What is a movie? With theaters shuttering, the question gets real

"Saint Frances," a beguiling portrait of millennial ambivalence, is one of the best films of 2020. It just became a little easier to watch.

"Saint Frances," a beguiling portrait of millennial ambivalence, is one of the best films of 2020, just the kind of indie gem that provides sweet relief in the midst of an otherwise forgettable season at the movies.

But no sooner had "Saint Frances" opened at Washington, D.C.'s Avalon Theatre last Friday than it became impossible to see: Like countless other cultural venues, the Avalon was forced to close due to coronavirus concerns, leading programming director Andrew Mencher to consider how best to keep his community of loyal filmgoers engaged, and keep his theater afloat.

Working with Oscilloscope, the distributor of "Saint Frances," Mencher hit on an idea: Why not give his patrons access to an exclusive digital link that they can watch during a limited period? After weighing how amenable his mostly older audience would be to the aesthetics and technical challenges of streaming, on Tuesday night Mencher sent the offer to his email list of around 10,000 patrons, who reacted enthusiastically. Within 16 hours, the theater had sold 100 virtual tickets at $10 each.

Oscilloscope, which would have had to shelve "Saint Frances" mid-release, at least had a fighting chance of people seeing the film.

"A lot of people ask, why not just put it up on iTunes or Netflix? Well, it's not that simple," said the company's head of theatrical sales, Andrew Carlin, in an email. "Unlike major studios, (for us) it's not a matter of flipping a switch."

Working with the Avalon, "We're now able to Jerry-rig a new system that allows us to digitally deliver it to local audiences," Carlin said. "And, as an added bonus, those audiences know they're supporting their local art house." He added that Oscilloscope is eager to scale up the experiment — if not the first of its kind, certainly the most ambitious — with independent theaters throughout the country.

Welcome to social-distancing cinema, wherein the survival of a brick-and-mortar theater depends on the technological innovation that was supposed to kill it forever. Mencher isn't particularly bothered by the irony. "Is watching something on your computer or iPad as good as going to the theater?" he said on Wednesday. "Of course it's not. But we're all in this situation where we have to make accommodations and alter the way we do things."

The question "What is a movie?" has become something of a linguistic parlor game in recent years, with filmmakers, fans, studios and streaming giants debating whether a motion picture can only be appreciated on the big screen, whether it counts if we see it only on our phones, whether it properly involves superheroes or Italian gangsters and whether we even need to see it to have an opinion.

Today, with theaters shuttered, festivals canceled, theatrical releases delayed, productions halted and at least one big Hollywood studio moving some of its marquee titles to streaming, the question doesn't seem so theoretical. In suspended animation, a movie becomes less an either/or proposition than something fuzzier. A movie is the thing we used to go to, a now-forbidden destination — discrete and self-contained — we remember with longing. Now it's just another of the things we idly click on — the wallpaper of technologically overdetermined lives.

With the survival of an entire industry in the balance, lofty arguments about what constitutes a movie feel like luxuries that even the most ardent purists can ill afford. "A week ago, I would have been reminiscing about the theatrical experience," wrote director David Lowery in a March 13 email. His movie "The Green Knight" was supposed to debut at South by Southwest (SXSW) before the film festival was canceled. "But I'm writing this as the production office on my new film has just shut down. Suddenly issues of theatrical versus streaming are less important to me than asking when or if we will we get back to making movies at all."

When Universal Pictures announced that it would make "Trolls World Tour" available for two-day, $20 rental on April 10 — bypassing theaters entirely — many observers saw the slow-motion train wreck of a faltering theatrical movie business end in a sudden, fatal smashup. (Perhaps "Trolls World Tour" will answer the "What is a movie?" question definitively for the current era: It's anything that can entertain your toddler for an hour and a half while you beam in for the day's latest Webex meeting.)

But it's just as likely that theaters will enjoy a resurgence once filmgoers are allowed back in.

Two years ago, John Krasinski's ingenious thriller "A Quiet Place" enjoyed a triumphant premiere at SXSW and went on to become a huge sleeper hit, primarily on the strength of its smart, elegantly executed premise: Almost entirely dialogue-free, the horror thriller made masterful use of silence and sound, heightening those aesthetic elements with nerve-shredding intensity. Part of what made "A Quiet Place" so powerful was its resuscitation of cinematic language at its most pared-down, language best appreciated in the classic setting of a darkened theater surrounded by similarly rapt strangers.

