Greg Laemmle never thought he’d recommend anyone to stream a movie at home. The best way to watch a film, as any theater owner like Laemmle will tell you, is in a darkened cinema with a tub of popcorn at the ready.
But along with atomizing life as we know it, the coronavirus pandemic has entirely disrupted the business of showing motion pictures on the big screen. There’s a great deal of ambiguity over when things will return to normal, and when activities like going to the movies can safely resume. That has forced Laemmle, who runs a family-owned arthouse chain in Los Angeles, and other exhibitors to get innovative to keep their industry alive at a time when they can’t operate conventionally.
“Obviously we are concerned about generating revenue during this period,” Laemmle told Variety.
Those anxieties have propelled some mom-and-pop multiplexes to take an unlikely step in the interim — launching “virtual cinemas” that allow audiences to see first-tier films from the comfort of their couch. For cinephiles who pledge loyalty to their local theaters, it provides an opportunity to financially support a sector of the industry that’s been seriously impacted by the pandemic.
Patrons can purchase a digital ticket, most of which cost around $12, giving them access to a link that is available for a few days. In short, it’s a lot like the streaming and on-demand entertainment that exhibitors have adamantly resisted for the last decade. But given the unprecedented times, theater owners are looking at it as a possible salvation — for now.
“There can be concerns longterm about what message we’re sending. Are we taking customers and turning them into streamers? We figured it was better to maintain a relationship with our patrons and distributors,” Laemmle said wistfully. “I’m not immune to the longterm concerns it presents, but it felt like the right thing to do.”
Alamo Drafthouse, Film Forum and the Angelika are a few of the other theaters testing out the provisional path into digital. Some of the offerings available include Film Movement’s “Corpus Christi,” Robbie Robertson doc “Once Were Brothers” and Oscilloscope’s “Saint Frances.” As with traditional movie stubs, theaters and distributors are splitting proceeds from ticket sales.
In keeping with recent trends, theater owners are even attempting to recreate the same event-like atmosphere that would greet a theatrical release by live-streaming q&a sessions with filmmakers or actors. Alamo Drafthouse also created online substitutes to its signature programming series — Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday — and is encouraging people to socialize online following screenings.
“After movies, people hang in the bar or lobby,” said Sarah Pitre, Alamo Drafthouse’s senior director of programming and promotions. “Since they can’t do that anymore, we are going to move that conversation to our website, Birth.Movies.Death., and people can go there to compare notes. That’s as close as we can get to the Alamo experience without having doors open.”
It’s not just exhibitors that are reeling from indefinitely closed multiplexes. Almost every major movie set to release through the middle of summer has been postponed, resulting in an onslaught of tentpoles that need to plant flags back in the calendar. That leaves little room for independent movies to break out when theaters eventually reopen.
For that reason, this temporary model is favorable for film distribution companies such as Magnolia Pictures, Film Movement and Kino Lorber, which all thrive in arthouse spaces. Specialty labels can’t afford the same robust marketing spends as Disney or Universal to boost the profile of an upcoming release, so they rely heavily on support from theaters to entice their loyal consumer bases.
“We really depend upon the cumulative awareness that’s created theater-by-theater,” Kino Lorber CEO Richard Lorber said. “Their [recommendations] have a halo that says it deems spending your time and money on.”
Days before Lorber’s U.S.-based company was gearing up to release “Bacurau,” a Brazilian thriller that won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, theaters in New York City and Los Angeles were ordered to indefinitely close.
“We were dismayed, of course. Hell, we had done so much advanced marketing,” Lorber said. “But creatively, we were spurred to innovation.”
Now, “Bacurau” is available for virtual release via cinemas from Chatham, N.Y. to Seattle, Wash. and over 100 locations in-between.
“We wanted to validate the possibility for the film to perform at some theatrical level, rather than send to iTunes or Netflix,” Lorber said.
Magnolia found itself in a similar position with “Slay the Dragon,” a well-reviewed documentary about gerrymandering in the U.S. Rather than postponing its early April debut or sending it straight to streaming, Magnolia opted to take it virtual theaters in an effort to capitalize on the film’s timeliness.
“We had already completed a lot of press, and making it available to a lot of people at once was the best way forward,” said Neal Block, Magnolia’s head of marketing and distribution. “Timing determined the release plan. It was coming up so fast that we decided with the filmmakers that we didn’t want to hold up the campaign and revisit it later.”
Some exhibitors were skeptical, Block admits, though most were willing to take a chance given the circumstances.
“Theaters seem happy to be able to offer something to keep patrons engaged,” Block said. “The interest was wider than I had anticipated. We offered it to all the theaters we work with, and for the most part, it was really popular.”
Despite social distancing in real life, streaming has been a unique chance for some distributors to interact more directly with customers.
“We so rarely get feedback from moviegoers about films, unless it’s people talking shit on Reddit,” Block said with a laugh. “People seem to want to support the movie theaters they love. To get feedback that’s warm and lovely, it’s been a nice silver lining.”