After theaters were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Oak Cliff’s Texas Theatre had to pivot to a new business model. It began collaborating with independent film distributors to stream online the films it had planned to show onscreen—whether reruns, premieres, or anything in between. A simple process, it’s basically Amazon Prime for renting indie films and supporting one of your local independent theaters. You buy an online ticket to a so-called virtual screening. The movie is available to view for 72 hours after purchase. The theater didn’t open despite Gov. Greg Abbott lifting his order barring cinemas from hosting guests.
“There is somewhat of a national initiative on this [virtual screening] concept with regards to this thing called the Art House Convergence, which is like a collective of independent movie theaters across the country that talk together, that work together, that come up with ideas,” says Barak Epstein, one of the Texas’ owners. “And a lot of the independent distributors that have a lot of the independent films saw that there was a need for this. And they want to support their theatrical partners in this way.”
Art House Convergence, a nonprofit based in Michigan, is similar to a guild (in the medieval definition). Aiming to support independent theaters, it’s currently connecting them with the resources they need, from small business loans to arts funds. And also, as Epstein pointed out, with independent film distributors looking to make their movies available over the internet—yet via an art house theater.
After all, independent film distributors and independent movie theaters have a symbiotic relationship that incentivizes mutual survival: Without the theaters, the distributors would have a hard time landing their films in super-sized theaters focused on budget-bursting blockbusters. Without the distributors, independent theaters wouldn’t have much of a purpose.
Although virtual cinema has brought in some revenue, Epstein admits that “it cannot, nor was it, designed to replace the revenue we would receive by being open for regular business and with customers purchasing bar and concessions.” To further supplement income, and to kind-of, sort-of replace concession purchases, The Texas Theatre is selling “home survival cinema kits,” which—depending on how much you pay—include candy boxes, popcorn, a Texas Theatre pin, sticker, and t-shirt, as well as a cloth mask made by the Bishop Arts fashion boutique Harkensback.
Other Dallas independent theaters, such as the Angelika Film Center and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, have adapted similarly, adopting streaming as the interim normal for presenting indie films both old and new to the niche audiences they attract.
Alamo Drafthouse partnered with distributors such as Kino Lorber, Film Movement, and Magnolia Pictures to digitally release a few new films. They also partnered with American Genre Film Archive to virtually continue offering their “signature cinephile series” Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday. Dubbing the venture “Alamo-at-Home,” the national theater chain with Texas roots even shared on YouTube the recipe for their vegan Buffalo Cauliflower snack—which recipe was even customized for the home kitchen.
For those less interested in retro terror, weirdness, and trippy horror, the Angelika has continued its typical, i.e. newer, critically acclaimed indie films. For example, The Wild Goose Lake and The Whistlers, Chinese and Romanian crime thrillers, respectively, and official selections for the 2019 Festival de Cannes; as well as Polish redemption story and Oscar nominee Corpus Christi (read our review here). Similar to The Texas Theatre, you rent the film for a period of time in which you can “screen” it; some movies you can purchase. The virtual cinema selection is available on the Angelika’s blog.
Alamo Drafthouse has a season pass to which members can continue paying fees. (Consider it a quasi-donation that will later pay dividends.) Angelika has no such program. They are, however, selling electronic gift cards of customizable amounts, which one can redeem when the theater reopens. But if, at this point, you’re sick of the virtual, you can buy something physical to support your favorite indie theater. Like a t-shirt. The Texas Theatre now sells quarantine-inspired graphic tees, alongside the standard sartorial offerings inspired by the Bell & Howell Zoomatic 8mm movie camera—with which Abraham Zapruder filmed the Kennedy association—and Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, which occurred in The Texas Theater.
As for Alamo Drafthouse, they just dropped t-shirts inspired the legendary Angry Voicemail. Who knows? By the time stay-at-home and social distancing are over and done with, we might all be giddily paying for the privilege to not be able to text and watch. Just to be, you know, “magnited” in a “little crappy-ass theater.”