For years, art-house film programmers discussed offering online home movies in addition to in-person screenings. But even after Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime began eating into movie theater revenue, those conversations were rarely urgent. For a nonprofit like Denver Film — which programs the Denver Film Festival; offers series including Film on the Rocks, Women + Film and Cinema Q; and schedules programming year-round at the Sie FilmCenter — there was always more than enough to do without adding another project to the list...especially one that might lure audiences even further from the big screen.
Then came COVID-19.
In an effort to protect public health, multiplexes and art houses alike closed their doors voluntarily, before all venues were shuttered by cities and states. And while theater managers grappled with the possibility of furloughs, layoffs and permanent closures, innovative programmers found ways to adapt to a world forced online — even as Netflix dominated the market.
Not long after the closing in mid-March, Denver Film and other art houses began partnering with indie film distributors on a virtual-cinema series, one in which theater patrons could rent a new movie for the price of a theater ticket and watch it at home.
“I’m really excited it’s been art-house, foreign and documentary films that have really grabbed this platform versus big-budget Hollywood stuff,” says Keith Garcia, artistic director at the Sie. “It’s just indicative of the fighting spirit of independent cinema.”
And Denver Film went beyond just offering movies. The nonprofit first partnered with DoorDash to create a dinner-and-a-movie deal, discounting delivery for theater patrons. And in recent weeks, as retail spots began to open up, the Sie began offering a Snacks to Go option, where patrons could buy a snack pack that includes popcorn, wine or beer, candy and other treats to take home and consume along with a movie.
But while Denver Film was among the first locally to shift to online screening options, national chains like Alamo Drafthouse also got into the virtual-cinema game, creating more competition for smaller, local entities. Not that Alamo is the biggest threat to art houses: Disney has been releasing movies early on Disney Plus, and Netflix has been keeping the bored public entertained with sensational documentary series like Tiger King and a host of original programming.
As Colorado reopens and movie theaters wait for guidance about when they can start reopening to patrons, Denver Film and other programmers think that the virtual-cinema model they've pioneered will probably hang around, too...providing another kind of competition.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Garcia says, "and we have to figure out how to work with it."
There are upsides to the at-home options, he adds. For some people with disabilities, a trip to the movies is not an accessible choice. Other potential patrons work odd hours that prevent them from going to screenings. And some longtime customers who haven't been able to make it to the Sie FilmCenter have now been able to support the institution again.
Garcia says that most of the programmers he's spoken to across the country don't foresee reopening before July — and that is optimistic. Large-scale live events are unlikely to come back anytime soon, Governor Jared Polis has told Coloradans in recent weeks.
“We’re just waiting to hear on guidelines for public gathering spaces and go from there,” Garcia says. “Yes, of course, everyone wants to be open with their business going. But we definitely are erring on the side of caution. We don’t want to do anything unless it’s 100 percent safe for our employees or our viewers.”
Film on the Rocks, the annual Red Rocks Amphitheatre blockbuster screening series that Denver Film programs with Denver Arts & Venues, the city's cultural agency, has been canceled. Both the city and the nonprofit are exploring the possibility of drive-in options.
“We’re trying to figure out how our biggest event of the year, the Denver Film Festival, is going to look and feel,” says Garcia. The annual event, which brings in more than 40,000 viewers, is likely to be a virtual experience — at least in part — in 2020.
“The other thing we’re having to plan for is that everything’s going to have to come back at a reduced capacity,” Garcia says. “The theaters that are open right now have to be at 30 percent capacity. You have to provide not just social distancing in the theater, but no one can sit in the row behind you or in front of you. You’ve got two seats or so in between where people sit.”
He and his fellow programmers are grappling with other sticky questions that spin off from there. Can people sit in the middle of a row if it means they will have to walk by fellow customers to use the restroom? Will people be required to wear masks? And if so, who will ensure they are following the policy — especially after the lights go down? And will theater-goers even want to return to the cinema? If so, when?
While Garcia collects answers to those questions, he says that no staffers have been laid off at Denver Film — although hourly workers were.
Alamo Drafthouse laid off or furloughed most of its local workers shortly after closing in March. The Austin-based Alamo launched a fundraiser for out-of-work employees; it's also selling merchandise and running its online cinema. As for the fate of its three Denver-area venues, a spokesperson said the company is not ready to comment...though the chain is working on plans to reopen.
Landmark Theatres, the national art-house corporation that runs the Mayan, Greenwood Village, Esquire and Chez Artiste theaters, did not respond to requests for comment. "Landmark will be back to providing our customers and employees a healthy and safe environment as soon as possible," the company notes on its website.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In the meantime, Denver Film, which has been running its virtual cinema on distributors' websites, is looking toward shifting away from using those virtual platforms and building one of its own, to make things simpler for viewers. If it's successful, the nonprofit will be able use the platform for years to come — even when the theater is back in business.
“So far, 2020 is either a wash for most people or a complete adjustment,” Garcia concludes. “We don’t want anything to be a wash. We want to adapt and still produce what we’re doing for the community and film-goers, and do it as safely as possible and in as unique a way as possible.”
For now, that's online.
For a full list of current offerings at Denver Film's Virtual Cinema, go to denverfilm.org.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Denver Film laid off hourly workers.