Unfortunately, the Coronavirus is causing strife across the world economy. Specifically close to my heart, however, are its effects on the film industry.
For many years, there has been a lingering threat, subtle but growing, of digital streaming platforms taking over the theatrical exhibition model that has subsisted for film’s first century.
This threat bared its teeth occasionally in the last decade as Netflix financed arthouse filmmakers and released what would have, in different times, been major arthouse releases directly onto their platform.
Fortunately there were some structures and policies that kept these threats from growing too unwieldy. Films had to have at least a week-long theatrical release to qualify for the Oscars. Even Netflix titles recognized the value of building buzz at major Film Festivals. Cinephiles and critics still espoused the value of seeing films with an audience in a big dark crowded public space with similarly enthusiastic strangers.
Then Coronavirus struck, subtly and then with sudden destructive force, closing theaters across the world, pushing release dates, and postponing or cancelling film festivals.
Suddenly, we were left with many fewer options for contemporary film consumption. The value of a shared audience experience could not be considered. If you still wanted to watch movies, you had to do so digitally, at home, through a streaming service or online platform.
Studios like Universal were the first to jump on new solutions to this shift. They took their films currently in theaters and dropped them on VOD platforms for up to $19.99 for a two-day rental. At that price, a family of four could enjoy a new release film for quite a bargain rate. More studios followed and raised a serious concern: are theaters and festivals going to be a necessary part of the film landscape when this is all over?
Allow me to voice my opinion: a resounding YES. Theaters and festivals serve an incredibly valuable function. They keep the appreciation of cinema alive in its purest and most passionate forms. Without these avenues, every movie could be immediately accessible at the touch of a button and movies become an oversaturated market, easily taken for granted and easily ignored with all the distractions of modern life at our fingertips. But films take years to make with dozens of tireless cast and crew. They are manifested expressions of artists who’ve spent years crafting their vision. Festivals and theaters appreciate this fact. They celebrate the creators of the work, create an experience around the viewing of their work, and provide spaces for groups of like-minded audiences to celebrate and discuss the work together.
How to Keep Indie Cinema Alive and Thriving
If you agree that there is value in keeping independent theaters and independent film festivals alive, here are a few simple things you can do to show your support and throw your weight in the right directions:
- Buy on VOD the films you would support in your arthouse theater. Keep these independent films, filmmakers, distributors, etc alive and thriving. You know you have the time to watch things!
- Rent films directly through arthouse distributors. So many are selling tickets to curated films to be streamed online, handily compiled by Vox.com here. Buy these films, watch them, and talk about them with friends.
- You can also check out the websites for your local arthouse theaters, many of whom are also selling tickets to curated films to be streamed online, like Austin Film Society and Alamo Drafthouse.
- Avoid the temptation to rent new release studio titles. Yes, it’s enticing to see them so immediately, but studios are going to be the first to forego theatrical runs if they make enough money in this format. And without these studio titles to sell out their large screening rooms, many independent theaters can’t stay in business.
- Buy digital badges or passes for online festivals to add to their viewership. For many festivals, this will be the only way they come back for a 2021 edition. TechHive has a great list of upcoming options here.
- Subscribe to arthouse-focused streaming service subscriptions. Many are offering free trials, but keep supporting them after if you can. These services—Criterion Channel, Mubi, and Kanopy, to name a few—are keeping unique work out in the public eye.
- Buy DVDs and physical media. Support the work you love and the distributors you love. There are a bunch of sales lately from small outlets, so buy indie or buy local; avoid Amazon.
- Contribute to film campaigns on IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, or Seed&Spark. When this is over, we’ll be in a drought of original cinema. Give money now so projects can be greenlit and start production the moment they’re able.
- Purchase merchandise from your favorite indie film companies. For example, Alamo Drafthouse’s pop culture merchandise company, Mondo, is still open online.
- Donate directly to reputable fundraising efforts like Art House America, proceeds of which will go directly into supporting arthouse theaters and their staff.
Some of these tips can be applied always, but now is an important time to make educated, intentional, and purposeful choices that show what we as consumers want to see. So spread your money, whatever you can spare, across the organizations you care about. If you don’t have discretionary income, you can still promote these films, fundraising efforts, and filmmakers to your friends, family, and social media.
So spread some love and support to the organizations that keep art interesting, bold, and community-focused. It’s needed now more than ever.