Art Houses Want Audiences Back. Can a MoviePass-Style Program Help?

There has been much hand-wringing in recent years about the impending death of art-house cinema. There was the moment several years ago, when small, independently owned theaters had to convert from 35-millemeter film to digital presentation; or the time in the wintry months of 2018 when the venerable Lincoln Plaza […]

There has been much hand-wringing in recent years about the impending death of art-house cinema.

There was the moment several years ago, when small, independently owned theaters had to convert from 35-millemeter film to digital presentation; or the time in the wintry months of 2018 when the venerable Lincoln Plaza Cinema closed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; and most recently there was the pandemic, which forced movie theaters big and small to shut down for months.

In each case, a scattering of disheartening news — venue closures, bankruptcy filings and the like — have been met with what Eugene Hernandez, who runs the programs put on by Film at Lincoln Center, called “glimmers of hope.” New spaces often emerge, new audiences attend screenings and this time, after having more than a year to assess and reflect, he said, “People are thinking differently about how to preserve this art-house culture we all cherish so much.”

One new idea made its U.S. debut on Friday in New York. The streaming service Mubi, which caters to cinephiles seeking an eclectic mix of films, has begun offering a membership program that will seek to give art-house fans much of what they could want in one tidy package: A well-stocked streaming service that movie lovers can flip on from home, bundled with a weekly ticket they can use to go see a handpicked film at their favorite theater.

Put more bluntly, the program, known as Mubi Go, mashes up the membership concept behind MoviePass and the at-home streaming convenience of Netflix for those with a taste for international and independent cinema. But the real key, officials emphasized, is actually something else: Curation.

“We are about picking good movies for people and trying to get people to watch them,” said C. Mason Wells, Mubi’s director of distribution in the United States. “We want to take our findings and share them with the masses — bring the good things to a wider audience.”

The plan, Wells said, is to expand from New York during this crucial fall movie season to Los Angeles in 2022, and then on to select markets across the rest of the country. Mubi Go previously was unveiled in Britain in 2018 and in India in 2019. In Britain, the program has so far linked up with more than 150 art houses, all of whom have stayed with the program, Wells said.

As of Friday, Mubi Go members can go see one carefully selected, newly released film at a New York location — like Film Forum, Film at Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, IFC Center, Nitehawk Cinema or the Paris Theater — each week. Mubi buys the tickets for the films from the art houses, Wells said. Subscribers receive a ticket code generated via the Mubi Go app.

For a monthly fee, which is $10.99 for a limited time, they also have access to Mubi’s streaming platform. Mubi selects one new movie — often from far-flung corners of the world — to add to its platform each day. Mubi itself, which used to go by a different name, is now more than a decade old. The streaming service is already available in 190 countries and has more than 10 million members.

The program, which Mubi has billed as “the first-ever service of its kind,” is one attempt to boost small, independently owned film venues that, like their bigger chain-connected brethren, must regain their footing. It is also the latest test of whether tight controls on a subscription-based service for movie theater tickets can work in the wake of MoviePass’s meteoric rise and crash.

“We think it is valuable for people to be in an actual theatrical space,” Wells said. “It is the bedrock of the cinema industry. We’re trying to honor that.” Mubi Go, he added, was not originally intended to start out amid a pandemic. But given the timing, “it has become something that I think can become even more of a lifeline” for art houses “than we envisioned.”

Movie theaters around the country have been decimated by the pandemic, which has not discriminated based on size. The forced closures in 2020 brought national chains like AMC to the brink of bankruptcy while also undermining small, independent cinemas that were fighting to stay in business even before the coronavirus arrived.

“We’re in a shakeout of what the new landscape will be,” said Jesse Trussell, a senior programmer for film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “The darkest days were a huge struggle. As with just about any business, you don’t anticipate your entire revenue stream drying up all at once.”

It is not yet clear to what degree moviegoing will bounce back. Ticket sales appear to have been somewhat cannibalized by instant availability on streaming services and people did not return to the movies last fall at anywhere close to the numbers that Hollywood had hoped. As of this Labor Day, North American movie theaters had sold about $2.2 billion in tickets in 2021, compared with $7.8 billion for the same period in 2019, according to Comscore.

Wells acknowledged that some people have come to see “streaming as the enemy of theaters.” But one goal of Mubi Go, he said, is to foster collaboration “between different parts of the industry that normally see one another as a threat.”

“They all feed into the same thing,” he said. “If we are all getting more people excited about movies generally it’s a net win for everybody.”

Officials with some of Mubi Go’s new partnering cinemas say they like the program because its curatorial approach echoes their own.

Matthew Viragh, the founder and executive director of Nitehawk Cinema, said he sees Mubi Go as a “complementary system” that will help “fill in the cracks” during slower periods. Nitehawk plans to roll out its own membership program next year, he added.

More broadly, Rebecca Fons, the director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, said art houses and independent cinemas have survived for so long specifically because they customize their offerings to their audience members. Staff members know people’s names, can anticipate their concession orders, and the spaces become integral parts of the cities and towns they serve.

“We are not anonymous,” said Fons, who is also part of a working group that leads Art House Convergence, a nationwide association of film exhibitors. “We have a community that cares about us, just as we care about them. We offer that special personal touch.”

New York is the epicenter of art-house cinema, and in the period before the pandemic, there had actually been something of a boom for the sector. The Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn and the Metrograph in Manhattan had come on line alongside the Nitehawk Cinema, Film Forum and other more established sites. And the real estate developer and film distributor Charles S. Cohen finished a renovation of the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village around the same time the Landmark at 57 West opened its doors. (The Landmark closed last year.)

Trussell said BAM’s film program had been doing “quite well” before the pandemic. And while some industry leaders said it may be a little early to assess the reopening health of art-house cinema, they said they have already seen signs of pent-up demand and a slow build toward prepandemic levels of business.

Hernandez, who also is the director of the New York Film Festival, said ticket sales for the 17-night event this fall were as high or higher than 2019. Trussell said some of BAM’s recent events featuring guest filmmakers sold out its houses. Viragh said ticket sales at Nitehawk have at times reached prepandemic levels during the last month.

“We’ve had hard knocks before,” Fons said. “Netflix didn’t always exist and now it does. MoviePass was something that existed; it doesn’t exist anymore. Things continuously change in our industry. But the same thing is true: We turn the lights down and make the screen bright.”

Nicole Sperling and Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.

Dong Anker

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