Talking and texting is strictly verboten in New York City’s indie theaters, as evidenced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Janeane Garofalo’s no-nonsense PSAs for Alamo Drafthouse. But on Saturday evening, as Spectacle Theater presented highlights from the first season of cult Canadian tv show Cowboy Who?, the commentary was flying fast and furious.
“This is like Eric Andre on meth,” opined one viewer of the Pee-wee Herman-esque 1990s kid’s show.
“Knock-off Canadian Elmo,” judged another viewer of one of the puppets.
They were commenting via Twitch, the popular streaming platform where Spectacle has started showing its eclectic array of content in the wake of New York’s coronavirus lockdown.
While other local indie theaters have teamed up with distributors to stream movies online, the Williamsburg microcinema, as you’d expect, is doing it in a decidedly more DIY manner. Last week, the volunteer-run theater took its programming to Twitch, a platform more often used by video-game obsessives to stream their live gameplay to followers.
“We’re all gamers now,” joked Caroline Golum, one of Spectacle’s volunteer programmers. “We’re all basically just shut-ins who have to deal with these weird new media and platforms and stuff like that.”
Spectacle decided to shut down its 35-seat theater, located in a former bodega, on March 12, about a week before New York ordered all non-essential businesses to close. Almost immediately, its non-hierarchical collective of volunteers gathered via Google Groups and began brainstorming ways to continue programming its unique mix of foreign repertory films, underground cinema, live scores, “remixes,” and other “movies that are overlooked by the bulk of this industry,” per Golum. They settled on Twitch to create what she calls a “virtual cinematheque.”
On April 1, “Spectacle in Exile” launched with a screening of Empty Metal, using OBS, an open-source encoder, to send the stream from a volunteer’s computer to Spectacle’s Twitch channel, where followers could watch and comment in real time. And that they did.
While some might find the chat box distracting, Golum notes that “it creates this weird simulacrum of the communal experience, because you’re all watching something but you can also engage with something while you’re watching.” After the film, in which members of a Brooklyn queer noise band become vigilante assassins, there was a Q&A with directors Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer.
Thanks in part to a sympathetic plug from Anthology Film Archives, where Empty Metal had a theatrical run in December, the screening drew about 275 viewers— about eight times the capacity of Spectacle’s theater on South 3rd Street. While tickets there are normally $5 to $10, this screening was free, though viewers were invited to contribute to Spectacle via Paypal or become members via Withfriends. (In case you’re wondering, Golum says the theater is doing “okay for now,” financially.)
Upcoming streams include a pair of 1950s/60s exploitation films, Teenage Gang Debs and Girl Gang, originally slated to play in March as part of the theater’s teenage girl gang series; an Earth Day compilation of videos made by environmental groups and eco-activists from the 1980s-1990s; two films by leftist French filmmaker Michele Rosier; and a rebroadcast of the Weather Channel’s 1982 debut, described as “a relaxing ambient sound bath to remind us of the outside world.”
While Golum emphasizes that Spectacle’s programmers normally clear the rights to everything they screen, she says that Twitch’s lack of pay-per-view capabilities has forced them to suspend their usual model of giving filmmakers and distributors a cut. “As much as we’d love to be in a position where we’re paying people with cost of admission, we’re not there yet. But we hope to be there in the future,” Golum said.
“The real dream,” she added, “is that by the time we figure out how to do that, we’ve flattened the curve and the theater is back open.”