as well. So it’s a two-pronged question. What would you say to those people out there who are interested in maybe pursuing film and filmmaking and also to parents and or individuals who support young people who are trying to do it, what would you tell them?
[00:09:49] Jonathan McNeal: Well, you know, certainly. Things have become a lot more accessible in the last 20 years and in the last five or six years, you know, everybody has a camera now, you know on their hip. You know, the, the understanding of of the moving image and how to edit it and all that stuff is a lot more accessible than it was before.
So, you know, I’d urge people to start exploring with the tools that you have. Of my class. You know, a few are working in the industry and most aren’t. So it is still a, it is still a risk, but you’ve gotta take it to know it, to know whether it’s for you or not, and you might not.
You might find that. You know, pre-production for a film takes as long as shooting. The shooting part is the shortest part. Pre-production and post-production are, are the things that really are the take the most time. So if you don’t have that and that commitment and that investment then it’s not gonna work for you.
So it’s fun to have as a hobby. But if you’re not really. A hundred percent wanting to make it work, then you’ve gotta, you’ve gotta do something else, but you’ve gotta try it to know if it’s for you or not. .
[00:11:05] Rodney: Yeah. And that’s, and I think that’s really good advice. I mean and so one of the things that, you know, because you talked about going to Wright State and, and we just, you know, we’re, we’re kind of all processing the fact of Julia Rikers passing in film, and then the Dayton community, not just in the Dayton community, but in the film community, it’s very clear, her impact and influence. And, and I saw the article in Dayton Alien News where there was a quote from you about talking about authenticity and film, because it’s that question of, of telling the truth.
And so I, for those who didn’t read the article, I want you to kind of, could you kind of encapsulate
[00:11:41] Jonathan McNeal: I knew her peripherally in my freshman and sophomore year, but she and Jim Klein who were teaching together at the time you didn’t really have time with them until you made the cut into the junior year and that’s when you were going into a saturation of documentary work. And you know, I knew Julia. I knew that she had an incredible resume. I knew that, you know, she had films that were quite revered, but I hadn’t seen them growing up.
They certainly weren’t films that were available at the video store and…that first day of class was her looking around the room saying, you know, if you were in a long-term committed relationship, okay, but if you weren’t, if you were just dating, stop dating. If you had a job, quit your job. You know, you are going to have to focus on this class, and it’s going to be so demanding and you’re going to have so many projects that there’s no room for , outside commotion, and you know, in dating in particular, she was like, you know, that’s you, you know, that’s gonna add to your, to your drama where you can’t get the work done. And going into the junior year you had to have a checkbook that showed that you have x numbers of dollars in the checkbook so that you could, actually do the work afford the work because, you know, in that quarter you were shooting on video and whatnot, but eventually you’re gonna be shooting on film and there was a huge expense that came along with that. So she looked around the room, she told us those things. And then she also said, you, I can tell by your shoes, I can tell by your haircuts that you are all Midwestern.
And she’s like, and you’ve gotta embrace that. You’ve got to you’ve gotta embrace your upbringing, embrace your roots, know who you are, otherwise your work isn’t gonna be authentic and you’ve got to invest yourself in your work and you need to know who you are in order to create good work. You know, that was ultimately kind of the, the, the you know, the curtain speech to the class And then we started working, we started learning interview techniques and then started you know, portrait work and just a variety of stuff that we were you know, every week in a 10 week course we had some kind of project due. And some of them were big projects. When you came out of that program, you ended up having a resume like an NYU student. At the end of the day like an NYU grad student, really, I mean, you weren’t making feature films, but you were making, you had a junior thesis and a senior thesis.
They’ve since kind of whittled down what the requirements are to get through the program. It’s not as, not as much requirement as it used to be, but it’s still it’s still a demanding program for sure. But you know, back then there, there were, you had to really commit to quite a bit to actually graduate.
[00:14:41] Rodney: I love how you said it was like, it, it’s comparable at that time to an nyu I mean, I, I have a master’s degree in choreography and it’s, I did the similar sort of process of like a project. Plus three thesis statements, plus many projects along the way.
And as I always tell people all the time, it’s like, it’s like, hold onto your hats. I’ve never really, you know, Heard of bachelor programs being that intense, but it seems like film school seems to be the most intense of the art forms. And that’s…
[00:15:11] Jonathan McNeal: You know, it, you know, and it is a, it, it is a pretty non-traditional film school.
