When the pandemic started, Spectacle Theater was a 35-seat, volunteer-run theater in Williamsburg that showed movies from way, way off the beaten path. It immediately complied with the order to close in March, but it was difficult for the volunteers who run the theater to know what to do next. After one of the volunteers started streaming movies on their Twitch channel, the members of Spectacle decided to have Twitch streams of their own.Spectacle Theater is a microcinema, with about 30 seats. Its space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is so small that I have walked past it every day when I used to commute to the VICE office without noticing it once. Caroline Golum, a programmer from Spectacle who said they were speaking in their capacity as a member of the non-hierarchical, volunteer-run theater and not as its leader, said that some of its screenings would have as little as five people in the audience before the pandemic.
"In May or in April, we did a series of screenings with Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh who are two regional filmmakers from New Hampshire who make these shoestring budget genre films. They've been doing it for like 20 years. In an alternate universe, those guys would be famous and Kevin Smith would be a fucking nobody, and you can print that," Golum said. "They were in the chat and people were asking them like, 'Where'd you film this? What were your favorite influences?' all this stuff. And they loved it.""I think for filmmakers who don't have an avenue for public exhibition but make work that should be viewed collectively, it's nice for them to have an opportunity to know that their work is being seen," they continued.
“Christopher Nolan is encouraging theaters to open up in the middle of the pandemic. This was the wrong thing to be crusading for right now.”
Pivoting to Twitch was an easy move for Spectacle not just because members of the organization already knew how to use it. The moviegoing experience isn't just about sitting in the dark in front of a huge screen—it's also about being with other people who love movies, and Twitch's chat function is an easy way to replicate that part of the experience. While geared towards games, at the end of the day, Twitch is a service where anyone can broadcast whatever they'd like; Spectacle is simply using the service in the same way one would use public access television.Metrograph, for its part, built their own proprietary streaming service in order to make this work. Though there are video hosting services that they could have used, Ma said that they don't have all the features necessary to replicate the essential aspects of seeing a movie in a theater. Metrograph recently launched a new website, along with its own proprietary streaming service which functions very differently from buying a movie on demand, or watching one through a streaming service like Netflix.Metrograph's online screenings have a pre-show that begins ten minutes before show time, as well as introductions, question and answer sessions, and sometimes a panel discussion. The actual movie starts later, and the archive of the entire screening remains as a VOD for 72 hours.
"A nice thing that I miss about showing up early to a film and is then being able to sit in the theater and just kind of watch upcoming trailers or whatever other ephemera ends up being shown in the pre-show," Ma said. "Even though you're not in the same building, there's a collective sense that everyone's tuning in at the same time to watch something which is kind of comforting right now," she added.Exploring these new avenues has also led to some dead ends. When I spoke with Spectacle Theater, it had just been served its first strike on its Twitch channel for nudity for showing the 1973 satirical French film Themroc. To get around this, Spectacle is now building its own streaming platform, similar to Metrograph, but with a couple of differences that would better suit its audience. For example, Spectacle's experiences with Twitch have led it to include a chat feature in its streaming platform, because it found that people watching its programming enjoyed being able to talk about the films without disturbing other people."I think we had a lot of reservations about the chat function because you rightly hear so many horror stories about the nature of these chats on gaming platforms. You know, obviously hashtag not all gamers, but it can be a bit of a cesspool," Golum told Motherboard. "At the end of the day, we don't really have to do much moderation because our audience is predominantly pretty chill. It's just people who like weird movies and want to hang out, it's a really good vibe in there. It's also really interesting to see how people engage with the chat when the filmmakers are in there too."
“Why are we relying on these corporate-backed streaming platforms when we are very vehemently opposed to corporate media?"
"The impulse behind that was: why are we relying on these corporate-backed streaming platforms when we are very vehemently opposed to corporate media and our whole programming ecosystem is designed to go against the grain of what you're seeing in movie theaters and festivals?" Golum said. "That was kind of the impetus was to build something that's, if you'll pardon the expression, for us by us, that will allow us to kind of control the narrative around what we stream and not have to worry about takedowns."Across the country, some independent theaters are making some of the same pivots to online screenings as Metrograph and Spectacle. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is now offering an online membership similar to Metrograph, for example. Chicago's Music Box Theater started an online movie rental service called The Music Box At Home, where proceeds from the rentals go towards keeping the theater in business. Some cinemas, like Seattle's Northwest Film Forum, are screening ticketed movies through sites like Eventive, taking advantage of video hosting sites like Vimeo to give the viewer access to the film in question for a limited time. All of these are attempts to do more than just get people to watch movies, but to recreate what we like about going to the movies when we're all stuck at home.
Movie theaters are the site of a community, a place for people to not just see a movie, but engross yourself in the culture of cinema with your friends and family.
While Twitch and bespoke streaming services are decent stopgaps, it's clear that the technology necessary to create an industry where more kinds of movies are accessible outside of major cities has just not been invented. Hollywood has existed in a system where a major blockbuster could buffer the loss from an arthouse indie movie that plays on only a few screens in Los Angeles and New York. It's a system that is controlled and defined by film distributors like Universal or A24, which set release dates and make the films available to theaters. As that system collapses, it's easy to see not just how it's done a disservice to those films, but also to people who would have loved them. Brett Kashmere, executive director at Canyon Cinema, a distributor of 16mm films and experimental and avant garde cinema said that on their end, demand for work from their collection is still huge, especially from libraries, which is their primary audience. They just don't have the technology to deliver it."We're in the process of reviewing all of our artists contracts and figuring out if we need to put any language for licensing of work to a library for like three years," Kashmere said. "That's what libraries are increasingly interested in, is not actually purchasing a physical media copy of something, but they're also not really capable of actually dealing with digital files. So they don't want to buy a digital file and they don't want to buy a physical copy, but they want us to be able to stream."Canyon Cinema's small size compared to much larger, more corporate distributors, is an advantage. It might not have the same capital backing, but it's able to make these pivots very quickly, allowing Canyon to catch up with the changing market during the pandemic much faster than Disney or Universal can. Similarly, both Ma and Golum said that their small sizes as organizations have allowed them to make decisions on the fly during a time when the future of the industry is uncertain."I think we were in a really privileged position being a small team that we could all just executively decide [open our doors to protesters], being on, you know, a similar political wavelength and having this camaraderie between coworkers," Ma said regarding Metrograph's choice to support the Black Lives Matter protesters. "I don't think this would have been possible with a bigger nonprofit institution, even if the personal political desire was there."
Nolan isn't exactly wrong about this, but he's also not quite right. His own adventure in premiering Tenet in theaters despite the pandemic appears to prove him wrong. That big-budget studio blockbuster did not save movie theaters. If movie theaters are going to survive, they need to save themselves.