As I strolled over to IFC Film Center earlier this month to watch a screening of dystopian thriller Bacurau, I wondered if anyone would even be there. Or would the theater be as sparsely populated as the Brazilian desert village where the John-Carpenter-esque nouveau western is set?
This was days before New York City’s theaters were ordered closed, but the spread of coronavirus was already keeping people away from public places. To my surprise, IFC’s largest screening room was packed— maybe because the film, about a motley crew of townspeople defending themselves against deadly, unseen predators and cynical politicians, serves as an unintentional allegory for the COVID-19 epidemic. Or maybe it was just because filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles were set to do a Q&A after the screening.
Obviously, the days of movie-going, in the word’s most literal sense, are over for the foreseeable future. But you can still see Bacurau, a socially conscious crowd-pleaser in the vein of Parasite, while supporting your local indie theater. Today, the film’s distributor, Kino Lorber, announced that it was teaming with 150 arthouse theaters— including Alamo Drafthouse and Film Society at Lincoln Center— to stream it online, with a portion of proceeds going back to the theaters. There will even be another (virtual) Q&A with the filmmakers and cast members, hosted by BAM, on April 1 at 8pm.
The move is part of an industry-wide pivot to digital as more than half of Americans have been ordered to stay at home. Local indie theaters, which had already been struggling to compete with platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, are teaming up with distributors in an effort to keep their projectors humming virtually. Today, Anthology Film Archives announced that instead of showing two films by its founder Jonas Mekas on the big screen as planned, it will offer them for free on its Vimeo page. Other films will be available to stream at a fee. The first, Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time— an evocative portrait of perseverance during the Holocaust and Communism, told via the German filmmaker’s family letters— can be rented for $9.99, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to Anthology.
Over in the West Village, Film Forum has announced that it has teamed with distributors Kino Lorber, Zeitgeist Films, and Film Movement to present new releases such as Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. That feature, which had been open for less than a week when Film Forum closed, is about “the precarious nature of life in the gig economy, a theme that is unfortunately all too relevant in this moment of global crisis,” its distributor Kino notes. A five-day pass to watch it online is available for $12, with a portion of proceeds going to Film Forum.
In an effort to keep its profit-sharing arrangements with theaters from being disrupted by the shift to digital, Kino is discouraging non-New Yorkers from viewing movies presented by Film Forum and other local theaters, asking outsiders to instead wait until the films are available via their local movie houses.
Theaters aren’t the only ones that have taken a hit. Today Rooftop Films, beloved for its summertime series of outdoor screenings, sent an email entreating followers to contribute to an emergency fund, as 90 percent of the non-profit’s revenue has been frozen. “If we aren’t able to raise funds in the next few weeks to replace our lost revenue,” wrote artistic director Dan Nuxoll, “we will be forced to furlough most of our staff, and the long-term existence of Rooftop Films will be in serious jeopardy.” As of publication, the campaign had raised over $6,800 out of its $10,000 goal.
Other film festivals are scrambling to offer their content to those stuck at home. Tribeca Films canceled its annual festival, slated for April, and is now screening a new short— including some premieres— every day. The Greenwich International Film Festival, which was to begin May 1 in Connecticut, is instead selling $175 “virtual passes” allowing holders to view films online. And Cinema Tropical, a New York-based non-profit that screens Latin American films at local theaters, is premiering five films online, with one of the films— Away From Meaning, a documentary about a woman’s harrowing struggle with viral encephalitis— being followed by a Q&A with Mexican filmmaker Olivia Luengas.
Obviously, a virtual talkback isn’t the same as being able to speak to directors in the room. At the Bacurau Q&A, a Brazilian woman in the audience fought back tears as she thanked the directors for portraying her country’s political strife in such a moving way. And actress Julia Marie Peterson also grew emotional as she related her character’s dark, misguided impulses to the COVID-19 response. “I think about all the pain around the world, in our own country, in dealing with this virus,” she said, “and why it’s so important to have facts and to discern them. Because when you aren’t able to think through them and you’re just riding with your emotions, terrible stuff happens.”