First-Class Citizens

Launching a full-time art house theater in Fort Worth might be a little risky. After all, there hasn’t been a free-standing one in the city in more than two decades.

Launching an exclusively vegan restaurant in Fort Worth more than a decade ago definitely was risky. However, restaurateur Amy McNutt, 34, and her filmmaker husband James Johnston, 40, enjoy nothing more than a challenge. They don’t ask, “Why?” They ask, “Why not?”

McNutt created, and she and Johnston co-own, the popular vegan restaurant, Spiral Diner, on Magnolia Avenue and are well into plans for a $4 million full-time free-standing art house cinema called The Citizen Theater. They named it as a reference to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane—and because it speaks to what McNutt and Johnston want the theater to be for the citizens of Fort Worth.  

The Citizen Theater will be located on the corner of Fairmount and Magnolia in the heart of the near Southside. McNutt and Johnston live on the same street.

Plans are for a three-screen, two-story art house theater, which will show first-run art house films—basically any movie that has ever been made in the history of time—and will be an interactive event, not like a typical movie theater. There will be an usher that introduces the screening. Special guests will talk about the film’s history. The lobby area will be a comfortable and cozy gathering place where people can get there early and hang out and stay after to talk with others about the film.

Also planned is an upstairs balcony area where people can gather and have drinks, movie camp for kids in the summer, and early morning movies for moms to be able to bring their babies.

McNutt and Johnston want this to be the cultural center of the neighborhood where people can hang out and learn about film and meet with others who want to learn about film.

McNutt grew up in Southlake and chose a vegetarian life when she was 12. It was in college when she started researching the treatment of dairy cattle and how the animals were getting hurt, she says. She decided to go vegan.

After studying film at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, McNutt moved back to Texas in 2001 with a plan to open a bakery. After finding out that Fort Worth had no vegan restaurants, and with the help of $50,000 from investors, she opened Spiral Diner at the Rail Market on the southeastern side of town in August 2002. She had no restaurant experience.

The Rail Market didn’t thrive, but Spiral Diner did.

Her future husband, who had recently gone vegan himself, was one of her early customers. After a brief courtship, they eloped in February 2003 while on a road trip through New Mexico.

Johnston came on full time at Spiral Diner, where he cooked and created new recipes. He hoped that the diner’s success would allow him to work in filmmaking full time. Soon, the restaurant was doing well; they decided to expand.

They closed the Rail Market restaurant and moved into their current location on Magnolia in August 2004.

“I don’t know why, but this was always our dream building,” McNutt says. “We drove by it every day. Even with a hole in the roof, we loved it.”
Spiral Diner is still thriving. It also has anchored the area.

“It was kind of like a ghost town when we moved in,” McNutt says. “There was really not much near us. We wanted to be part of the revitalization of that area, but mostly, it just felt right. We liked the historic feel of the neighborhood. We had friends that lived in the neighborhood, and we knew the houses were cool. Also, we got in there with such a great deal. Our landlord helped us renovate the building and get it exactly how we wanted it.”

In 2006, Nonna Tata opened across from the Spiral. Lili’s Bistro opened the following year. In early 2009, Ellerbe Fine Foods came in. The same year, Brad Hensarling, co-owner of the Chat Room Pub, launched The Usual. In 2011, Avoca Coffee moved in.

The businesses just keep coming. And so do the people.

Fort Worth Southeast recently recognized Spiral Diner with the Kline-Watts Award for being pioneers and stewards of the neighborhood. “We are so proud of that award, and it just makes us want to work harder,” McNutt says.

In 2008, McNutt and Johnston sold franchise rights to their Fort Worth manager, Lindsey Akey, and another Spiral franchise opened in Dallas, owned by Sara Tomerlin. McNutt and Johnston remain owners of the company. 

Johnston is well known as a producer, writer and director. He grew up in the Riverside area of Fort Worth. “We were so poor that when VHS came out, we couldn’t afford a VCR,” he says. “My friends and I would go to Haltom City and rent a VCR to watch VHS tapes. We would rent about 10 tapes and just watch movies all weekend. And my dad really liked movies, especially Westerns. Eventually, we could afford cable.”

He was in his 20s when a friend who was studying photography at the University of Texas at Arlington showed Johnston black-and-white films that he and other classmates had made. “That was the first time in my life that the idea of being able to make stuff on your own occurred to me,” he says. “I thought you had to like go to college, go to Los Angeles, and work your way up to a studio system. At that moment, I realized I could make movies.”

Johnston’s production company is Sailor Bear Productions. He is known for films Deadroom (2005), St. Nick (2009), Pioneer (2011), which won the Grand Jury Prize at six film festivals including South by Southwest, and co-produced Yen Tan’s award-winning film Ciao (2008) that was distributed theatrically by Regent Entertainment. He also produced Ain’t Them Bodies Saints by writer/director David Lowery, which premiered in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and the film Pit Stop by Yen Tan, which premiered at Sundance in the NEXT section.

Johnston produced Carried Away by Fort Worth film producer, Tom Huckabee.

Huckabee describes Johnston as a “brilliant, accomplished filmmaker and natural-born collaborator, wise beyond his years. When I had trouble communicating with certain members of the crew, worrying about it being important to me to establish rapport with everyone, he firmly impressed on me the notion that everyone wasn’t going to like me and it wasn’t my business to make them. That was a great lesson. He also alerted me whenever I was being too demanding of the crew,” Huckabee continues. “It’s a fine art, knowing how far you can push people beyond the call of duty. Film by nature does this, and directors can get out of control. I trust him 100 percent. Carried Away would not have been made without James.”

A director in his own right, Johnston’s short films have played at festivals around the world. Johnston was a 2011 Creative Producing Fellow at the Sundance Institute and named one of Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch 2012 list, along with his producing partner, Toby Halbrooks.

He recently won the prestigious “Indie Spirit Award” sponsored by Piaget.

Johnston’s latest production, Listen Up Philip, that premiered at Sundance Film Festival (NEXT) in January 2014, will play the New York Film Fest before its U.S. release on Oct. 17 from Tribecca Film.

Amy and James have never had an argument in 12 years of marriage, they say. “He’s always nice and patient with everybody,” McNutt says. “He’s the Zen master. And it’s nice to have that to balance me out.”

Johnston describes his wife as “a super smart, strong woman, which I love to death. She has her own stuff going on, and that’s what really works for us.” 

“We’ve been working desperately hard to wrap all of our financing for the theater,” McNutt says. “We’ve been working for four years to get it funded. Luckily, we have a ton of support from the community and a few investors that are helping us getting everything wrapped up.”

“It’s an expensive venture,” Johnston says. “Hopefully, people will come out and support it.”

Currently, the theater is nearly 80 percent funded. McNutt and Johnston own the land. Once funded and the design is finalized, they anticipate one year to build and open.