Greater Boston’s premiere independent art houses, the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, in Brookline, have adapted to sudden closings due to the coronavirus by embracing digital technology and getting inventive, with virtual screenings, podcasts, and videos of staffers discussing favorite films. While the screenings bring in some revenue to help the theaters cover costs, including continuing to pay their employees, the innovations are mostly ways to keep loyal audiences engaged as they await a return to proper filmgoing.
The Coolidge immediately teamed with small distributors to offer virtual screenings — fees are divided between distributor and theater — of new independent titles, such as the acclaimed Brazilian film “Bacurau”; the comedy “Extra Ordinary,” starring Will Forte; and Ken Loach’s social-realist drama “Sorry We Missed You.” Starting April 17, the Coolidge will offer virtual screenings of the documentary “The Booksellers” and the German film “The Balloon.”
The move to virtual screenings happened within days of the Coolidge’s decision to close. “The distributors of ‘Bacurau’ did not want [video on demand]; they wanted theatrical, so the idea was to keep it in a theatrical space,” says Coolidge creative director Connie White. “There were many calls, working out the technical logistics, wondering will audiences know how to stream? These titles are special because you can’t see them on iTunes or Netflix — it’s a hybrid we’re calling ‘theatrical VOD.’ We are still curating for our audiences. They are buying memberships and gift cards to support us; this is another way to do that.”
The Brattle also pivoted to virtual screenings but with a different approach. Rather than first-run titles with shared ticket revenus, the Brattle directs viewers to rent or stream classic films. Its program #BreakYourAlgorithm suggests offbeat titles like “Party Girl” (1995). The Brattle recorded its first podcast shortly after closing and will produce a podcast every week featuring discussions with staff and special guests. “Our real value is our ability to curate programs.” says creative director Ned Hinkle. “We don’t make money off it. We’re a trusted source for interesting films. We are painfully aware that some use the Brattle calendar as a Netflix queue. But it provides us with a way to stay connected. We’re lucky that as a nonprofit we can get donations and there’s been great support so far. But it’s not going to last forever.”
Before shutting down, the Coolidge had already planned a screening and discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954). The subsequent virtual discussion ended up drawing 200 people, far more than would have fit into the 43-seat screening room where these programs usually take place, says Wesley Emblidge, marketing and education coordinator. Staff members recorded short videos at home of their film recommendations, which Emblidge posted online. So far, “Between YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all the videos have collectively been viewed 32,587 times,” so far, he says. “It tells you that people feel the need for engagement while at home."
And that includes the popcorn.
The Somerville Theatre and Capitol Theatre, in Arlington, have started offering Popcorn Pop-Up events once a week at each theater at designated times, which are announced on the theaters’ website and on social media. “People can pre-order fresh popcorn and other concession items, pay via credit card, and schedule curbside pick up," says Ian Judge, operations director. “They have been somewhat successful and are at least keeping some of our salaried staff working, bringing in a small bit of income, and maintaining the connection with some of our customers.”
The West Newton Cinema is also offering streaming through its website. Owner David Bramante says he’s heartened by patrons’ expressions of support. “I was encouraged by my daughter to start a GoFundMe page to help cover operating costs while the theater is shuttered. We had great success both with the funds raised and the outpouring of love and good sentiments about the theater,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It was a great reminder to me just how much the local cinema means to the community.”
Although no one in the film community wants virtual screenings to replace traditional moviegoing, it could be a useful tool going forward.
“Virtual screenings are a way to keep options open to stay alive in a creative way,” says White. “The Coolidge is a leader in the art-house world. We are all sharing notes and keeping our employees because this is about community building."
“Indie and art houses can come back because they are not beholden to Disney and Warner Brothers,” says Hinkle. “If AMCs open in August, what will they play? Of course things will change. But what’s not changing is the love for experiencing stories together. Once it’s safe and healthy, theaters can come back stronger because people know what they are missing.”