The Future of Theatrical Exhibition is Unknown… And That’s A Good Thing! (Now in Virtual Cinema – November)

By Barbara Twist

To state the obvious: of course theatrical exhibition is suffering right now – we have a virus that spreads most effectively when people congregate indoors, which has closed or significantly limited theater capacity, which leads to people staying at home, which leads to an increase in streaming… and so on. Instead of reading reductive articles on how “theatrical exhibition is dying,” which appear more interested in attention-grabbing headlines than in a well-crafted argument, let’s consider the real question at hand: what do we want theatrical exhibition to look like when the pandemic is over?

The industry has already been undergoing many changes in the last five years: a trend towards increased personalization (i.e. curated e-blasts based on your previous ticket purchase history), subscription models (i.e. MoviePass), smaller theaters, and a more luxury experience (i.e. upscale food and drink, recliner chairs). For an industry in turmoil, I see great opportunity for independent theaters to adapt and evolve, from new revenue streams like private theater rentals and drive-in screenings, to a comprehensive programming strategy that allows for films to roll off the IRL screens to a theater’s ‘virtual screen’ and then back again when the audience demands it. 

Since the pandemic struck in March, indie theaters have been moving nimbly. They pivoted to virtual cinemas in partnership with indie distributors like KinoLorber and Oscilloscope; they sold concessions street-side to pay employees while they were closed; they banded together under the Art House Convergence with the Criterion Collection for the Art House America campaign, raising $842,088 in small grants to theaters across the country; their employees and communities have raised funds for furloughed and laid-off cinema workers, including $75,287 for the Cinema Workers Solidarity Fund in New York City; they’re hosting drive-ins in the snow and in the mountains; they’re offering private rentals while they’re closed or have limited capacity; and a group of theaters have come together to launch @homeArts, a virtual cinema platform for theaters to host their own virtual screenings, keep their data, and serve their patrons directly.

Let’s look more closely at @homeArts… 

From a recent article in Box Office Magazine, “@homeArts is meant to mimic the operations of a cinema through at-home viewing as a means of creating business continuity for exhibitors and distributors alike during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its mission is to reinforce moviegoing among consumers, support donations to cinemas, and facilitate THVOD models for exhibitors. Its objectives include increasing distributor box-office yield and exhibitor cashflow during COVID-19, along with providing a platform for moviegoers to support theaters through donations.” 

The Austin Film Society is one of the collaborators with @homeArts. Holly Herrick, Head of Film & Creative Media, says @HomeArts was “started at such a key time. [The Salt Lake Film Society] took action when it mattered. And because [exhibitors] are in charge, it’s a work-in-progress, and continues to evolve.” A major reason AFS went with @homeArts is that “it’s flexible and controlled by the art house. It dovetails more effectively with what we’re doing, or will be doing, when we’re in-person again. The collective angle has its advantages because we’re able to come together and provide more options and opportunities for filmmakers and distributors.”

A collaboration like @homeArts gives me optimism because it shows the ways indie theaters are embracing changing audience viewing patterns and seeing virtual cinema as complementary to, not detracting from in-person screenings, when they do resume. It may not be perfect, but these exhibitors are moving fast and taking the reins on their futures while the big studios are sitting on their hands and kicking theatrical releases down the calendar.

I’m not a Pollyanna; I’ve read the doom-and-gloom articles, the audience surveys, the box office reports, and even the comments section on IndieWire articles about the death of theatrical. I’ve heard the complaints that patrons have about the moviegoing experience and I’m not here making a case for commercial chain movie theaters. I know NATO predicts up to 70% of cinemas will permanently close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is important to note that NATO only recently began accepting non-profits into their membership. The majority of U. S.based indie and art house theaters are non-profits, while NATO’s data is primarily based on major and mid-size for-profit chains. If you really want to know about the financial health of art house theaters prior to COVID-19, you need to read the surveys commissioned by the Art House Convergence in partnership with SMU DataArts and AvenueISR. It’s important to understand that a non-profit movie theater has a more diverse stream of revenue which provides different opportunities for economic recovery than a for-profit theater. (However, this doesn’t take away from the importance of including cinemas in an economic relief bill!) The financial diversity combined with their knack for pivoting (long before pivot became the word of 2020) and their community-based, mission-driven approach, is what keeps me optimistic about the independent exhibition sector.

Most importantly, when the pandemic is controlled and we can congregate again, whether that’s 2022 or beyond, the notion of theatrical exhibition will not be obsolete. Perhaps in hibernation, but the desire to gather will still be there. The creativity and innovation I’ve seen so far by art house cinemas during COVID-19 leads me to envision a future where all movies, even indie films without distribution, can be seen by audiences across the U.S., not buried on a streaming platform; where they can be championed by the good work of curators; and where they can be discussed with an enthusiastic audience. 