I mean that whole cut rate and, you know, whittling down to those kind of nine, 10 students by the junior year there was a real kind of sense of a family at that point. I mean, you knew each other, you were working together, you were collaborating with fellow students. You were getting a lot of time in the editing room with Jim Klein.
You were, you know, people were really facilitating the work and you really got to know. , everyone around you and upperclassmen maybe going to them for help and them, you helping them on their projects, et cetera. So there was always and there also there wasn’t a, a real Stringent requirement to graduate anytime soon.
I mean, they knew that the, the junior film that you’re working on could cost thousands of dollars and. You might have to work some to get the next, you know, couple reels of film that you needed to shoot or work some to take the next step in post-production to do your your sound mix or you know, to do a, a release print of your film for color correction.
You know, that all of those steps were. so much more expensive than they are these days. Being able to shoot on, on a camera where you can upload it to your computer and not have to send it away for processing and edge coding and all these kinds of things that come along with 16 millimeter, which is what we were shooting on that junior year.
[00:16:46] Rodney: Wow. Wow.
[00:16:47] Jonathan McNeal: So it was different. It was a different era.
[00:16:50] Rodney: Different era, but a different era that still kind of leads into today. I see film in an essence, an artifice is an artificial form, but there has to be an authenticity within that artifice. So, does that kind of affect how you see films and in your, what you’re doing now, but cause what you’re gonna get, which we’ll get to, but does that kind of allow you to see films and filmmaking in a different lens versus just an everyday patron?
[00:17:19] Jonathan McNeal: Oh, Absolutely. I mean, you know, my boyfriend says when people ask him if he’s in, in film as well or if he’s interested in films, and he says he likes movies, he responds and says, I like movies.
Jonathan likes films, he knows that my, my tastes are a little more demanding when it comes to, to quality and authenticity and things like that. It’s not to say that I can’t enjoy you know, a mainstream film, but it’s pretty rare.
[00:17:50] Rodney: I guess it’s very similar to someone in the dance field who’s like, you could tolerate a nutcracker. But you would, but you would prefer to see something else. Right. Especially in the, in the, in the ballet room. You could tolerate it. But that’s the thing.
So, and I know we, and we, we had talked briefly before we had this interview and you mentioned a film, which turned out to be one of my favorite films. I own it. The Criteron DVD. That’s how much I love the film, Maurice. And you talked about that being very influential and what was so influential about that film?
Cause I, I guess I wanted to go in depth about that. I was…
[00:18:22] Jonathan McNeal: so, you know, I. I had seen Room With a View on VHS, and my friend Betsy Kahn, who sat behind me in German class had also seen it and, and loved it. And I loved Room with a View and, you know, should have been very telling, you know, as very, you know, engaged by Maggie Smith and Judy Dench.
And then I found out that those same filmmakers made another film called Maurice and I rented that and watched it and was slightly horrified by the, it being a very queer s tory and the gay content in it was, you know, unabashedly gay content in it. And I found myself not being able to talk to Betsy about having seen that film because I didn’t want, you know, any kind of suspicion or guilty by association kind of from having seen that film.
But I, you know, I watched it a couple times even. And it, it was…I was so engaged by the story. Also titillated by it a little, you know, I, it was just, it was something I had never seen it was completely eye-opening to me. It made me be interested in E.M. Forrester, started reading some of his short stories as well.
And then of course when Howard’s End came out a few years later, I was living in Germany at the time. That has become one of my all-time favorite films. I just think it’s an, an exquisite piece of work from performance and screenplay and photography is just all lovely.
[00:19:58] Rodney: I had the similar sort of feeling about the film when I first saw it, but then, and, you know, being almost 60 years old, which is, I, I’m not afraid to unabashedly say that the storyline, it was the most authentic sort of exploration of love, of a seeking quest for love. And I thought these filmmakers really captured.
That sort of inner conversation, that inner dialogue, but it manifests itself in visual terms. And I just always fell in love with the film. And of course, and we talked about the fact that Howard’s End, I mean, a full caveat for those who don’t know me, I actually did, I was at the Neon movies working as assistant manager when Howard’s End came out, which was like kind of crazy and insane in and of itself, watching people really gravitate towards this movie.
[00:20:53] Jonathan McNeal: and I, I recall the neon doing a 70 millimeter presentation at at one point too of Howard’s End, which was pretty incredible.