When "A Quiet Place II," which was supposed to open on Friday, was indefinitely delayed, Krasinski sent a message to his fans: "One of the things I'm most proud of is that people have said our movie is one you have to see all together," Krasinski insisted. "I'm gonna wait to release the film till we CAN all see it together!"

It's no surprise that, pre-pandemic, scary movies, like comedies, have been instrumental in helping theaters compete amid seismic technological and cultural shifts: When we laugh, cry, wince or gasp together, we are demonstrating that movies are a social medium. They need an audience to complete the circuit, close the feedback loop, make the meaning. Now that we're denied that communal experience, it's dawning on many viewers that the shared, almost telepathic sense of what a movie feels like — not the size of the screen it's on, or what kind of story it's telling, or whether its protagonists wear spandex or sharkskin — is what we mean when we say we miss the movies.

Of course, some films are perfectly suited to the modest confines of a streaming site: Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy sold their feature debut "Blow the Man Down" to Amazon Prime soon after the film won a screenplay award at the Tribeca Film Festival last year; the fact that the film would not have a theatrical release didn't bother them in the slightest. "We've been trying to make things for over a decade and we both know the experience so well when you make a short and nothing happens with it," said Savage Cole. "When we found out how many languages Amazon was translating it into, it really hit us that people are going to watch our film."

Others, however, are holding out. Rod Lurie, whose Afghanistan war drama "The Outpost" was supposed to premiere at the SXSW last weekend, chose not to have his movie streamed on the site provided by the festival for journalists, buyers and industry professionals. For one thing, "The Outpost" already has distribution. But Lurie is adamant that the film be seen on a big screen, with booming multichannel sound, if at all possible.

"It's a very big, bruising movie that's meant to be immersive," Lurie said in a recent telephone conversation. "I know that most people will see the film in their homes, but I want its first introduction to come to audiences in theaters, where people can appreciate it to its fullest extent, which is not on your telephone. ... However, if this was another one of my films, say 'The Contender' or 'Nothing But the Truth,' which were smaller and more personal in visual scope, I wouldn't have this religious fervor about it being seen in theaters."

Lurie's reference to religion isn't that far off the mark: Like theaters, churches and nearly every other venue for public fellowship are now closed, reminding cinematic congregants that they and the movies they love comprise a vital form of community. The "just stream it" solution is pragmatic as far as eyeballs are concerned. But engagement, which in a pre-pandemic world was largely a marketing strategy, now has life-or-death consequences for an entire industry.

This weekend, Erik Lokkesmoe, president of marketing and distribution at Aspiration Entertainment, will launch a distribution experiment similar to Mencher's with the streaming title "Phoenix, Oregon," a sweet-natured midlife-crisis comedy starring James Le Gros. Although Aspiration has already engaged a substantial online audience through email, social media and promotions, Lokkesmoe is also partnering with the 17 theaters where the film was going to play; like the Avalon, those venues will sell virtual tickets on "Phoenix, Oregon's" website, allowing purchasers to get an exclusive digital link, and they will receive 50 percent of the ticket price.

"As a small production, we're a risky movie for many theaters to take on for a traditional run," Lokkesmoe explained, "so why wouldn't we do something to support them and their staff as they go through this time of great challenge?"

Lokkesmoe predicts that "Phoenix, Oregon" could serve as proof of concept for a "theatricast" model that will endure long after the crisis has passed. For future digital titles, he says, Aspiration plans to create massive videoconferencing Zoom Rooms, which will allow people to watch a film together and then discuss it afterward. "People want to get together and talk about content wherever they are."

Of course, no one wants simply watching movies to supplant the pleasure of going to the movies. Mencher is convinced that, once the quarantines are lifted, people will flock to theaters with renewed passion, if only for something they once took for granted.

"Once we're truly clear of this, there will be a huge rebound of people wanting to go out and do more stuff out of the home," he predicts. "People still are interested in what the movies have always been, the communal aspect, the sitting in the dark, the popcorn. I think there's still an enormous appetite for that experience. And it always will be about the movies. If the movies are strong, the people will come."

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