Without theaters, the movie industry seeks new ways to weather the storm

Without theaters, the movie industry seeks new ways to weather the storm
Interior of BAM Rose Cinema. Photo: BAM.

When the clock hit 8 p.m. on March 16, all movie theaters across New York officially shuttered, quieting one of the city’s most steadfast industries. The move, issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, came amid an avalanche of precautionary closures, taken in an attempt to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.

As screens remain dark, the industry braces for the economic fallout of the restrictions. With no theaters for releases, production houses are turning to alternative means, such as streaming, in an effort to make money. But what about the cinemas and the workers who staffed them?

Still in the early days of the crisis, answers have arrived from a variety of sources. Last week, distributor Kino Lorber announced Kino Marquee, a “virtual theatrical exhibition initiative” that helps art houses to continue generating revenue during COVID-19 closures. The program allows audiences to view virtual releases of Kino Lorber titles that would otherwise line marquees by purchasing tickets through independent cinemas on the site. Patrons have five days to watch the film.

“Kino Marquee has been designed to emulate the moviegoing experience as much as possible,” the announcement read. “Films will be booked from Fridays to Thursdays and presented on dedicated web pages headed by each theater’s branded marquee. Virtual ‘holdovers’ will be determined by performance, and revenue will be split between distributor and exhibitor.”

The program kicked off with the Brazilian thriller “Bacurau,” which was making the rounds in theaters at the time of the shutdown. The film is currently available in virtual screening rooms that represent Film at Lincoln Center and BAM Rose Cinemas. The Museum of the Moving Image is also on the list to screen films under Kino Marquee banner, though the theater isn’t streaming any titles yet.

“Of course we wanted to find a way to keep our current film release in front of audiences, but to do so in a way that would also benefit our exhibition partners,” Kino Lorber’s Wendy Lidell said in a statement. “We want to help ensure that these theaters will be able to reopen their doors after this crisis passes. The Kino Marquee program offers an opportunity for theaters to generate revenue while their doors are closed.”

BAM is also partnering with Film Movement as a “virtual cinema” in a similar capacity. The first films shown in BAM’s digital theater will be “Corpus Christi,” “The Wild Goose Lake,” “L’innocente” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” Profits will be split evenly between BAM and Film Movement, which now hosts 30 virtual screening rooms.

“We’re currently working with indie distributors including Kino Lorber and Film Movement, who have responded speedily and proactively to this nightmarish situation,” Ashley Clark, director of film programming at BAM, said. “We’re partnering with them on virtual theatrical engagements of various titles, and we’ll be sharing the revenue from that venture between us. Obviously, I believe in the primacy of the physical cinema space, and the communal experience of watching films on the big screen. I already miss it dearly. But even though these partnerships are an online endeavor, we’re keeping some semblance of the theatrical exhibition process, and I’m heartened by that.”

Members of the film community have also come together to generate money for cinema workers across the city. Created March 14, the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund was established to raise quick, emergency relief for hourly workers affected by the closures. Since launching, the project has raised over $73,000 via GoFundMe and is preparing to make direct payments to more than 300 workers who applied for the aid.

“As we come to terms with a health crisis that might mean long-term closures for New York City cinemas, we must meet the challenges ahead with mutual aid and solidarity,” the fund said on GoFundMe. “These closures have been necessary steps in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, but many hourly workers will be paying an immediate price for the well-being of our city.”

Theaters and distribution companies have also pledged funds for workers. Last week, Alamo Drafthouse announced $2 million in relief aid for their furloughed staff members, and on Friday, Netflix established a $100 million fund for workers across the world.

In an urgent letter, the trade group National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) called on the federal government last Wednesday to provide loan guarantees, tax benefits and other measures to help the industry stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization — which represents more than 33,000 movie screens across the United States — authorized $1 million dollars in aid from its reserves for movie theater employees. Though details about the funding are forthcoming, the money will be used to “tide workers over,” according to the organization.

“No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return,” the organization said in a separate statement. “The social nature of human beings — the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behavior in response to pandemic threats — is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are.”

Top Image: Interior of BAM Rose Cinema. Photo: BAM.