[00:21:00] Rodney: Yeah. Yeah. Those are, yeah. And the Merchant Ivory films just, it was this introduction and, and I was, and I just remember and, and we think about queer cinema and we think about as, as how now we’re having these conversations of, of a marginalized folks and individuals and their voices being now finally heard. It’s like, I, I think it’s just really exciting. So is there any film that you’ve seen recently that had that, that gave you that similar effect? Like, watching Maurice?
[00:21:35] Jonathan McNeal: You mean an effect of just awakening or loved or what kind you’re searching for?
[00:21:41] Rodney: well, well, well, kind of an a, a continuation of like, of that kind of representation in queer cinema.
[00:21:47] Jonathan McNeal: Well, you know, I, I adore the film Carol by Todd Haynes, which also a period piece you know, I love, I love the film for all that it is visually and performances again.
And but I also love what it, what it was in that it was the first novel written where the lesbian protagonist could. Their lives at the end, you know, and that’s you know, pretty groundbreaking to think that in the fifties until the fifties, we’d never seen, never read source material that was allowing, you had to be incarcerated or put in a mental institution or commit suicide. I mean, you couldn’t, you couldn’t exist as an out lesbian until the mid fifties as far as literature was concerned. You know, so Children’s Hour, all these other films that, you know, I adore and stories that I love, you know, they’re, they’re tragic endings.
So I love that Carol has that permission slip and, and why Patricia Highsmith continued to receive letters until her death from people reading that book and feeling seen in some way and feeling a certain allowance to, to be who they were is really powerful. And I think it resonates in the film too.
And that last glance at the very last frame is is just pretty wonderful.
[00:23:18] Rodney: Oh, no, yeah, absolutely. So we’re gonna take a little short break and when we come back we’re gonna talk to Jonathan about all the things that go into running a movie theater.
[00:24:13] Rodney: So okay, we, now, we are back with Jonathan McNeil and a filmmaker in his own right, but also … runs one of the most amazing spaces, creative spaces, The Neon movies in Dayton, Ohio.
And so, Jonathan We were talking about films and we were talking about Carol, which was filmed in the region. By the way, if we, which we have a robust film industry in southwest Ohio, which a lot of people don’t know. And so how much contact or engagement do you have with those filmmakers who are coming in to make work within the region?
[00:24:45] Jonathan McNeal: You know, not a whole lot. You know, Carrie O’Reilly, who is a graduate of the Wright State Program is a producer and she. Has had her hand in a lot of the projects that have come through the region So I really don’t, you know, the, the films are often kind of quiet. You know, they might do some extra casting.
There’s some buzz about, you know, who’s in town, who’s doing what, but there isn’t a lot of, you know, I think that they can really kind of avoid the, the paparazzi and whatnot that would might happen in a bigger market. And you know, there’s still a little bit of that when there’s big name stars, but there’s been a lot of work come through the area lately.
You know, Luca Guadagnino has done Bones and All. Around Ohio with Timothee Chalamet and you know, Noah Bombeck was in Ohio last year with Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver. And, you know, it, a lot of big things have happened around here, but unfortunately they are, they’re at work, and working, you know, focused on a project that is coming to fruition as opposed to being here during a time when their work is going out into the world.
And being an exhibitor, I’m more I’m the contact person when you have work to show, as opposed to being the person when you have work to do. When Todd Haynes was in town with Carol interestingly, I had bought the book Price of Salt, which Carol is based on.
Subsequent printings ended up calling it Carol instead of price of Salt. But I had bought that book. When I was at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall that year and had read it and loved it, and then found out that Todd Haynes, who I adore was working, was going to be in Cincinnati, shooting the film with Kate Blanchett, who I adore.
based on a novel that I adore. I mean, it was like a trifecta of people that I had to be a part of. And I heard that Carrie was working on it in some capacity, and I reached out to her and she said I should apply to be an extra. And you know, she sent me some details as to who to contact. And the first thing was show up in as 1950s era costume as you can. And you know, I was all about it. You know, I love to play dress up. You know, that’s a whole nother chapter that’s a we can go into. You know, so I showed up went back for a second, look-see found out that that the pic a picture of me. From what I wore to that to that first kind of camera test thing was on a wall in the wardrobe shop.
