Neon’s biggest breakthrough to date — Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which won best picture and best international feature film at the Oscars this year — exemplified Quinn’s philosophy of filmgoing, which means “the communal experience of going to a theater and committing yourself to a filmmaker’s vision wholeheartedly for one or two hours with no breaks.” So when most American theaters closed in March, just as Neon was preparing to release its Sundance acquisition “Spaceship Earth,” Quinn faced an existential quandary.
“It seems like a very distant memory that we were at the Academy Awards celebrating ‘Parasite,’ which was a historical Academy Award for my favorite filmmaker in the world and his masterpiece, but was really about the power of cinema.” Just a few months later, he says, “that’s no longer possible. And for us, we’ve never released a film that wasn’t built around the sacred and committed power of theaters and exhibition.”
Some of Quinn’s fellow distributors are hanging on to their movies until they can play in theaters: A24, which had just released Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite period drama “First Cow” when theaters shuttered, decided not to release the film as a streaming title. Sony Pictures Classics has made it clear that it will not be releasing any new movies digitally.
“Without theatrical, the business disappears,” insists Sony Classics Co-President Tom Bernard, describing the typical life cycle of a film that goes from theaters to airplanes and hotels to video-on-demand and finally to cable. “All those stops unlock value,” Bernard says, “but it has to start with theaters” and the reviews, trailers and audience awareness they generate.
But some distributors are tinkering with the traditional theater-first formula. In the wake of coronavirus closures, small distributors like Kino Lorber, Oscilloscope, Film Movement and Music Box Films have seized an opportunity to release their films as digital links, often through art-house and independent theaters that have eagerly accepted a chance to earn some revenue and keep their homebound audiences engaged.
It’s an experiment that Quinn watched with interest and, after some soul-searching, has decided to join. “I was grappling with the extraordinary amount of uncertainty, and asking myself how we chart a path forward and what do we do now,” he recalls. “And it dawned on me that it’s more important than ever that we do our job and bring new films to market. . . . How do you do that in a virtual world with any semblance of the power of what we’ve done in the last few years? That’s the hard part.”
On Friday, “Spaceship Earth,” a documentary that chronicles the two-year Biosphere 2 experiment in closed-system, self-sustained living, will open virtually across a number of on-demand platforms. Neon has also pursued partnerships with theaters, bookstores, restaurants and museums that will provide links to the film on their websites. And “Spaceship Earth” will be shown in a handful of drive-ins that are open for business, thanks to the glorious self-isolation of the family automobile.
“Honestly, I don’t know if it’s going to work,” Quinn says, “but it’s been such a wonderful distraction in this current situation. It seemed to make sense to give it a shot.”
Quinn is banking on “Spaceship Earth’s” timeliness: What could be more relatable right now than a movie about a historic experiment in self-quarantining? But he’s also aware of some recent streaming success stories: Oscilloscope’s “Saint Frances,” which had just opened in theaters when they were forced to shutter, has made around $100,000 as a virtual release, reaching a much wider audience than would have been able to see it on the big screen. Similarly, “Bacurau,” a quirky political satire from Brazil that began streaming in mid-March after a brief theatrical run in New York, has earned Kino Lorber far more than it would have in a traditional theatrical revenue-share model, according to Chairman and CEO Richard Lorber.
One reason Lorber was able to pivot so quickly was that, nine months ago, he had launched Kino Now, an on-demand service that would be an “art house iTunes,” allowing patrons to stream or download one of the company’s 3,000 foreign and indie titles. Now, that entity has become host to the company’s new virtual cinema initiative Kino Marquee, which Lorber sees as a form of “filmanthropy,” but also a means of self-preservation for theaters.
“The scourge of art houses is the limitation of the number of screens,” Lorber explains. “Very few have more than two or three screens, some even only have one. Distributors like ourselves often have films that open strongly but get bumped in a week because the theaters have calendars and commitments to other companies to play their films at a particular time.” Virtual cinema, he notes, gives theaters a way to hold movies indefinitely. “We’ve moved from a screen-scarcity environment to screen plenitude. It’s almost a world of infinite screens.”
That might sound promising — especially to anyone who has read a rave review of a new independent film, only to discover it has left the theater by the time they get there. But not everyone is convinced that virtual cinema is a sustainable long-term strategy. Andrew Carlin, director of theatrical distribution at Oscilloscope, is wary of theaters creating a two-tiered system, whereby they save their main auditoriums for the Sony Classics, A24s, Searchlight Pictures and Focus Features of the world, and send films from smaller companies like his into the virtual ether.
“It’s already a struggle getting on screens in some of these markets,” Carlin says. “So if there’s effectively no need to get these smaller companies on screen, it would make what is already a challenging business even more challenging.”
And Carlin sees a more philosophical question at hand. “Over the past decade, you’ve had these major streaming platforms that have spent untold billions of dollars training audiences to stay home and consume entertainment from their couches,” he says. “I think we need to be thoughtful about using this virtual cinema model and not providing yet another reason for keeping people at home.” (This isn’t just an argument in the art-house world: After the success of “Trolls World Tour” as a digital release, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said its studio would continue that strategy even after theaters reopen; the country’s largest multiplex chain, AMC, promptly announced that it would refuse to show Universal movies.)
It also bears noting that the most successful virtual cinema releases thus far had the advantage of being promoted in theaters before they closed; the fate of films “opening cold” as digital titles has yet to be determined.
For now, Lorber believes, virtual cinema has provided a useful tool for the post-lockdown reentry period. “In the near future, when theaters do reopen, a sold-out show will be a theater that’s half full,” he says. “So we think theaters will still probably want to have some supplemental income. The possibility of duplex releases — some combination of virtual and physical — gives them that option.”
Past that, he observes, virtual cinema might offer audiences more time to see a highly regarded film. “The real value to the theaters is that when an art-house gem gets an inordinate amount of publicity and its footprint is bigger than its shoe size, it gets a chance to be on screen for more than a week,” says Lorber.
Quinn agrees that virtual cinema will be a permanent fixture within the cinematic ecosystem, if only because it provides a way to keep “true cinephiles” satisfied even after they’ve left the theater — which in turn will keep them coming back.
“It provides another way to engage,” he says. “And seeing more good films only begets more film watching.”