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Local Utah theaters stream films online, replicating in-person experience until pandemic subsides

During the COVID-19 pandemic, studios were forced to slow down production, preventing new movies from releasing into the Hollywood pipeline. Highly anticipated films like “James Bond: No Time to Die,” “Black Widow,” and “Dune” — all of which were expected to release in 2020, but have yet to hit the big screen — were postponed as theaters closed to adhere to public health requirements. 

The movie theater industry has been one of the most impacted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Business Insider. 

Local cinemas contemplate survival as large theaters shut down

Within the movie theater industry, there is a niche group classified as art-house cinemas, meaning they show films that are not made for large entertainment. Rather, they are created for the art of filmmaking. 

These theaters often have a passionate fan base and community surrounding them, like The Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS).

The SLFS is a local organization that runs and operates two of the biggest independent theaters in Salt Lake City: The Tower and Broadway Centre Theatres. The nonprofit organization raises money to show films at no cost for over 26,000 people in the community.

When the pandemic hit in mid-March of 2020, SLFS CEO and President Tori Baker said she knew that a lot was about to change within the community.

“Right out of the gate, I committed to a six-week closure and people thought I was crazy,” Baker said. “At the time, I was very much of the mindset that if you are going to have to shutter the venues, then you also don’t want everyone sitting around twiddling their thumbs. You want to do meaningful work. I really wanted my staff to just have six weeks to work on something else.”

Those six weeks turned out to be an underestimation, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged across the globe for more than a year — with the U.S. reporting thousands of cases each week. Soon after Baker initiated the six-week hiatus, the realization of how long it would take to recover began to set in.

“That was the thing at the time: All motion picture cinemas will be open in July and they will open with ‘Tenet,’” Baker said. “As July came around, it was evident that this was going nowhere fast and we were looking at a really, really long recovery and possibly an extended shuttering. I went to the board and I said, ‘All right, I really want your commitment for a long term shuttering.’” 

The underwhelming box office numbers for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in August 2020 demonstrated just how long it may take to recover — causing studios to further invest in releasing movies straight to streaming services instead. This shift soon caught on, with platforms like Disney+ and HBO Max releasing films to streaming customers rather than the theaters first. 

SLFS creates makeshift home theater through online streaming

This move reflected a larger change within the film industry, showing that the ‘movie-going experience’ isn’t dependent on the physical theater anymore. 

“As an art-house cinema, we are always looking for ways to innovate and keep up with times,” Baker said. “When movies stop being shown on film and switched to digital, we had to change our business model and the same can be said for streaming services.” 

One of the biggest projects the SLFS took on during the pandemic was its new online platform, SLFSathome.org. The purpose was to allow the community to connect through the art of cinema despite not gathering in person.

To watch a movie, patrons must register online and send a donation. Donations can be however much the patron wishes, and the proceeds go to the filmmakers and SLFS.

The website hosts a collection of movies for on-demand streaming, as well as scheduled showtimes to watch movies in real-time with others and communicate through a chat feature. Baker said this was meant to replicate the movie theater experience.

“[We] didn’t want a regular streaming channel, but to create a literal additional screen for the SLFS that happened to be on a digital platform,” she said. “It works the same way as if you were going to the Broadway or Tower theater in that the films are curated by our staff, and you have the opportunity to donate and support us, or to become a member. And, of course, you get to watch your movie.”

The makeshift home theater has supported over thirty cinemas around the country to continue operating on some level.

“I think of it as our eighth screen, and right now it’s the only screen,” Baker said. “So it has a lot of movies on it. Once we reopen the theaters, maybe it will be directed towards individuals or groups who can’t leave their homes due to health or other reasons. So we will continue to help art houses around the country with that innovation.”

Local theaters adapt other events to the online world 

The SLFS also hosts a number of cultural tours every year, showcasing films from specific cultures and ideologies. These events, which theaters typically host at their physical locations, have all been adapted to an online viewing experience. The next upcoming event is the Māsima film tour from March 26 – April 1, which will showcase films from the Pacific Island regions.

“We wanted to keep on producing these events even during the pandemic and, at first, it felt like a loss doing it online,” Baker said. “What we started to realize was that being online opened a lot of doors […] When we did these in person, we would often try to fly out a director or actor from the opening night show. Now that everyone is used to doing Zoom, we have had 19 panels this year with multiple artists on at a time, which would’ve never been possible as a nonprofit.”

SLFS still has its brick-and-mortar theaters closed but has positioned itself to reopen when the pandemic has subsided. Even in the age of digital streaming, the SLFS is confident its innovation in the art of cinema will continue to keep things operating throughout the duration of COVID-19. 

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Jack is a third year communication major. He is from Portland, Oregon and he loves the outdoors. He is passionate about film and design.

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