And at that second look, see there were people running around with tape measures around their necks and sewing machines were whizzing and there were racks and racks and racks of vintage costumes. And you know, there’s Sandy Powell Oscar winner running around. There’s, you know, it’s, it was amazing.. And so I ended up working on the film for five days, getting to see Todd Haynes at work, which was amazing, you know, doing scenes.
My very first scene was you know, I was in a phone booth, or I’m sorry, I was beside the phone booth. Someone was coming out of the phone booth and we did some rehearsal and I was kind of navigating if I was supposed to walk in front of her or behind her, and the young woman said, you know, I don’t know.
And then I found, The reason she didn’t know is because that was gonna be Kate Blanchette. And she was standing in for her doing the, the rehearsal work. So my very first day on set was whisking past Kate Blanchette as she comes out of a, out of a phone booth. So, you know, it was pretty magical and to be on that set and just, and watch it come together in that way.
[00:28:36] Rodney: Oh, that is so super cool. I mean, the fact that you have this affection for Kate Blanchett and you get an asked you an opportunity to kind of pass each other, right. , so to speak. That’s, I I, you’re touched by the grace of of genius in that regard because I, I, I’m a fan boy. As well where kids work.
Yeah, just absolutely. So I have a question cuz I, a lot of times I, I don’t know if you feel this way, that sometimes you may not love a film but you love the performance, some performances in it. Does that happen?
[00:29:06] Jonathan McNeal: Sure. Oh, absolutely. That happens. You can come away from something and say, oh, she was great.
But yeah, he, you know, I won’t revisit it , you know, or he was great, you know right. You know? Right. Yeah, there’s, that definitely happens. And , I think that it’s happened even to the point where a, where somebody might get recognized Oscar wise, and that’s the only nomination, that’s the only, you know, it didn’t do much business, it didn’t do whatever, but somebody, you know might get a nomination for it.
[00:29:35] Rodney: Yeah, that’s kind, kind of a thing. And so, and you, I love the fact that you’ve kind of had this experience with Carol, which is, you know Patricia’s Highsmith’s novel Price of Salt. But then you also mentioned the Toronto Film Festival, which was one of my questions because you get the chance, because you are an exhibitor, you are showing the films.
You get to go to the Toronto Film Festival, which, I’m jealous of the, the fact that you get to find and explore things because I think as an art maker, I we’re, artists always have a tendency to, to gravitate towards independent films and film because it informs their work. And so they’re always looking for something that speaks to their curiosity and peaks their curiosity.
[00:30:13] Jonathan McNeal: Right? And, and film is ultimately referred as the, the ultimate art form in that it can contain everything. It can contain dance, it can you know, it does music, it is photography, it’s music, it’s performance, it’s set design. It’s, you know, it’s all of those things. You know, in, in one, in one piece, it’s… What can be a lacking is the live piece that would come with being at a space and watching a performance or watching a dance. but ultimately I do really think that film can encapsulate everything.
[00:30:49] Rodney: So in an encapsulation, you’ve gone to Toronto and. This past year, we’ve come out of the pandemic did you go to toronto?
[00:30:57] Jonathan McNeal: I did not. I have not been since 2019 and it’s … You know, 2020 was Covid 2021 was they were trying to do a real hybrid of, you know, very minimal attendance and. and a lot of virtual. And this past year they still did some virtual and still did some in-person, but I was not ready yet.
I usually book my flights in like April or May for Toronto. And at that point they were still requiring covid tests to do international flights, and I decided that. every year at in Toronto, I get sick in some capacity. Everybody does. If you are there and you are seeing, you know, 35, 40 films in a, you know, nine day stretch and going to the parties and staying up late and writing your blog and all those things, you’re bound to get sick.
So I just felt like it was still not the right time to book a flight for me. And so I’m really hoping to get back in 2023 as my soul has really been missing being kind of just really saturated in new material. And you know, I hope that I feel comfortable enough to do that this year.
[00:32:14] Rodney: I hope so too. I mean, it must be really, has to be difficult to make those kind of choices for, for picking the slate of films if you’re not having that tangential experience, that sort of like… that’s, you know what I mean?
[00:32:27] Jonathan McNeal: And what Toronto is really valuable about is you’re seeing it with an audience too.
So for, for traditional engagements, I have an opportunity to see for most films, see the films in advance. So whether they’re at home or they’re a trade screening, where I’ll drive to Cincinnati and I’ll see a movie in a theater the way it’s supposed to be seen. I have my issues, you know, I’ll go to a theater and I feel like, oh, that bulb could be brighter.