Release Date: 11/6/20 (Alamo Virtual Cinema), 11/13 (Nationwide Virtual Cinema Expansion)
Distributor: Verdugo Entertainment
Turns out a Texas stuntman-turned-filmmaker unleashed the most explosive, death-defying, bullet-riddled, grenade-launching, flame-broiled, anti-human megattack in independent film history back in 1989, and no one knew… UNTIL NOW.
Trailer: ACTION USA – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/6/20
Distributor: Zipporah Films
City government touches almost every aspect of our lives. Most of us are unaware of or take for granted these necessary services such as police, fire, sanitation, veterans affairs, elder support, parks, licensing of various professional activities, record keeping of birth, marriage and death as well as hundreds of other activities that support Boston residents and visitors. CITY HALL, by Frederick Wiseman, shows the efforts by Boston city government to provide these services. The film also illustrates the variety of ways the city administration enters into civil discourse with the citizens of Boston. Mayor Walsh and his administration are presented addressing a number of their policy priorities which include racial justice, affordable housing, climate action, and homeless. CITY HALL shows a city government successfully offering a wide variety of services to a diverse population.
Trailer: CITY HALL – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/6/20
Distributor: Virgil Films
Michael Smerconish celebrates his 30th year as a talk radio host in this dynamic one-man performance, recorded live in the midst of a pandemic. The result is both an intimate memoir and a unique explanation of the origin of a nation’s partisan divide.
Trailer: MICHAEL SMERCONISH – Official Trailer
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SMOOTH TALK (4K Restoration)
Release Date: 11/6/20 (Film at Lincoln Center); 11/13/20 (National)
Distributor: Janus Films
Suspended between carefree youth and the harsh realities of the adult world, a teenage girl experiences an unsettling awakening in this haunting vision of innocence lost. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ celebrated short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and produced for PBS’ American Playhouse, the narrative debut from director Joyce Chopra features a revelatory breakout performance from Laura Dern as Connie, the fifteen-year-old black sheep of her family whose summertime idyll of beach trips, mall hangouts, and innocent flirtations is shattered by an encounter with a mysterious stranger (a memorably menacing Treat Williams). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Smooth Talk captures the thrill and terror of adolescent sexual exploration as it transforms the ingredients of a standard coming of age portrait into something altogether more troubling and profound.
Trailer: SMOOTH TALK – Janus Films 
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TOBY DAMMIT (4K Restoration) w/ LA JETEE
Release Date: 11/6/20 (Film Forum)
Distributor: Janus Films
TOBY DAMMIT: In Fellini’s eerie segment of the Poe-based omnibus SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (Tre Passi Nel Delirio/Histoires Extraordinaires), Terence Stamp arrives in Rome to make a movie at Cinecittà, but finds he can’t escape a final headache. Presented as part of Fellini 100, an international celebration of the director’s centennial year. LA JETEE: In the aftermath of World War 3, in the dark underground that’s apparently all that still exists, a recumbent man in heavy goggles travels back through time, ever searching for that one moment that will make it all clear — but what happens when he gets there? Marker’s half-hour masterpiece — “the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood” (re-made by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys with Bruce Willis!) — is told in a haunting series of stills, climaxing in “an extraordinary epiphany” (David Thompson, Time Out London). 
Trailer: TOBY DAMMIT – Janus Films
Tickets available at Film Forum

