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Social Distance Cinema: Local theaters offer virtual screenings for couch streamers

Social Distance Cinema: Local theaters offer virtual screenings for couch streamers

J.R. McMillan

Though there is plenty of pain to go around, no industry has been more fundamentally disrupted than movie theaters, perhaps permanently. Exactly how bad is it? Studios have all but halted production and box office reporting has been suspended. Instead of celebrating their 100-year anniversary, AMC Theatres, the largest chain in the world, is hurtling toward bankruptcy.

No one wants to get into a contest of who has it worse, but when your entire business model is based on hundreds of strangers sitting elbow-to-elbow, there’s just no way to stay open when most of the country has been ordered to stay home.

But Columbus seems to find new ways everyday to get creative in a crisis, and our independent theater community is no exception. Though there is no shortage of content available from an ever-expanding arena of streaming services, watching a story unfold on an enormous screen as part of an audience is as absent as the aroma of fresh, buttered popcorn. Even though we may be a long way from anything approaching what once was, local theaters are finding innovative alternatives to stay connected to their loyal patrons, even if it sometimes feels like we’ve all been cast in a disaster movie.

“The virtual screening room isn’t new. We’ve been offering an on-demand channel as a way for people to see films they may have missed. Curating films supports our mission and also enhances our community,” explained Chris Hamel, president of the Gateway Film Center. “So when we were forced to suspend our normal programming, we just ramped up these opportunities and added our virtual screen.”

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Independent theaters, specifically those that specialize in so-called arthouse features, have always been masters of improvisation without the deep budgets or blockbuster revenues of their mainstream counterparts. Now that notable nimbleness has become an appreciable asset. “Conversations from the Center” was another initiative that required rapid reinvention. The discussion of influential films and industry insights also moved online.

”I think we exceeded our expectations to some degree and we’ve got really great opportunities for the audience to engage moving forward,” Hamel revealed. “It doesn’t replace the cinema experience completely, but it is a nice way for us to continue to engage with our audience.”

For about the price of a typical ticket, you can buy a virtual one through their website, with a comparable percentage of proceeds going back to the theater. The process is a little different depending on the film and the distributor, but is very similar to renting a movie to stream at home with a limited viewing window. Selections aren’t exhaustive, but thoughtfully chosen as always. Features so far have included The Whistlers, a Romanian heist film with more than a hint of the Coen Brothers to the overdue backstory of the breakup of The Band, Once Were Brothers, a fitting bookend to Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz. If escape is more your speed, they’ve even offered a fascinating documentary on fungi and a critically-acclaimed collection of cat videos. There really is something for everyone.

“The indie film market was starting to pick back up. In January, we still had Parasite and 1917 and a lot of those films were still very strong and were able to carry through to the Oscars. Our virtual screenings are all films we would have shown anyway,” noted Jeremy Henthorn, theatre director at Drexel Theatre. “Our sci-fi marathon and series are postponed, not cancelled. If there is a bright side to all of this, presuming everyone is able to open by July or August, there will be a lot more options and choices to see later in the year. It’s always good to have something new for audiences.”

While still considering virtual screenings, Studio 35 Cinema & Drafthouse recently launched their in-house kitchen, Fibonacci’s Pizzeria, and now serves craft pies, subs, and salads to-go. Both the Clintonville theater and their sister screen, Grandview Theater & Drafthouse, are filling growlers with your favorite craft beer, and will gladly pour some M&Ms over your tub of popcorn. Strand Theatre in Delaware is likewise offering drive-by concessions, virtual screenings, and their projectionist is even posting weekly film reviews and recommendations to keep patrons connected. The South Drive-In is selling discounted gift cards and may be among the first local theaters to reopen. After all, drive-ins are the original social distance cinema.

Motion pictures since their start have always been an art of collective experience. Though there are now a near infinite number of options available online and easy to stream, sitting on your couch still doesn’t replace the immersive intent, nor is that the expectation. But buying virtual tickets, a couple of tubs of popcorn, the occasional pizza or jug of beer, and a few gift cards will hopefully ensure your favorite Hollywood haunt is still around when we can once again gather in in the dark and become part of a shared story. 

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