And, you know, I feel like it’s a little. Muddy on screen or the sound quality isn’t good or you know, I have to go out and tell the projectionist to change the aspect ratio. You know, or those kinds of, so tho that can be frustrating. And it’s also often me by myself in a trade screening. So there is an obligation for distributors, they have to make the films available for us to see in the state of Ohio. There are certain states that have a law on the books that says that we have to have an opportunity to see the films before they come out. Some distributors will go as far as doing a theatrical and some will just send you a link to watch at home.
But that’s an old law from, I wanna say like the thirties or forties that came out with what was called blind booking and block booking and whatnot, where they would say, you know, yeah, you can play the Wizard of Oz, but you have to play these other three turkeys that you’re not gonna have any opportunity to see or know what to market or whatever.
But it, you know, you can have our crown jewel this season but if you want it, it comes with parameters and so that law is still on the books. You know, and. It’s to my benefit, but at the same time, I miss seeing those films in an audience, which is really to me how film is meant to work.
[00:34:09] Rodney: I would agree. , there’s certain, certain movies that I reserve for home. there’s certain films, , to your point, that you wanna see on a screen. And so I, I totally get that. But I, the fact that the process is still governed by, Notions of film is commerce. And so, you know, we always talk about, you know, we talk about the beauty, the joy and the beauty of, of film, but you are in the exhibition business as well. You talked about it being business.
So you’ve gotta strike a balance between something that’s really fulfilling from a, from an audience and film going experience as well as something that’s going to do well in your theater.
[00:34:47] Jonathan McNeal: Oh, absolutely. And people are taking a lot less risk after Covid, I mean, our audience still isn’t back. We are still struggling at the Neon.
To make ends meet. It’s hard, you know, I’ve been at the theater for 21 years now. The first couple years were rocky. Then we started to really started to make a dent in some of the debt we had. Then we were debt free for a while, and then we were, we were in the black for a long time and many.
And since 2020, we have not been, and it is. You know, it’s, it’s upsetting. It’s still losing sleep over it sometimes. I mean, but people just aren’t coming back to the cinemas. And that’s a national issue. It’s not just The Neon. But and our film buyer actually has told me that we’re doing a lot better than a lot of the other art houses out there. So we are, you know, I, but I feel like I’ve been treading water for the last two and a half years by doing all these kind of special events and one night only events and, you know, you do a one night only event. It’s still. Requires, you know, hours worth of, you know, in some cases you’re downloading the material at home overnight and you’re putting it on the proper drive and making sure that it can be ingested into the server, and then you’re doing a marketing plan for it and you’re, you know, all for one night in hopes that that does some business.
So you can’t do that all the time. Otherwise, I need a much bigger team, and that’s more money and we don’t have it. So you know, it’s, it’s a vicious circle in that regard. Film is, it is commerce, and like I said, people are taking less risks, a lot less interest in films with subtitles these days.
You know, international film is a really hard sell. It, it was always a challenge in our market, but there were always films that you were certain that could do some business, an Amalie or a Motorcycle Diaries or, you know, films like that. So Spanish and French, but you know, any kind of you know, language, middle Eastern other languages, you know, stuff from Africa.
They were, they were. almost impossible to sell before, and now there’s, there’s just very little interest in supporting something that you’ve not been inundated with marketing for. And that’s only gonna be the mainstream films. Right now, the only films doing business out in the marketplace are, you know, Top Gun and Marvel movies and , that’s it.
We’ve seen some glimmers of hope from films that I think are incredible, like Tar with Blanchette Todd Field’s film. It did well, not great, but I feel like in pre 2020 that would’ve been, you know, our banner film for the year. But now it, you. , it does some good business week one and fizzles by week two, and is gone by week three.
So it’s, it’s upsetting, but we’re still doggy paddling, like we need to until, until things potentially get better. .
[00:37:47] Rodney: And you know, and, and that’s another reason why we’re, you know, hopefully with this podcast, you know, in our small way. And I will definitely make sure, so folks who are listening to the podcast, there will be in the show notes, a place where you can go to the link to The Neon movies.
Come on folks. Show some support and love. I mean, I mean, and that’s with all art forms and I, I’ve talked about that. And so we recognize the dog paddling I love the fact that you’re still in it. You didn’t throw your hands up. You, you were Right.