Release Date: 11/13/20
Distributor: Kandoo Films
Lives are left in pieces after a white cop responds to a violent hostage call and kills a black man only to learn he may have been set up. Facing trial, he must find the person responsible while examining his own accountability.
Trailer: BLINDFIRE – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/13/20
Distributor: Outsider Pictures
Divine Love is an amped up, sexy and witty take on a future full of dance parties, ritualistic orgies, cults and fundamentalist Christianity, and a critique of today’s right-wing led Brazil.
Trailer: DIVINE LOVE – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/13/20
Distributor: Film Movement
An intimate look at the life and creative process of feminist, rebel and visual artist Audrey Flack over her often-controversial 40-year career.
Trailer: QUEEN OF HEARTS: AUDREY FLACK – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/13/20
Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment
Survival Skills is a lost police training video from the 1980s. Jim, the perfect policeman in a perfect relationship in a perfect community, gets in over his head when he tries to resolve a domestic violence case. Before long, the ugly underbelly of the ‘Good Guys in Blue’ begins to expose itself and Jim decides to take matters into his own hands.
Trailer: Survival Skills Trailer
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Release Date: 11/20/20
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures 
After an explosive fire claims the lives of 27 people at Bucharest nightclub, Colectiv, officials reassure the public that surviving victims will receive care in facilities that are “better than in Germany.” Weeks later, a rising causality count leads intrepid reporters at the Sports Gazette to investigate. Just as a crucial tip exposes Hexi Pharma, a local firm’s culpability, the firm’s owner dies under mysterious circumstances and the health minister quietly resigns amid the uproar -but this is only the first chapter in a thrilling, ever-twisting exposé. Closely tracking the efforts of the Gazette team as they methodically discover layer upon layer of fraud and criminal malfeasance, Alexander Nanau’s COLLECTIVE is a fast-paced, real-time detective story about truth, accountability, and the value of an independent press in partisan times.
Trailer: Collective – Official Trailer
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Release Date: 11/20/20 (Film Forum); 11/27/20 (national)
Distributor: Janus Films
An intoxicating, time-bending experience bathed in the golden glow of oil lamps and wreathed in an opium haze, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s gorgeous period reverie traces the romantic intrigue, jealousies, and tensions swirling around a late 19th century Shanghai brothel, where the courtesans live confined to a gilded cage, ensconced in opulent splendor yet forced to work to buy back their freedom. Among the regular clients is the taciturn Master Wang (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), whose relationship with his longtime mistress (Michiko Hada) is roiled by a perceived act of betrayal. Composed in a procession of entrancing long takes, Flowers of Shanghai evokes a vanished world of decadence and cruelty, an insular universe where much of the dramatic action remains tantalizingly offscreen—even as its emotional fallout registers with quiet devastation.
Trailer: FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI – Janus Films
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INTERVISTA (4K Restoration)
Release Date: 11/27/20 (Film Forum)
Distributor: Janus Films
Something of a late-career companion to 8½,Federico Fellini’s penultimate film is a similarly self-reflexive (and self-deprecating) journey through both the director’s dream life and his cinematic world—which are, here as always in Fellini’s work, inextricably entwined. In Rome to make a documentary about the great filmmaker, a Japanese camera crew follows Fellini on a tour through his longtime home studio of Cinecittà as the maestro’s memories and fantasies unfurl in a dizzying, dazzling, time-bending love letter to the art and spectacle of moviemaking. The film’s sprawling vision even makes room for an appearance by Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg who, in an unforgettable bit of movie magic, relive their iconic Trevi Fountain scene from La dolce vita, lent new poignancy by the tacit acknowledgement of time’s passing.
Trailer: INTERVISTA – Janus Films
Tickets available at Film Forum

Release Date: 11/27/20
Distributor: Distrib Films
Over a trio of summers, a caretaker for luxury condominiums (Regina Casé) relies on her resourcefulness and her eye for opportunity to take advantage of whatever comes her way, in Sandra Kogut’s (Campo Grande) humorous and inventive episodic feature. Showcasing the rare talents of Brazilian acting legend Regina Casé — star of The Second Mother and TIFF ’00 selection Me You Them — the latest feature from director Sandra Kogut (Campo Grande, TIFF ’15) is a brilliant comedy about gross class disparity and the infinite resourcefulness of those who can never take anything for granted.
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Release Date: 11/27/20
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
With unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and all archival footage, ZAPPA explores the private life behind the mammoth musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time. Alex Winter’s assembly features appearances by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa and several of Frank’s musical collaborators including Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, Ray White and others.
Trailer: Releasing on 10/28
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October Holdovers
HERB ALPERT IS… | Find tickets here

Circle Collective
MY NAME IS PEDRO | Find tickets here 

Film Movement
ONCE UPON A RIVER | Find tickets here
WHITE RIOT | Find tickets here
GOD OF THE PIANO | Find tickets here

DEEP IN VOGUE | Find tickets here

50 YEARS OF FABULOUSNESS | Find tickets here

Juno Films
RADIUM GIRLS | Find tickets here

FIRE WILL COME | Find tickets here

Kino Lorber
BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS | Find tickets here
MARTIN EDEN | Find tickets here
NATIONTIME (1972) | Find tickets here
NATIVE SUN (1951) | Find tickets here

Magnet Releasing
12 HOUR SHIFT | Find tickets here

Magnolia Pictures
ALONE | Find tickets here 
AMULET | Find tickets here
THE FIGHT | Find tickets here
JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE | Find tickets here
OUT STEALING HORSES | Find tickets here
RBG | Find tickets here

Outsider Pictures
COMING HOME AGAIN | Find tickets here

BELLY OF THE BEAST | Find tickets here