SALT LAKE CITY — Like almost every movie theater in the country, the screens of Salt Lake's Broadway and Tower cinemas went dark in spring of 2020 as the still mysterious but rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus broke into the public spotlight.
Amid sweeping shutdowns of U.S. businesses deemed "nonessential" film exhibitors large and small locked their doors for what most anticipated would be only a weekslong hiatus. The way it actually played out, however, was significantly more protracted, and global box office revenues plunged from a record $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020.
Every theater owner scrambled to find ways to survive and, as it turns out, the smaller operations proved to be both more nimble, and more innovative, when it came time to rethinking the business in conditions that continue to make crowd gathering a risky endeavor.
Salt Lake Film Society President and CEO Tori Baker said nonprofit art house cinema operators like hers represent just a small slice of that revenue in the U.S. and, unlike commercial multiplex operators, rely on connecting with their communities and building relationships with customers in lieu of the high-volume models that drive the big movie venues.
If you want to catch up with the latest Marvel superhero adventure, that opportunity is likely only as far away as your local shopping mall. But if you're more interested in, say, a repertory screening of the 1988 Japanese animated cult film "Akira," then the Salt Lake Film Society screens are going to have what you're looking for.
With a mission-based focus, the Salt Lake Film Society was created in 2001 "to make sure that all Salt Lake residents have access to a diversity of film that goes beyond the Hollywood mainstream and reflects the lives and cultures of everyone in our society," according to its founding documents.
Baker said when the Tower and Broadway theaters shut down on March 13, 2020, the new challenge was to figure out how to continue the society's role in the community — to educate, inform and promote diversity through film exhibition and creation — but in a way that allowed its customers to engage that programming from the safety of their homes.
"The (art house) industry response was pretty immediate," Baker said. While a handful of distributors of independent films found various methods to offer their titles through digital streaming portals, Baker said the new systems "flipped the business model upside down and we were now paying them instead of the other way around."
This solution also required Baker's organization to send customers to third-party sites to connect with the films, a pathway that was anathema to the society's goals.
"The greatest asset that an art house has is our patrons and our donors," Baker said. "We know who they are and what films they love. Sending them all away from the film community we've built together ... that was not the way to address the challenge."
Instead, Baker looked closer to home, leaning on the in-house technical expertise of Miles Romney, who heads the organization's Media Accelerator Studios, a content development program that works to assist, and retain, top Utah creator talent. Romney had already begun work on a digital streaming tool that was originally intended to be a platform through which small groups of filmmakers could share their work.
But, pandemic conditions created an urgent need to think bigger.
Romney said the ability to stream films to film society patrons via the new system was pretty much in place, but the tricky part was creating the ticketing/bookkeeping element that would allow the doors to be opened on the new digital screen.
"The financial aspect of projects like this is often the biggest challenge," Romney said. "We needed a way to collect money but also do things like recognize member discounts, allow customers to buy film bundles and other details."
Romney and his team quickly solved those puzzles and the new Salt Lake Film Society @home platform launched a beta test version only three weeks after the brick-and-mortar cinemas were idled.
The turnaround was, Baker said, nothing short of miraculous.
The first iteration of the @home service included a small group of art house cinemas from around the country whose input, Romney said, helped iron out bugs and make improvements to the platform. But, it was also a smash hit with the independent exhibitors and their customers thanks to not only reviving access to local film programming, but helping them all maintain that vital connection with the communities whose support was critical to their survival.
George Myers is the general manager and programmer for the nonprofit Amherst Cinemas in Massachusetts. He, like Baker, believed theater closures in spring of 2020 would be relatively brief but it became clear, a few weeks in, that it was going to be a much longer journey.
Myers said his four-screen operation took a shot at working with one of the film distributors who had set up a streaming platform but found numerous issues, including problems getting paid, in a system that inverted how the money used to flow.
That's about the time the Amherst Cinema was invited to participate in the Salt Lake Film Society's test of the @home platform.
"It was just what we were hoping for," Myers said. "It created a revenue stream that, while smaller, was steady and somewhat predictable and allowed us to bring some staff back on and mostly return to a pre-COVID-19 way of operating."
And, the @home service allowed Amherst Cinema, and the other participating independent movie houses, to choose and program their film offerings as they'd always done and present them, albeit on a digital screen, under their own marquee.
"As a nonprofit, maintaining connection with our audience and presenting the kind of programming they're interested in and responsive to is just so big," Myers said. "It's allowed to stay engaged in the act of fulfilling our mission."
The Salt Lake Film Society's @home platform has grown to almost three dozen cinema operations across the country as the group gets ready to reopen for in-person business at the Broadway and the Tower. Baker said her organization will continue to host and improve the @home streaming service, though how it's utilized is likely to evolve if, and when, having a big-screen film experience in an auditorium full of fellow enthusiasts gets back to what it used to be, before the unprecedented public health crisis.
For now, the marquee of the historic Tower Cinema touts an Oct. 22 reopening and Baker, along with the tens of thousands of fans who once enjoyed the group's programming every year, are ready for it.
"There's really nothing like the experience of seeing a great film in the dark at a venue you love," Baker said. "It's personal and shared at the same time ... and it's one of a kind."
For details on the Salt Lake Film Society's @home service and upcoming programming, including drive-in opportunities, visit slfs.org.