This is gonna be…
[00:38:16] Jonathan McNeal: you know, this year, this year we had to do, you know, we’re doing an annual fund and I loved never having to do that. I loved, you know, never having to ask for money outside, you know, just for people to, you know, ask for some generosity to. Make ends meet. I loved when we were in the black and we didn’t have to do that.
You know, except for maybe an occasional you know, we’re replacing our seats and this is gonna be astronomical. Can people help? And when we do that, people would really jump up and say, you know, I want to be a part of that. But now it’s like, you know, we need to make ends meat, to pay our staff, to turn the lights on.
And so that’s a little more disheartening. But it’s the truth of it.
[00:39:00] Rodney: That goes to that point of authenticity. We can’t just talk about the joy of films and, and, and, and the artistry without saying that this is a, a factor in your daily existence. And so we’re gonna do that.
So I know we’re gonna pivot a little bit. Okay. We’re gonna kinda slide into, all right. Because we talked about films and, and doing the slate, but I’m kind of curious, look, what would surprise most people as to what your favorite film is? Like a surprise film that people would go, I’ve never would’ve thought that that’s the film that Jonathan really is one of his favorites, you know?
[00:39:35] Jonathan McNeal: When people ask me what my favorite film is, there’s, there’s a list. You know, it’s a challenge to narrow it down to one, but when people ask for one, I do say The Umbrellas of Cherbourg just because it’s one that I can have on in the background and not even be focusing on. And this is a French musical from 1964 with Catherine Deneuve and it is by Demy…Why can’t I think…Jacque Demy . And it is sung from beginning to end in French, and I think the surprise would be I don’t speak French, and this is my favorite film, , and I can sing along to it, but I have no idea what I’m saying. , I mean, I have, you know, a, you know, a gist of what’s being said, but ultimately I don’t speak French and, but I do, I adore the film.
I love the color palette. I love the story. It’s a little. Romantic you know, a dash of cheese perhaps in there, but but I love it. And you know, that’s one that I can watch over and over again. And when it comes to color palette and production design and whatnot, I immediately also go to Almodovar.
So, Almodovar several films in his in his biography are favorites and on the top 10.
[00:40:53] Rodney: Wow. That’s a, I love the fact that, you know, this, the, the The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,
[00:40:59] Jonathan McNeal: And I don’t speak Spanish either, so favorite films are Spanish and French and I don’t speak either. I speak German though.
[00:41:06] Rodney: You speak German? Okay. It’s like there’s a a, i I love that because it’s, I mean, I was thinking, cuz I was thinking about that in my own, like my own top 10 list of films like it, like, and it. . It evolves, it kind of rotates and changes. But, but then I thought about it, but there were two films that kind of stayed and, and I, and it really kind of speaks to my personality, I think the two that stuck Singing in the Rain. And Funny Face, funny Face being number one.
[00:41:34] Jonathan McNeal: And interesting that both of those are about being in the business in some way or another.
[00:41:40] Rodney: Yes, they are. They’re, they’re about being the business, but there’s something about. I, I knew from, from my, you talked about singing and dancing mean, and that’s why Power of Film, it was seeing Gene Kelly dance.
And Fred Astaire dance and that. I was like, could I do this? And I didn’t start dancing till later in life. So this was kind of like a secret . It was like, only I knew that I wanted to really dance versus being a visual artist. And so when I became a dancer, it’s just like I, those were my role models.
It was kind of very odd to be in a ballet, classical ballet room to have your role models being Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but…
[00:42:20] Jonathan McNeal: oh, but they’re the, they’re the best. Yeah. I, I get it. I get it. , I I love both of those films too. And, but I would have to say, you know, I love that dance scene with Audrey.
In the cafe in Funny Face which is little more modern…
[00:42:37] Rodney: Yeah. Yeah. Postmodern genius. Yeah. Yeah. With the, with the, with the black turtleneck.
[00:42:43] Jonathan McNeal: But I also love Kay Ballard, isn’t it Kay Ballard? No. Kay Thompson. Kay Thompson. Yes. That Think Pink number is one of my all-time favorite musical numbers.
I love it. But I also, you know, love a good dress and a good, you know…
[00:42:58] Rodney: which, which speaks to the other part of you if a lot of viewers don’t know that, that you are Ileasa Plymouth, with The Rubi Girls. So, I mean, I mean, it’s a part of your persona and I, and … do you think that all of this, being in the Rubi Girls and, and, and the neon movies and this history of, of this journey that you’ve gone on.
