Atlanta’s Indie Film Community Faces COVID Head On
On Friday the 13th, owner of Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre, Chris Escobar, had a funny feeling. That night, Escobar attended a pop-up art show at the theatre. The event was hosted in part with Videodrome and the Chicago-based Deadly Prey Gallery. Hand-painted movie posters from Ghana covered every square inch of wall space. This was Plaza’s second year hosting the event; last year was so successful with so many paintings sold that Escobar expected a huge turnout this time, hopefully, around 350 people. But, the event also marked one of the first nights Plaza enforced new social distancing guidelines in light of the new coronavirus. Instead of the animated crowd expected, the actual turnout was lackluster. Escobar noticed how people kept apart, how friends didn’t touch when they greeted each other or get too close when admiring the bright paintings.
“We only had, like, 80 people there,” Escobar said. “I could see the change in everyone.”
Across the city, filmmaker Chris Hunt had the same funny feeling. At the studio where he worked, a steady anxiety had been growing among crew members all week. They had just finished working on three shows and were slammed with the work of prepping for two more shows in just a few days. As they worked, signs of the virus started to creep in. People had stopped shaking hands when they saw each other in the hallway; instead, they’d greet one another with friendly, albeit odd, elbow bumps.
That same Friday the 13th, the studio Hunt worked for announced it was shutting down. Just six days after that fateful Friday, everything changed for good.
On March 19th, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued two executive orders, including one that mandated the closure of all movie theatres, effectively closing Plaza’s doors until further notice.
Months after the studio shut down, Hunt said that while the studio effectively communicated with workers about what might happen in the future, the spike in cases in places like New York City left him on edge. “Just the nature of what we all know about [COVID-19] is so abstract: a horrifying thing that floats in the air,” he said. “That type of [expletive] doesn’t go away very quickly.”
Escobar’s days at the office and the nights of events, screenings and premieres have been replaced by endless emails and phone calls from home; all while keeping his four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter occupied. His days have become devoted to keeping his family and Atlanta’s oldest independent theatre afloat.
“I’m endlessly scanning through websites, loan programs and grant programs,” he said. “[I am] constantly reworking projections.”
Escobar’s focus right now is keeping the theatre in business, and Hunt’s is figuring out how on earth he’ll promote the projects he recently finished up. Throughout the Atlanta film industry, anxiety is rampant about what the longterm effects of a pandemic will be. As video-on-demand (VOD) and streaming platforms experience a spike in already booming popularity, the independent film community in Atlanta and across the United States faces increasing uncertainty about when people will feel comfortable enough to gather in a movie theatre again, and whether the demand and output will be the same.
THE RISE OF STREAMING IN THE FACE OF COVID-19
One Saturday in April, after Plaza closed, Escobar and his two children headed to the theatre. Some core employees were there, but otherwise the place was empty; perfect for a private screening.
After firing up one of the projectors, Escobar presented Trolls World Tour for his children and streamed the film for them on their very own big screen. The Universal animated feature is the first major studio release to be pushed straight to VOD and marks a big test for theatrical releases going forward. The Monday after the movie’s April 10 release, Universal announced Trolls World Tour had the biggest digital debut ever for one of its films, performing ten times as well as the previous record holder Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
This move didn’t come without backlash. John Fithian, chief of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told the Hollywood Reporter in March that cinema owners were counting on studios to push back the release of big movies, signaling to movie-goers that theatrical release still held importance. The decision to move Trolls World Tour directly to streaming was a big blow.
Since the pandemic hit the United States, many studios have heeded the advice of cinema owners, pushing back releases of big-budget films. The new James Bond film, the live-action remake of Mulan, and the ninth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise were all delayed.
At the time, Universal was the only studio that elected to bypass theatrical release entirely, but some movies like Emma and The Invisible Man had their theatrical runs cut short so that more audiences would have a chance to view them from their homes.
This isn’t the first time the film industry has had to make tough decisions in the face of a global health crisis. When the Spanish flu hit the United States in 1918, theatres in many parts of the country closed. “Embargo on Releases of Moving Pictures,” read a headline in the October 10, 1918, issue of the Atlanta Constitution. The story reported that the National Association of Motion Picture Industries had decided to discontinue all motion picture releases after October 15th.
“Proprietors of motion picture theatres seemed to be divided in their opinion as to the purpose of the drastic action proposed,” read the article. “Some of them asserted that it was a move on the part of the producers to hold back their feature pictures until attendance at the theatres seemed normal and they thus are enabled to obtain higher prices for their release.”
While the two pandemics share uncanny similarities, studios back then didn’t have the option of pushing new releases straight to VOD. But, regardless of what studios choose to do now, streaming platforms aren’t always accessible for indie filmmakers and their films.
In an interview with the Observer on March 27th, Kyle Greenberg, the president of the New York-based distribution and marketing firm Circle Collective, said while streaming platforms will speed up the distribution process for big studios, indie filmmakers don’t have a direct, quick pipeline to digital streaming. There’s also the issue of getting someone from that platform to watch your film in the first place.
“Some of these platforms are much more heavily gated than others,” the founder of RoleCall, an Atlanta-based virtual film studio for independent filmmakers, Stephen Beehler said. RoleCall started out in 2018 as a crowdsourcing option for filmmakers looking for casting, props, crew members, and anything else filmmakers would need. Now, the company has its own independent theatre at Ponce City Market, but it was only open for 31 days before the city forced its closure.
In response to COVID-19 and the lockdown that followed, Beehler launched RoleCall Watch, a subscription
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