By Josh Joseph
Long Island mushroom enthusiasts looking forward to seeing Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi may have been disappointed by the closure of all movie theaters in New York. But thanks to the efforts of the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington Village, they were able to join about 4,000 others for a nationwide virtual Q&A session with Schwartzberg and other fungus experts on March 26.
“At a time of social distancing, these … Q&As bring global connection to the mycelium network,” Schwartzberg said.
Remote sessions with creators and directors are one aspect of the Cinema Arts Centre’s new effort to move independent movies online amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cinema Arts Centre (CAC) opened in Huntington 47 years ago as a destination for the kinds of films that don’t premiere in big-screen chain theaters. The theater is also a space for local events, including interviews and commentary from filmmakers. After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s PAUSE order forced the theater to close on March 20, upcoming film screenings and events were suddenly canceled and some staff members were temporarily furloughed.
“This has been a very difficult crisis for us, and for any organization that’s rooted in the concept of community,” Dylan Skolnick, co-director of the CAC, said. “For every previous crisis, no matter what it was — things like 9/11 or hurricanes, snowstorms, whatever — the answer for what we could do for the community at that moment was to get open as soon as possible, and be here for them. And this has been a real challenge because it quickly became clear that what we needed to do for the community was close our doors.”
The CAC’s directors wanted to continue to serve their community despite their new physical limitations, so they partnered with independent film distributors to host virtual screenings. Through special links on the theater’s website, shared on social media, interested filmgoers can get temporary access to an online stream of a movie that would have screened at the CAC. The price of a virtual ticket ranges from $5 to $12, and the revenue split between the distributor and the theater is the same as a physical ticket.
“It’s been a way to keep providing a service for the community, to keep bringing films to our audience that would not otherwise be available, and to bring in a little needed income, because obviously, this is a moment where we have no other ticket income coming in the door,” Skolnick said.
To make these virtual screenings available, the relationship between film distributors and theaters like the CAC is flipped.
“Often, the distributors have the rights and they hand the film to us, and we have access to the audience,” Cat Kim, the associate director of the CAC, said. “It’s absolutely the opposite now. They’re the ones who are actually showing it to the audience. And although it is our audience, the box office report is actually through their system.”
Additionally, the CAC is producing original content to supplement the film catalog. Theater staff are regularly holding virtual film club meetings, where members engage in discussions over Zoom. A new digital series, called Forks and Films, will launch on April 9. Jacqueline Strayer, a board member, hosts the program, which features recipes from classic movies. Local restaurateur Martin Butera will prepare the dishes while Strayer discusses the background of each film.
“We wanted to do something that was simple, fun, easy for people to access,” Strayer said. “We’re not professional TV personalities … We’re shooting this on our phones. We’re uploading it using an app… It’s really that simple.”
This new content, as well as the virtual screenings, are designed to entertain and engage with the CAC’s tight-knit community, including those who pay for yearly membership to get discounted tickets. Although the theater is not currently honoring those discounts, it intends to retroactively offer credit for membership time lost once the physical location reopens.
“One thing that you miss by not being able to actually go is to see something with other people at the same time,” Louise Spangle, a paying member, said. “Sometimes, even if you don’t know the other people in the movie theater, it’s just a different experience, seeing the movie with other people as opposed to just watching it on your television… but [the virtual content] does sound like a nice idea.”
The current virtual screening lineup includes six films, including Fantastic Fungi, an Academy-Award drama, and a few documentaries. The selection will rotate through the coming months.