Among New York City’s diverse independent exhibition community, the Spectacle Theater stands out as something unique. Located in an ex-bodega in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the theater has no concessions, no paid staff members, and no more than 35 seats. Its programming, mostly repertory in nature, can be best described as “eclectic,” tending tends towards cult classics, deep cuts, and overlooked obscurities. Now, that programming has shifted online: to Twitch.
A live streaming service that boasts an average 1.5 million viewers at any given moment, Twitch is mostly known as a platform to livestream—and watch livestreams of—videogame play. With COVID-19 migrating most forms of entertainment into the home, a few theaters have begun experimenting with Twitch as a livestreaming platform.
A few nights a week, a tiny fraction of Twitch’s 1.5 million viewers belongs to Spectacle, which for the last month has been streaming its selection of oddities—including a double feature of 80s horror films that aired on Italian TV and their kung-fu series Fist Church—on the platform. Some of these screenings are encore presentations of films the Spectacle already screened back when it was open, while others are new to their audience; in the latter camp falls films programmed in collaboration with the Laser Blast Film Society, a Toronto-based cult film community that specializes in obscure, contemporary cult films. (Laser Blast programmed She’s Allergic to Cats, “a deranged rom-com horror hybrid that feverishly escalates to video-art nightmare,” streaming on Spectacle’s Twitch channel tonight.)
The Spectacle, notes programmer Zachary Fleming, is in “kind of a unique position” compared to most other theaters. It’s entirely volunteer-run, and its overhead costs “aren’t crushing. Obviously, rent in Williamsburg is not cheap. It’s a struggle to stay open. But we’ve been fortunate in having a few donors who have kept our doors open. So we’re not immediately in a place where we’re like, ‘Oh, how do we stay open?’” With that bit of panic off the table, the Spectacle and its volunteer team are in a position to use their deep-cut curatorial knowledge—and a bit of technical savvy—to bring moviegoers together in a digital space. “The big goal in a lot of these venues is audience retention,” says Laser Blast programmer Peter Kuplowsky. “Just to keep … engagement with your audience so when the world reboots and they’re able to come back, that audience has not moved on and is still endeared with that brick and mortar institution and, more importantly, the people behind it.”
Twitch’s chat function lets people interact with each other during the film in such a way that “doesn’t necessarily take away from the [experience] like vocal riffing [in a theater] would,” says Fleming. Spectacle’s Twitch screenings are “an opportunity to engage and interact with films in a really unique and I think endearing and fun and infectious way,” agrees Kuplowsky. Many of these films are just plain odd enough, he notes, that “you do want to watch with other people and say incredulous things in the comments.” In an in-person theater environment, the what-the-hell-did-I-just-see chatter isn’t kosher… but even getting people to the theater for some of these films in the first place, Kuplowsky and Fleming agree, can be a tough sell.
“[Some of the Laser Blast films are ones] that, if you advertise and tell someone to go to a brick and mortar theater, they they might pause and go, ‘Eh, I might just go check out the new Marvel movie instead. Or even the new arthouse film or A24 movie,’” says Kuplowsky. “But everyone’s sitting around. This many weeks into the quarantine, I feel like people have exhausted, Disney+ and Netflix and a lot of these options.”
Spectacle’s Twitch screenings are typically coming in with double the number of attendees as the cinema’s (very small, remember) in-theater capacity. The shift has “been a really nice, strange change, honestly,” says Fleming. “I’ve seen a lot of people tuning in from overseas who absolutely could not have ever made it to a Spectacle screening. If they could, it would be on a vacation, and I don’t know if people want to spend two hours of your two days in New York in a theater. That’s been really cool. A few people from London and Hong Kong and Australia tuning in for things being like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna head out to work now. Thanks for the movie.’”
An added element to many of Spectacle’s Twitch screenings is filmmaker Q&As, which add a further level of engagement. At the moment, those Q&As are all text-based, occurring in the Twitch chat box. If this isn’t as interactive as screening/Q&A combos undertaken by other independent theaters on, for example, Zoom, it also cuts down on the ubiquitous tech snafus that plague other digital events. “We talked about other platforms [for] stream,” says Fleming. “Zoom Q&A was a nightmare that we didn’t want to even think about dealing with. But we have started talking about other ways of doing a live Q&A. Twitch is built to have a webcam set up, the way streamers do. We’d love to eventually get that type of Q&A going.”
If the tech side of things run relatively smoothly on Twitch—the Spectacle uses live-streaming freeware OBS, which Boxoffice Pro has written about in the past—another side of the cinema’s online life has a bit more wrinkles: streaming rights. Fleming clarifies that they try to secure rights whenever they can… but it’s not always possible in the case of, say, old made-for-TV movies, where a byzantine history of mergers, sales, and company closures means it’s tough, if not impossible, to know who owns what. A good chunk of Spectacle’s online programming “leans more towards the grey [side with] things that are from defunct production companies and haven’t been remastered by Vinegar Syndrome or AGFA. For theater screenings, we clear everything. We’re pretty strict about that. But when our audience is this is small online—Twitch numbers, their big screeners are like 75-150k. We’re small potatoes. And we’re not charging people money, so I’m hoping that there’s a little leniency there.”
Also useful on the rights front, finds Spectacle, is showing content that is in the public domain or staff-created remix content that falls under fair use. (Including, says Fleming, “a live remix of the inaugural Weather Channel broadcast, which was amazing.”) Kuplowsky and Spectacle programmers alike frequently work directly with filmmakers and distributors to get permission show their films.
For now, the Spectacle—as well as other theaters venturing into the the digital screening space—exist in a sort of virtual Wild West where the old ways of doing things have been turned on their head and everyone’s trying to find new solutions “I didn’t realize this when we started streaming, [but] Amazon owns Twitch. And we hate that,” says Fleming. “We’re talking about, what’s the game plan for if we get shut down?… Amazon could just figure out that this type of streaming is happening and put a chokehold on it, or start charging for it in a way that they haven’t figured out how to monetize yet. So that’s another thing that could potentially be a problem.” Twitch has rolled out a beta version of their Watch Party concept, which allows for shared viewing of select Amazon Prime titles, to some of their streamers.
“I like the simplicity of Twitch,” adds Kuplowsky. “It isn’t perfect, but I like that everyone’s watching movies in one space. But you’re still limited because, again, we can’t play studio movies on that platform in a way that would be aboveboard. I’d love to [see] if someone comes up with a model—and it’s going to have to happen, because a lot of festivals are going to be adopting digital options. I feel like the platforms are being designed and figured out. Someone’s going to build that mousetrap.”