Independent movie theaters have faced threats to their business models in the past, but probably didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.
Local theaters have hustled to adapt to changing times. Case in point: the 90-year-old Music Box Theatre in Lakeview. While watching a movie from home can’t replace the smell of buttery popcorn or the sticky floor beneath your feet, it’s become a way for small local theaters to survive.
The Music Box, which closed March 16, is among the small theaters that found a new revenue stream with a “virtual cinema space.” With the cooperation of distributors, the Music Box’s streaming service launched March 27 and currently offers five films. But while these streaming services provide a temporary financial lifeline, they are unlikely to be a long-term solution.
“When we closed our doors, suddenly there was no revenue coming in,” said Brian Andreotti, the Music Box’s director of programming. “In just a few weeks, people have gone from confusion, to a certain amount of panic, to coming up with a new concept of film distribution and putting it into action.”
Here’s how it works. Each distributor has its own way of approaching a streaming platform, but it’s usually an online ticket sale of about $10 to $12. The payment unlocks the film to be available for a designated period of time, which ranges from a day to a week. It’s similar to what you’d find from renting a movie on Amazon Prime Video, but the difference is some films are exclusively released to the “virtual cinemas.” These could be films that either were in theaters when venues closed, or films that were originally slated for a theatrical release during the pandemic.
And some venues, including the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, have taken streaming a step farther.
“We’re presenting one or more discussions a week, sometimes with the director, sometimes with other cast or crew, and people can participate in these Facebook discussions,” said Barbara Scharres, the center’s director of programming. “That’s definitely a part of the experience.”
“Theaters had to adapt”
The Music Box Theatre has survived several crises, including the Great Depression and multiple wars.
“You go through the history of film, there’s always been crises,” Andreotti said. “And theaters had to adapt.”
This time, the stay-at-home order has changed the relationship between streaming services, independent art houses and movie-goers. However, Andreotti said he’s worried customers will become accustomed to watching films at home and won’t return to the theater.
And Scharres emphasized that streaming services aren’t a complete substitute for box-office ticket sales. While the online films have generated some interest, she said revenue is still far lacking to be profitable on its own.
She hopes patrons recognize the importance of preserving independent art houses.
“They do something that no other theaters do,” Scharres said. “We’re there to show people that film is a much bigger, broader, more exciting concept than what you would see if you limited your viewing to your local multiplex.”
Minju Park is a news intern at WBEZ.