They’re all kind of joined together in many ways.
[00:43:21] Jonathan McNeal: They, yeah, there’s, there’s, there’s threads that connect all of them. Absolutely. There’s some tissue that, that is connected. I’ve had some folks urge me saying, you know, you need to make another film.
And I’ve written a little and I’ve thought about it and I’ve never taken the plunge. But there is still a part of me that would like to create film, but some things would have to change in my life to make that happen time-wise. But but with these things, working at the Neon and being able to be so close to films and filmmakers and you know, bringing their work to the public is, is valuable to me.
And sharing the work that I adore is valuable with me. And then Rubi has this creative outlet where I’m allowed to create you know, a character and a number and a performance and you know, kind of speak to popular culture or politics or, you know, those kinds of things. So there, there is kind of, between all of those things, I feel like there are ways for me to express myself.
[00:44:32] Rodney: I know there are probably gonna be uh, individuals who are listening to the podcast going, what are The Rubi Girls? So if you could do the elevator speech to describe the Rubi Girls for folks who may not be aware.
[00:44:44] Jonathan McNeal: Right. The Ruby girls are a comedic drag troupe here in Dayton who are focused on philanthropy. So we’ve helped to raise over $2 million for various organizations in and around Ohio. Our main focus used to be HIV and AIDS, and now it’s kind of broadened a bit, but that’s, yeah, it’s comedic drag, and you know, I could, you know, do another hour about drag and my relationship with drag, and kind of internal homophobia growing up and all that.
But it, brings a lot of joy to a lot of people. And, you know, we just did our big Thanksgiving show, 600 plus people at the arcade over $7,000 in tips that night. People walking up to the stage and putting a dollar bill in a drag queen’s hand, or a five or a 20 or a hundred, but over $7,000 just in tips that night.
So that is really speaks to the community really being invested and engaged and believing in our mission.
[00:45:47] Rodney: That’s so super cool. As we’re bringing this conversation to close, I, what I hope everyone takes away from this is the fact that you are so committed to all the things in your life that you are powerfully helping shape our community. One film at a time, one drag performance at a time, showing up and being a part of our community in a way that, that’s just really special.
And that’s what I love cuz it’s, it’s rooted in that quietness. But a wicked smart as if I ever, if I were from Boston or south Philly. Yeah. Wicked smart. And it’s just really super cool to watch.
[00:46:25] Jonathan McNeal: Well, I appreciate that. And I will say that, you know, I’ve had to do some of that cheerleading this year in order to do the annual fund and, you know, and so I’m gonna give you some here.
You know, I am proud of what we accomplish at the Neon, and sometimes it’s quiet. You know, we had the world premier, second screening World Premier of Till the movie, Till by Chinonye Chukwu. It was playing at the Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival. They’d premiered it one night, then they were showing it the next afternoon.
We were one of sixth theaters in the country to be a part of that. But we had to invite students. So it was students from DECA, students from Stivers and Wright State filled the house. They got to see the premiere of Till on our screen and then partake in a Q&A with the artists live from Lincoln Center, streamed in.
That kind of stuff is what I love. Saturday afternoons in the summer, over 400 kids came to see PBS Kids shows at the theater walked home with free books in their hands, you know We do the holiday series where kids are in free, adults are $2. You know, we do so many things. We work with so many artists throughout the year, premiering their work.
We work with so many philanthropic organizations who are out there using. The cinematic arts to propel their missions and and utilizing us to show the film and then do a Q&A or a community engaged conversation afterward.
I don’t have my notes in front of me or I could riff off you know, a dozen but over 60 one time only screenings in 2022 alone. So you know, that’s more than one a week. And that’s, that those are the valuable things that are happening at the cinema beyond our day-to-day operations.
[00:48:13] Rodney: And, and that’s what I love about it.
I mean, it’s just the fact that it’s more than just the cinema and that you embody and you embody that and it’s really super cool. So I, I encourage everyone to get your butts to go see films at the Neon movies. It is life changing. I mean, I really do feel that at the power of cinema in film, and you’ve talked about it so eloquently.
Of what it does, and it’s more than just the cinema. So, Jonathan…
[00:48:39] Jonathan McNeal: Well thank you. Thank you for this opportunity to, to talk about it.
[00:48:43] Rodney: It’s totally our pleasure. Totally our pleasure.