By Randy Myers
Bay City News Foundation
As movie theaters shutter and Bay Area film festivals ponder the next steps and new dates for some unknown time post-coronavirus, studios and indie distributors are breaking with their own traditions and moving their original features online.
Meanwhile, film festivals, theaters and indie filmmakers hit hard creatively and financially are regrouping and devising ways to stay afloat in an uncertain future.
The San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest-running film festival in the nation, canceled its 63rd season slated for April 8-20. (Last week, it did announce the program, which included tributes to Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan.)
Beyond special events, theater offerings are chains such as AMC and Regal, and indie theaters such as the Balboa and Vogue in San Francisco, and Oakland’s New Parkway, are shuttered.
“This is unprecedented in the 63-year history of this event, and we are devastated by this news,” the SFIFF team said in their announcement to patrons. “We remain champions of the filmmakers whose work we were planning to share with our audiences, and we intend to continue supporting them in reaching audiences in any way we can.”
Already, the International Ocean Film Festival canceled its March program at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco, while the San Francisco Silent Film Festival moved from April 29-May 3 to Nov. 11-15. And the Center for Asian American Media program, CAAMFest, slated for May 14-24, has postponed, with no new date announced.
Other film festivals — including Frameline, the largest LGBTQ festival in the world — could hang in the balance as well.
“From what I’m seeing, the film festival world and the creative community in general are all trying to reshift in this new normal,” said Masashi Niwano, CAAM’s festival and exhibitor director.
“Because the news continues to evolve on an hourly basis, it’s quite overwhelming and hard to solidify any real plans at this moment.”
And that fluidity triggers the need for hard choices and seeking innovative ways to reach entertainment-hungry audiences.
Niwano said, “We are exploring opportunities online to provide content to public that we know would enjoy thoughtful films and frankly, need a break during these trying times. I have seen some innovative and creative programming online — which is exciting. If anything, maybe this will push cultural arts organizations and film festivals to think about what types of programming we can continue to provide that could be experienced from peoples’ homes.”
As the harsh reality of financial hardships pile up, the artistic community could use support, he said. “Like most businesses, I know there are film festivals and filmmakers who are really hurting right now,” Niwano added. “Please support them in any way you feel comfortable with.”
Meanwhile,NBC/Universal Studios was among the first out of the major studios moviemaking gate to offer streaming of first-run titles, including, Autumn de Wilde’s sly take on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and Leigh Whannell’s eerie, terrific update of “The Invisible Man” with an Oscar-worthy turn from Elisabeth Moss over the weekend.
In perhaps the boldest news, the animated “Trolls World Tour” release from DreamWorks and with the voice talents of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, retains its April 10 release, but will debut online.
The most ingenious, certainly compassionate plan yet comes from the team behind the upbeat indie feature “Phoenix, Oregon.” To help indie theaters, the producers, filmmakers and distributors joined forces and asked viewers to go online to buy a ticket, with profits shared with the local indie theaters slated to show it.
The R-rated feature (so rated because of language) was set for release March 20 and stars one of indie films MVPs, actor James LeGros.
In the underdog tale perfectly suited for the times right now, two middle-aged friends, a graphic novelist and chef, take advantage of an unlikely opportunity to reinvent their lives by quitting their jobs to restore an old bowling alley into a joint serving great pizza parlor.
In a news release, the distributors encourage customers to visit www.phoenixoregonmovie.com and select the theater that will benefit from the screening. Purchase a ticket and then email a copy of the receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a one-time link and get a digital copy of the film when it is released over the summer.
In a prepared statement, producer Annie Lundgren said: “Several of our opening weekend theaters have welcomed our films and championed our careers for many, many years. During the next few weeks, we hope audiences will consider buying a ticket direct from one of these theaters with the option to watch from home.
“To create the most impact for theaters, this is open to anyone in the U.S. Movie fans may choose to support any theater screening ‘Phoenix, Oregon.’ (Currently, no Bay Area theaters are on the list.) This is different (from) a ‘day and date’ release in that all of the digital streaming revenues are shared directly with the theaters. This offer is open while COVID-19 restrictions exist,” she adds.