Art House on Demand: Specialty Exhibitors Turn to Digital Platforms in the Pandemic

Photo Credit: Adam Casey

The independent and art house theater communities were true pioneers in establishing virtual screenings at the very start of the pandemic shutdown. One driving force was the respected independent distributor Kino Lorber, which had just opened its Cannes award-winning dark comedy thriller Bacurau in New York City on March 6, 2020. According to CEO Richard Lorber, some 60 to 80 additional theaters had been slated to show the acclaimed film when everything halted in mid-March. As Lorber told Boxoffice Pro in April 2020, those theaters “had already spent funding sources to promote the film and engage their membership base. We came to the conclusion that we could, in effect, hybridize our theatrical distribution model with our VOD technology.” The “totally theater-centric” platform, branded as Kino Marquee, was up and running within days and used by more than 100 theaters by the end of March 2020. To date, more than 750 theaters and festivals have used the platform, with revenue from virtual screenings split 50/50. In December 2020, the New York Film Critics Circle gave Kino Lorber a special award for this service “designed to help support movie theaters, not destroy them.”

One exhibitor immediately inspired by Kino Lorber’s initiative was Tori Baker, CEO and president of the nonprofit Salt Lake Film Society, which runs the Broadway and Tower theaters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her colleague Miles Romney had already created an online media accelerator studio for the Film Society, which they adapted into a new streaming platform called @homeArts.

“I started to see the innovations of companies like Kino Lorber, where they immediately pivoted to helping the art houses,” Baker recalls. “Unfortunately, the sacrifice the art house had to make was to allow the audience out from under their wing and off to those other services. Which is a problem we were facing long before the pandemic—people going to Netflix or Disney Plus or whatever. It was amazing and innovative of Kino, but at the same time it wasn’t really solving our problem of managing cash during a crisis. In the model where you’re sending customers off to other services, you’re sending your most valuable asset out the door and asking them to participate in a thing that you had no control over in terms of quality service. And it was also not pulling in the cash the way box office does—the business model of theaters is [that] the cash hits the box office first. It was literally a business model that was 180 degrees off from what we were used to. So I was looking for a way, technology-wise, to build a fundraising support system that allows everybody to also support the filmmakers and the distributors that maybe don’t have screening [platforms] 90 percent done like Kino did.”

Baker closed her theaters on March 13, 2020, and had the @homeArts platform up and running on April 3, joined in this venture by the Coolidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, Massachusetts. By August 2020, they had added nine more art houses, including Film Forum in New York, the Avalon in Washington, D.C., and the Roxie in San Francisco. At its peak, the @homeArts cohort boasted 34 participants, including non-cinema members like the Salt Lake Acting Company.

This platform mimicked a real-life theater, with virtual box offices and films opening on a Friday for a limited run. “The key point,” Baker notes, “was the fundraising ask. At what point do you say, in addition to your ticket, can you support the cinema coming back? That was the key success of the digital platform for us—in our case, 40 percent is our average of donations to the ticket buy. Most of the other cohorts are hovering around 35, some less, some more—it depends on how robust they were in their fundraising and engagement processes before they took on the technology.”

Now it’s time to look toward the future, Baker says. “The purpose of a digital screen is not the same as your bricks-and-mortar screen. Does it still play films? Yes. But the question is, what is the purpose? I’m trying to educate our cohorts that the purpose is multifaceted and has a lot of abilities for growth. And that growth is going to be more of the mission space— how you impact your local community—than the high revenue-generation space.”

As part of its mission, Salt Lake Film Society has conducted what Baker calls “cultural tours,” festivals of films from Mexico, Israel, the Pacific Islands, and other regions. Taking those tours digital “taught us a lot about accessibility. It taught us about how to reach into diverse communities that aren’t able to access our capital city, or maybe even don’t feel welcome in the capital. Art house audiences are primarily plus-45, white, fairly affluent. That’s not without exception—there are college towns and rural towns. … We’d had Filméxico at our bricks-and-mortar for the past 10 years and were successful with it. But when we took it virtually and made it accessible on our digital screen, something else happened. People were able to access us because they didn’t have to come into our physical home where they might not feel welcome, or maybe they’re intimidated about navigating the city, or maybe they don’t have the economic means to come here.”

