One of the things this pandemic has taken from us is the summer blockbuster. The summer months came and went, and throughout that time movie-goers largely stayed home. For people like director Christopher Nolan, whose movie Tenet released in theaters after a delayed launch and performed below expectations, this is a sign of the end of cinema. Outside of the strict confines of Hollywood, though, small theaters and distributors are seeing new ways to show movies and create community. Along the way, they're redefining what it means to be movie theaters.
The blockbuster is a relatively new invention. Although the early days of cinema had movies that were huge hits—like the 1927 movie It, which turned Clara Bow into a star and smashed box office records at the time—one movie dominating theaters for an entire summer wouldn't happen for another 30 years. Steven Spielberg's Jaws and George Lucas's Star Wars ushered in the age of the blockbuster in the 70s, in a time when the landscape of cinema was moving away from the studio system and into uncharted waters.
Cinema is at another crossroads now, in the age of the pandemic. In New York and Los Angeles, two of the biggest cities for movies, theaters are not allowed to open, and haven't been since March. Rather than a Marvel movie topping the charts at the end of the year, Sonic the Hedgehog has dominated by virtue of just being able to come out. The success of Trolls World Tour had studios scared back in April; it made over one hundred million dollars premiering as a digital rental. In response, AMC threatened to stop screening movies from Trolls' studio, Universal. One movie theater chain, Regal, has closed all of its 536 theaters in the US, blaming New York's pandemic rules for the closure.
From the start, Nolan has made it a personal mission to continue to support movie theaters. Not only has he refused anything except a traditional, theater first release for Tenet, he has written op-eds about keeping theaters open and made a point to see movies in theaters himself. But the very real threat of COVID-19 has gotten in the way of seeing movies in theaters—by December, the movie had only grossed around $57 million domestically, though the international gross has been higher, at $300 million. The movie cost $200 million to make.
Tenet's dismal performance seems like the final nail in the coffin. Some of the movies that were supposed to open concurrently with Tenet, like the new Wonder Woman movie, have changed their strategies so that they're available to watch at home at the same time as they're available in theaters. Theater chains like AMC have struck deals to shorten the window between theatrical runs and movies becoming available on video on demand services. Even more recently, Warner Bros. has announced that their entire slate of movies for 2021 would premiere on HBO Max as well as in theaters.
The pandemic has forced movie theaters to change a system of distribution that has been in place for over half a century. This doesn't just mean figuring out how to show movies online, but how to serve the communities that rise up around theaters themselves.
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.
"We like to say that if we had a dollar for every person who was like, 'I love Spectacle,' but hasn't actually shown up, we would be on fucking easy street," Golum told Motherboard.
On Twitch, it's a different story. They got viewers in much, much higher numbers than their theater would have been able to seat, as well as attracting people from all over the world who had only been to their theater once, if at all.
“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.”
"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.
Spectacle has worked with organizers and programmers from all over the world, giving them an international reputation. Programming on Twitch has allowed the people who have always wished they could have gone to Spectacle a chance to actually attend. Spectacle now has over 2,000 followers on Twitch, several hundred times more than would fit inside the theater. Spectacle is now offering a membership to their out of state and international fans so that they can support the theater monetarily from afar.
"I was just surprised by the number of people that were like, 'Oh, I've always wanted to go to Spectacle and I never got to,' or someone that lived in London was like, 'I've been following your programming and can never got to catch anything,'" Golum said.
For Aliza Ma, director of programming at Metrograph, a renowned art house theater in Lower Manhattan, not being able to show movies meant a chance to reevaluate what a theater can be. For starters, opening a theater at this moment in time is not the right approach, she said.
"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. It felt like a sort of misguided or misplaced machismo almost," Ma said. "Maybe the better thing to do would be to ask for some subsidies to get all these artistic institutions through this time of hardship instead of asking for the normalcy that we were used to, when that's just going to endanger our lives."
There are ways that a theater can serve its community without showing movies, and Metrograph has explored some of those options. Ma said that during the Black Lives Matter protests, Metrograph was able to open as a space for protesters to get water, charge their phones, and rest.
"When the protests were breaking out, we were in between having closed and trying to launch a new website," Ma said. She said that it felt wrong not to say anything about the mounting unrest in New York; protests against police brutality would march through Lower Manhattan, where Metrograph is located. Ma and the rest of the staff at Metrograph also wanted to take physical action.
"So we got together on a meeting and we said, 'We know so many people who are organizing in that neighborhood or who could be in that neighborhood, and you know, all we would need to do is get power strips for people to be able to charge their phones. We could get water bottles for people. We can just open up the bathrooms for people,'" she said.
Ma said that the approach that other theaters have taken, where they have tried to crunch the numbers on how many staff they can have on site and how little money they can charge for a ticket in order to break even, was not what Metrograph wanted to do.
"It's really sad. I mean, it's not really gonna make much of a difference at the end of the day. There's no thinking outside the box here. Movie theaters are an important social institution that could be reappropriated at this time.... I was really glad that, you know, when the protest started in April, that we were able to open our lobby to protestors. Just because we couldn't show movies doesn't mean we couldn't be another sort of support pillar for that neighborhood."
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.
“Why are we relying on these corporate-backed streaming platforms when we are very vehemently opposed to corporate media?"
"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."
Golum also said that they would make their code open source, allowing other theaters to develop their own streaming video services with the backbone they developed.
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.
"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.
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."
In comparison, the solutions being rolled out by large movie chains like AMC and Regal seem untenably slow and ill-suited to the task. While Regal has permanently closed all its locations, AMC is now allowing potential movie goers the opportunity to rent out an entire theater to see a movie. Though new movies are coming out in a slow trickle, it's been clear that audiences do not want to go to movie theaters as the pandemic still rages, making this venture a questionable idea at best.
But going to the movies is about a lot more than just putting your butt in a seat. They 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. As Spectacle and Metrograph demonstrate, there's still a need for that kind of community space among movie lovers.
These theaters are not just attempting to solve the problem of showing movies in a pandemic. They're trying to find a new space for the lobby where you talk about the movie with your friends, the exclusive showings with director Q&As, and the smart screening series put together by film scholars as well. Their success is an indication that the heart of cinema lies with these endeavors, and not necessarily the relatively new phenomenon of the blockbuster.
Before there's a widespread vaccine for Covid-19, movie theaters are either going to have to find ways to pivot to digital, or close their doors. Nolan tried his absolute hardest, but Tenet was not able to bring moviegoers back to theaters in a way that could stave off that reality. Nolan has said that people are "drawing the wrong conclusions" from Tenet's performance at the box office, saying that the movie has grossed a lot more money than most people thought possible during the pandemic. He went so far as to say that the decision to stream new releases on HBO Max on the same day they premiere in theatres "makes no economic sense."
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.