The film world has never seen anything quite like this catastrophe. Or has it?
“As I talk to people in the industry, the joke that keeps coming up is that we’ve been showing movies about this kind of thing for years, so why didn’t we think to ever put a plan in our back pocket?” said Keith Garcia, artistic director of Denver’s Sie FilmCenter.
“Tribeca Film Festival was born out of Sept. 11, which rocked the nation and the world,” said Susan Wrubel, executive director of Aspen Film. “But now we’re talking about (a pandemic) that has shut down movie theaters globally and sent the biggest chains to the government asking for bailouts.”
Despite Hollywood’s ability to imagine it on screen, nothing could have prepared the film industry for the fallout from this real global pandemic. The circumstances now facing studios, exhibitors and programmers — no theaters, no festivals and no customers to fill them — have forced them to react quickly and decisively.
That’s led to new options for homebound film-lovers who are looking to re-create the cinema experience. Major studios such as Disney and Universal are releasing new films on streaming services, i.e., “The Hunt,” “The Invisible Man,” The Way Back” and “Emma,” or upcoming titles such as “Trolls World Tour” (on demand April 10) and Pixar’s “Onward” (on demand now, on Disney+ April 3).
Local exhibitors and programmers are also jumping online to keep revenue from drying up during this indefinite hiatus, all while continuing to push for membership, donations and grants to keep their nonprofits afloat.
While the Sie FilmCenter, the home theater of the Denver Film Society, is closed through at least May 11, on March 20 it launched a program that allows people to watch first-run art house movies from their couches.
Denver Film’s At the Movies is selling online “tickets” to titles that would otherwise be playing the Sie right now, Garcia said. Thanks to partnerships with independent distributors such as Kino Lorber, Oscilloscope and Film Movement, people can browse films at denverfilm.org/at-the-movies and pay $12 to screen a movie that won’t be available for rental or sale for several months. New additions include “Bacurau,” “Saint Frances” and “The Wild Goose Lake.”
Playback comes via an email link containing step-by-step instructions for viewing on any internet-connected device, including TVs with Apple TV or Google’s Chromecast.
Significantly, At the Movies allows Denver Film and its distributors to share revenues, whereas first-run streamed movies tend to cut out major national exhibitors, given that there’s no model for them to take part.
Greenwood Village-based Fathom Events, which syndicates concerts, operas, ballet performances and other non-film content to 1,500 screens nationwide, is essentially idle until it can present its rescheduled live-streams on the big screen.
Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, which shut its trio of metro area locations after Gov. Jared Polis required all theaters to close, said last week that the company will furlough 80 percent of its nationwide staff, Westword reported, while setting up a $2 million relief fund for those affected.
That’s a direct result of lost revenue from tickets, concessions and other in-person purchases, and another sign that streaming movies online does little to help big exhibitors.
“I understand the emergency need they felt, but it’s also a slap to theaters,” Garcia said of major studios’ streaming plans. “We are lucky in that the art-house world has already been forced to look at streaming partnerships to make the most out of their titles, such as releasing something online at the same time it hits exhibitors.”
The money that Denver Film makes through At the Movies goes toward supporting an organization that has been forced to lay off 20 of its hourly staff members over the past few days, said Britta Erickson, interim executive director for Denver Film.
“We gave every one of those folks two weeks of severance based on their average hours, and will re-hire them as soon as possible,” she said. “But while we’re coming off some really great months at the Sie in terms of revenue from ‘Parasite’ and other Oscar films, putting up fencing in front of our doors, as we’ve had to do, obviously has a great impact.”
Despite year-over-year growth at the Denver Film Festival, the organization’s biggest annual event, the coronavirus shutdown comes on the heels of an unusually painful time for Denver Film. Less than a year ago, the nonprofit endured the tragic death of festival artistic director Brit Withey; weeks later, executive director Andrew Rodgers stepped down. The global pandemic also has put a hold on Denver Film’s months-long search for a new leader.
The popular Film on the Rocks program at Red Rocks Amphitheatre is scheduled to go on as planned this summer, pending city restrictions, Erickson said. Separate from Denver Film, so is the 47th Telluride Film Festival, an internationally acclaimed event (scheduled for Sept. 4-7) where many Oscar-winning features make their debut, according to a spokeswoman.
But for the short-term, other international film festivals such as Cannes and Tribeca have been postponed, while Aspen Shortsfest — a qualifying event for the Academy Awards — is going fully online.
“We’re walking a fine line here of presenting things as a proper film festival, but not crossing over into being exploitative and making money on filmmakers who could potentially be making it elsewhere,” said Aspen Film’s Wrubel. “We’re not a streaming platform.”
As such, the March 31-April 5 Aspen Shortsfest is treating its online festival like a physical one as much as it can. People can buy access to individual shorts packages for $10, or spend $75 for the entire slate (compare that with last year’s $675 price tag for non-members, and $400 for Aspen Film members). Individual programs can be viewed once throughout the festival’s run, minus the occasional rewinding and fast-forwarding. Jurors will still watch the full slate of 71 films and dole out awards that offer a coveted path to Oscar nominations.
To not move forward with some version of Aspen Shortsfest would have been unthinkable, Wrubel said, considering that more than 3,000 filmmakers submitted entries for this year’s 29th annual event. Wrubel and her team were able to secure permission to stream the majority of the program — almost 60 titles — and will use the French company Festival Scope to present the festival online.
Like a real festival, tickets are limited to 500 people per screening, in part to encourage the feel of curation. If demand skyrockets due to the fact content is now accessible anywhere in the U.S., that will be reassessed, Wrubel said.
Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, which typically serves as the festival’s main venue, will sell tickets through aspenshowtix.com, despite the building being shut down.
“Short-form content lends itself better to online play than feature films, and we likely wouldn’t have gotten the rights to screen most of these if they were all features,” Wrubel said. “Fortunately, we found a phenomenal partner in Festival Scope. They were able to get the entire thing (online) in a little over a week.”
Whether or not people respond to these boutique, internet-only, first-run movie programs is another matter. Garcia reported light traffic on the first weekend of Denver Film’s At the Movies program. Wrubel said she has no idea whether Shortsfest will draw hundreds or a handful.
But there’s hope. Denver Film can now offer many more titles than its three-screen Sie FilmCenter would normally allow. And people can still talk about what they’re watching, even from a distance.
“I don’t want to dismiss other art forms, but movies have a way of being delivered now that can still create a virtual community,” said Erickson, who cited services like Netflix Party, which synchronizes playback and adds group-chat capabilities among multiple Netflix accounts. “Our mission has always been to create conversations around movies, and if we can find a way to keep doing that and maybe even monetize it to keep us alive, we will. But we need the support of the community to do it.”
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