On an average day, customers would start streaming into The Frida Cinema about midday, buying tickets to the indie films that generally screen only there, at Orange County’s lone nonprofit art-house movie theater.
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But now, because average (AKA normal) is long-gone-and-far-away, it’s the movies that are streaming into patrons’ homes, rather than audiences going to Santa Ana.
The Frida is carrying on as a virtual theater, and that’s helping, at least a little, to keep it afloat. It’s a story of perseverance and of people pulling together through exceedingly difficult times. Since late March, The Frida website has been posting links to about 15 diverse movies a week, thanks to the films’ distributors making them available to The Frida and 300 or so other art houses across the United States.
Recent showings have included a compilation of best-of cat videos; the Chinese neo-noir thriller “The Wild Goose Lake”; the documentary “The American Nurse”; and “Thousands of Pieces of Gold,” a 30-year-old acclaimed but overlooked film about a young Chinese woman who is transported against her will to the American West in 1880. The movies’ distributors and The Frida are splitting revenue from the tickets, which run between $5 and $10. Some movies are free.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share films that will provide funds for us,” said Logan Crow, The Frida’s founder and executive director. “But, too, I’m grateful just to be able to put these films out there. That’s our mission.”
Crow recalled how he watched with growing alarm as the news about the deadly novel coronavirus became increasingly worse. He and the staff started hourly cleaning. They put out individual sanitizing wipes for patrons to take and those were “starting to fly.” Then came the announcement that people could be positive for the virus without showing any symptoms. That was the turning point, Crow said. The theater’s monthly showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was scheduled for Friday, March 13, and it was sold out.
“Our ‘Rocky Horror’ audience skews younger, and at that time there was still this early misconception that the virus didn’t affect younger individuals — but even then I was concerned about the possibility that no matter how thoroughly we sanitized after the show, older guests might come in the next morning and potentially be contaminated. Then as show night approached … we were starting to learn that people could be asymptomatic for over a week, yet still contagious,” Crow said. At that point he told Trevor Dillon, the theater’s programmer: “I feel we’re being irresponsible at this point. I think we should close.”
“Rocky Horror Picture Show” was the last hurrah. The theater, which has two 215-seat spaces, temporarily shut down the next day. Governor Newsom issued his shelter in place order less than a week later.
And then, a ray of hope. Crow spoke with executives from Kino Lorber, a New York City-based distribution studio that is one of their main film suppliers. The cascade of art-house movie closures incited them to take action. They came up with a streaming, shared-revenue plan. Kino Lorber director of marketing Nick Kemp readily admits this arrangement helps them as much as it does the theaters.
“We are committed to making sure that art-house theaters survive this and are still around when we come out the other side,” Kemp said, via email. “We simply cannot release the types of films we do — award-winning international, documentary, indie and classic cinema — without them. So we are beyond proud of the work we’ve done with Kino Marquee allowing over 300 theaters to continue to bring quality films to their patrons via ‘virtual cinemas’ and generate revenue while their doors are closed.”
Other distributors have followed suit. Crow said he and his employees have been incredibly busy making the switch to the new format. He wanted to make it as easy as possible for patrons to make decisions about what to watch, so their website has long descriptions of each movie, embedded trailers and snippets of film reviews.
“I think the studios deserve recognition. They could have gone straight to Amazon or Netflix. Instead they took the initiative to partner with little art houses to put the films in front of their audiences in such a way that (the art houses benefit),” Crow said.
When it comes to programming for a pandemic, Crow said he and Dillon are operating almost as they normally would. They’re trying to offer as wide a range of movies as possible. He did recently turn down a French film because of its explicit sexual content. He ordinarily might have shown it at the theater, but he didn’t want to risk the possibility that a child might walk into the room while adults were watching it.
“We try to program for people and their interests. The more high-brow, Merchant Ivory crowd doesn’t really come to The Frida,” he said. “At the same time, I feel let’s be a little more embracing of every genre that’s out there.”
Crow had to lay-off one part-time employee, cut the pay of two workers and furlough two others — but only for one week. He applied for, but didn’t get, money from the trillion-dollar federal relief programs Congress passed. But he did receive a Small Business Administration disaster loan. He’s been fundraising, too, which has allowed him to pay his employees’ health benefits nonstop.
This Friday, Crow is putting up 14 movies, the most they’ve done at once. Highlights include the New York International Children’s Film Festival, the Sundance-selected documentary “Spaceship Earth” and Rialto Pictures’ restorations of classics “Rififi” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.” So far, they’re getting about 50 viewers a week, Crow said. That’s a fraction of the monthly average of 2,300 patrons.
On the other hand, they’re now showing about double the number of movies they’d usually program. Crow said it’s possible they’ll continue some streaming even after The Frida safely re-opens — however and whenever that happens.
“Obviously, we could use more viewers,” he said. “At home, you have every option under the sun to watch. The general consensus (from viewers) is ‘I rented this to support you guys, but this was awesome.’ I’m so glad. Try to think of this as more than just a way to help The Frida. These are very good, really acclaimed films across all the genres.”
Laura Bleiberg is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.