Baker says she tripled attendance for her cultural tours by going virtual. “I’m limited on an opening night to 250 seats in one auditorium. I’ve brought in one director to talk about the movie. With the digital screen model, we were able to access every single director from every single film.”

On a broader level, Baker says a digital screen can bring access to “health-risk groups in this pandemic who can’t leave their homes, groups that have mobility issues, low-income groups, and elderly facilities that can’t take their residents out anymore.” She adds, “Maybe in the case of a snowbird, when you run a theater like I do where it’s winter most of the year, they can take your theater with them to Arizona now. So those screens can serve a purpose for your core audience as well.”

Baker suggests another possibility for widening a theater’s mission. “Let’s say you put a program together with films like I Am Not Your Negro or Freedom Riders, and you’re a company that’s interested in sharing with your employees the Black experience in America. Your digital screen could help your entire community in a different way. People in the business sector could have access to a diversity project that uses the art of film instead of just a lecture.”

An active member of Baker’s @homeArts cohort is Diana Martinez, artistic director of Film Streams, a nonprofit that operates the Ruth Sokolof Theater and the historic Dundee Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. She already had a working relationship with @homeArts booker Connie White of Balcony Booking and didn’t need much persuading to join the cohort.

“Film Streams @Home gives us an opportunity to expand our mission and engage our patrons even while closed,” she says. “We pivoted our new releases and repertory programming to the digital space, were able to adapt education and special programs with discussion components like ‘Science on Screen,’ and created a virtual fundraiser event. These all proved successful. Likewise, our administrative staff adapted to the rhythm of virtual cinema, from box office reporting to providing tech help to customers Though it was a great deal of work, @home became an extension of our brand.

“The focus of @homeArts on user experience was key for us. Before @homeArts, we were sending patrons directly to different distributors’ sites, where the patron had to make a separate account each time. @homeArts really streamlined and improved the user experience by offering a one-site, one-login solution, and we saw sustained engagement and positive feedback from that.”

Martinez notes that “our audience on the platform gravitates toward tonally lighter fare, or choices anchored with indie stars—films like I Used to Go Here and Black Bear play really well in a setting with more distractions. That was a bit of a learning curve for me, because curatorially it demands a different kind of viewing than theatrical, and I had to program to that. I had to consider: If people have to pause the film or get distracted, does this story have the narrative momentum for them to press play again?”

She says the online platform “helped immensely” in the marketing of her December 2020 fundraising event with the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, “Icons: A Conversation with Chloé Zhao.” “We have over 55K views on that interview. … We filmed introductions to films as part of our ‘Science on Screen’ series. We had an interview series highlighting community partners. We began creating content that could take the place of our in-person events; offering those for free alongside films went a long way to differentiate us from being just another streaming service. We’re currently discussing what other content we can make now that we’re open that complements our theatrical films and in-person events.”

Film Streams @Home seems to be here to stay. “We have two venues with two screens each, but we will always be limited by how many seats we have to sell when there’s lots of good film to play, so our virtual screen can be that fifth, unlimited space. As a local theater, we also hadn’t found a way to stay connected to patrons who move away or are less able to get to us physically. People can take us along wherever they are. And when you spend so much time building an audience and gaining that trust, it’s great to know that that connection can carry far beyond our physical space in a tangible way.”

Martinez says, “I personally think the pandemic amplified issues already present in the theatrical model rather than created wholly new ones. Art houses probably could have tried to respond to streaming sooner, to have stronger national brands outside our local contexts, to become more accessible, to think more deeply about funding structures and diversifying sources of revenue. A great advantage of being an art house or an independent theater is our ability to be nimble, so even though the theater business will continue to be in flux, I think we’re more adaptable.

