On March 13, the Salt Lake Film Society closed its doors. It was a frightening time for exhibition, as theaters were faced with a closure of unsure length along with further (and continuing) uncertainty about product availability. But Tori Baker, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Film Society, didn’t let the closure of her two theaters slow her down. “My immediate plan was to pivot,” she says—a result both of her “entrepreneurial spirit” and technology and resources the Salt Lake Film Society had had in the works since last year, when they were working on an online media accelerator studio. Several months and a global pandemic later, the media accelerator found new life as @homeArts, a platform that gives art house exhibitors the means to take core parts of their business online.
With their new platform, which launched in August with ten art house cinemas in addition to Salt Lake, @homeArts aims to solve two of exhibitors’ key problems: Cash flow (slowed by the “topsy-turvy” payment structures to be found in other virtual theatrical models, says Baker) and fundraising. To do this, @homeArts mimics the operation of a brick and mortar theater in a viewer’s home, allowing them to watch movies and donate to their chosen cinema without the migration to a different site that is often required by the existing virtual theatrical model.
When you watch a movie on the website of your chosen @homeArts partner you are, technically, streaming that movie—but Baker is adamant that @homeArts is “not a streaming platform. The fact that you’re streaming a movie is certainly a factual thing surrounding the tech. But it is a visit to your local theater. And you are watching a film on their virtual screen.” With a ticket purchase comes the option to donate additional money to the theater; when she spoke to Boxoffice Pro on September 2, Black estimated that, as an aggregate, 40 percent had been added to Salt Lake Film Society online ticket sales in the form of donations.
Key to @homeArts, Baker explains, is reinforcing theatrical behavior—the business model, the feeling of loyalty, even the scarcity that with brick and mortar cinema makes moviegoers rush out to see a film before it closes. “It has to be exactly the same experience, with the exception of an online screen,” says Baker. “They feel like they’re still my patron. They’re walking up to our box office. They’re participating in our curation and our programming, and they’re not being sent elsewhere”—specifically, sent to the websites of film distributors, often an extra step in the virtual-theatrical model.
That extra step means that another company is collecting your moviegoers’ information, Baker argues—information that is a lifeline for art house cinemas, which thrive or die on their connection to their community. “What the art houses in particular, of all the NATO constituents, hold—that they have for decades—is their audiences. They know who they are. They know them intimately, personally, and all their information. What kind of movies they watch. How long they’ve been a member. How much they’ve donated on top of going to see movies.” In the moment of “panic when all theaters closed,” Baker says, “everybody let go of that precious asset.”
In re-adapting moviegoers to a theatrical model and a theatrical mindset, even as they continue watch movies from home, @homeArts fights against a pattern of behavior inculcated by years of watching streaming platforms like Netflix: namely, the expectation that the film they want to watch will be there for months, if not indefinitely. Sale Lake Film Society, now as before, opens films on Friday and closes them on Thursday. There are holdovers and exclusive engagements—“all that same language that we use to reinforce the urgency of a film theatrically. There’s no reason not to use that same information. I think it creates that FOMO thing if they do miss out.”
Through replicating the theatrical model on the small screen—letting people feel like they’re patronizing their local cinema, even as they sit in their homes—Baker hopes that viewers will be more likely to come back to the theaters’ physical locations when they’re able to do so. Even then, one of the goals of @homeArts is to “augment,” says Baker, those physical locations, giving “underserved audiences”—for example, people who can’t go out because of medical issues, or those who may not yet feel comfortable returning to a cinema due to Covid—access to a cinema’s “mission-based” virtual screen. “Even post-Covid… maybe that underserved audience is somebody we’ve never noticed before. It’s people who are physically [or emotionally] bound to their home or who can’t participate for some reason in your bricks and mortar [location].” At the Sale Lake Film Society, “we’re talking about that potential, because we’ve always been limited by 200 seats within a given community on every particular screening.… I think there are some interesting potentials emerging out of [@homeArts]. Just because the film is streamed, it’s not a streaming platform. It’s a technology created to augment your bricks and mortar with a virtual screen that has the functionality that you need that reinforces the theatrical experience.”