“We began a phased reopening of our two locations in late May—opening our biggest screen at the Dundee Theater and then our smallest screen at the same location in early July. The Ruth Sokolof Theater will open fully by late July. I hope we can play films with the regularity we used to, but the movie business is unpredictable. There is always a sense of the unknown, but I remain optimistic.”

Back on the East Coast, another resourceful @homeArts member is Amherst Cinema, a three-screen, nonprofit cinema in Amherst, Massachusetts. “We pivoted to streaming films within three weeks of our closure, and at that time it was truly the Wild West,” recalls Yasmin Chin Eisenhauer, executive director. Then they joined the Salt Lake Film Society’s initiative. “Like a startup, it took some time to help our filmgoing community navigate and understand our new platform. While the revenues from this innovation did not fully make up for income, it did keep us connected to our community.”

George Myers, general manager, says, “We were certainly affirmed in our belief in the power of cinema. That in difficult times art is not disposable and people turn to cinema for entertainment, healing, escape, and learning. Though it was clearly a different experience than being in the cinema in person, our patrons still relied on us to provide great films and engagement with film culture. The support and concern for our future well-being was immense, and we’re grateful to be here and of service to our community and region. It was also a good opportunity to review ways in which we could alter what we do, including virtual Q&As, online seminars, and rethinking many of the systems we had inherited as an industry.”

The Amherst Cinema strove to bring excitement to its virtual programming. “We were thrilled to be able to offer multiple presentations of live scored silent shorts with [silent film historian and accompanist Ben Model,” Eisenhauer notes. “We’ve long admired his work in the New York City area but were never able to get him up here to western Massachusetts. He developed an entire digital broadcasting rig on his piano in his living room to live-score and stream these wonderful silent shorts. A digital retrospective and interview with filmmaker Andrew Bujalski was also a real highlight. In addition to those events, we were able to host some truly wonderful Q&As with filmmakers from around the world, often multiple times a week, including legendary jazz bassist Buster Williams, journalist Jaan Uhelszki, and director Spencer Nakasako.”

Eisenhauer continues, “I think one of our takeaways [from our period of closure] is to remain agile, nimble, and open-minded to the ways we might deliver our programming. We’re certainly looking forward to and will be prioritizing our in-person operations but will also continue virtual programming for the foreseeable future. Virtual cinema enabled program continuity in uncertain times and was also a pathway to greater inclusivity.”

Myers adds, “The addition of the virtual space helps in some ways with the limitations of screen time/space that we face as independent theaters. Being able to broaden what you’re able to play may allow theaters to realize their vision and mission more fully and help attract a broader audience or create more impactful relationships with existing communities. On the other hand, the curation of the virtual space needs to be treated with the same care and consideration as your first-run films, so audiences see that you hold the films in the same regard. Additionally, there’s an opportunity to reach audiences beyond your traditional footprint, which is a great opportunity to touch lives beyond your normal catchment area.”

Does Myers see his in-person business returning to normal? “That’s the million-dollar question. It depends on what ‘normal’ means, but I think the easier and honest answer is no, and likely that should be true of all theaters. If the pandemic didn’t reveal some shortcomings, oversights, deficiencies, or other information, I would wager you’re not looking closely enough at your operations or listening hard enough to your staff. This was a monumental event, and I hope that with all that happened and was lost over the past 18 months, we at least use it as a teachable moment in ways we can do our work better.”

In conclusion, Salt Lake’s Tori Baker declares, “The good news is that at the end of the day this technology is not going anywhere, and we have a pathway to continue to develop the components that make it even more valuable to distributors, more valuable to the art house community, more succinct in its fundraising components. But in order to develop [@homeArts], we want to make sure that we’re impacting enough people nationwide.”

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