Streaming Wars: Virtual Cinemas Offer Haven for Cinephiles and Struggling Theaters Alike

Indie Edition: This week, a look at the myriad "virtual cinema" initiatives aiming to bolster indie features and help save struggling cinemas.
A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask due to COVID-19 concerns walks by a shuttered movie theater in New York. Movie theaters may be closed, but friends are still finding ways to watch together while staying apart thanks to applications like Netflix PartyVirus Outbreak-Film-Virtual Viewing Parties, New York, United States - 21 Mar 2020
A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks by a shuttered movie theater in New York
John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

With streaming dominating the industry — and suddenly becoming the “new normal” in a changing world — IndieWire is taking a closer look at the news cycle, breaking down what really matters to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars, and how they’re pulling ahead.

By looking at trends and the latest developments, Streaming Wars Report: Indie Edition offers a snapshot of what’s happening overall and day-to-day in streaming for the indie set. Check out the latest Streaming Wars Report for updates to the bigger players in the industry.

This week: something different. While streaming at home has suddenly become the accepted standard in movie-watching, with plenty of big platforms (particularly Netflix and Disney+, which are reporting record-breaking subscriber numbers) making bank off a captive audience, not everyone is faring quite so well. When movie theaters began to shut down across the country, plenty of quick-thinking cinephiles recognized the massive toll that was about to be exacted on not just the people who love to watch movies in theaters, but the very employees who make such jaunts possible.

A number of funds sprung up in the weeks that followed, including the Art-House America Campaign, the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, and more. (Learn about those initiatives, plus more ways to help out struggling industry workers, right here.) And, almost immediately, there was something else: the proliferation of so-called “virtual cinema,” new programs that allow audiences to rent new releases or library titles online for a flat fee, with part of the revenue going to specific movie theaters (as chosen by the ticket buyer).

In recent weeks, virtual cinema offerings have exploded, with indie distribution labels like Kino Lorber, Film Movement, and Music Box Films making early, smart claims to the market, and other outfits, theater chains, and even festivals jumping into a burgeoning space as a means of supporting the theatrical experience even as theaters remain closed.

"Spaceship Earth"
“Spaceship Earth”Neon

It might also provide a template for the evolution of transactional VOD: While it remains unclear how many people have been tuning in, some distributors have reported encouraging results. This past week, Neon announced plans to release its Sundance acquisition “Spaceship Earth” via a virtual cinema release, extending the offer to other small businesses such as bookstores and restaurants in addition to theaters. The company’s CEO, Tom Quinn, told IndieWire that he had seen figures for virtual releases that “that reflect a very solid regional theatrical weekend for a theater that has an engaged specialized audience.”

Below, check out a list of virtual cinema offerings around the country, including individual distributors getting into the fray, assorted theaters staying open for virtual biz, and much more. Find your favorite local theater, and if you’d like to support it — as well as the struggling exhibition community — consider their options. This list will be regularly updated.

Distribution Labels


The boutique label announced this week that it will be pursuing a new spin on virtual cinema: offering up its “Spaceship Earth” through “virtual screenings in which you, your business, institution, non-profit, etc., can screen the film and receive half the proceeds of every ‘ticket’ you sell, just like a theater would.” It’s the first foray into the virtual space for the home of such films as “Parasite” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” but likely not the last.

Kino Lorber’s Kino Marquee

One of the first distributors to get into the virtual cinema space, the boutique label is currently offering a raft of festival and restored gems, from “Bacurau” and “Beanpole” to this week’s re-release of Nancy Kelly’s underseen standout “Thousand Pieces of Gold.” Kino Marquee currently works with over 300 art house theaters across the nation, and tickets are easy to purchase at the label’s well-organized site.

Bacurau movie

Film Movement Plus’ Virtual Cinema

Piggybacking on the label’s growing streaming platform, Film Movement Plus, the newly launched virtual cinema addition boasts a variety of festival hits and international offerings, from “The Wild Goose Lake” to “Zombi Child,” all available through dozens of theaters around the country.

Music Box StreamLocal

Another early adopter, Music Box Film’s virtual cinema arm is currently hosting screenings of “And Then We Danced” and “Eating Up Easter,” all available through a constantly updating list of local theaters.

Greenwich Entertainment

The indie outfit has already released three films via virtual cinema, including hit “The Booksellers,” with more on the way.


FilmRise is already hosting some festival favorites via virtual screening, including “Driveways” and “The Dog Doc.”

Grasshopper Film

Grasshopper is currently hosting a robust slate of festival favorites, including “Vitalina Varela” and “The Hottest August,” with all proceeds getting split with their respective theaters. “Tickets” equal a 3-day rental period for each title, a steal at any price.

Magnolia Pictures

Magnolia’s site makes it easy for cinephiles to either pick by film (including current titles like “The Whistlers” and “Slay the Dragon”) or by theater (including dozens of locations around the country). All rentals are good for 30 days total and 72 hours after you begin watching.

Bleecker Street

Sally Potter’s “The Roads Not Taken” was just gearing up for theatrical expansion when theaters started closing up, and Bleecker swiftly moved the Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning drama to the virtual space, with showings at theaters like Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas, CMX Cinemas, Bow Tie Cinemas, Laemmle Theatres, Studio Movie Grill, and more.

“Saint Frances”Oscilloscope Laboratories


O-Scope has already launched a clever package deal for bored home-dwellers with its Circle of Quarantine, which offers viewers 10 Oscilloscope titles for digital download, and the distributor has also started moving into the virtual theater space, launching screenings of its charming “Saint Frances” at local art house theaters around the country. Hybrid documentary “The Infiltrators,” which explores the immigration crisis, will join it on May 1.

Theater Chains and Individual Theaters

New Plaza Cinema

The rebooted Lincoln Plaza Cinema is hosting a number of films from the Kino and Film Movement libraries, including “Beanpole,” “Mephisto,” “Confidence,” and many more. All movies are available for $12 per household or device and will be available for 3 days or 5 days once tickets have been purchased.

Laemmle Theatres

The SoCal art house chain is currently hosting a number of indie films from a wide variety of boutique labels, from “And Then We Danced” and “Fantastic Fungi” to “Extra Ordinary” and “Saint Frances.” As is the case with all current virtual cinema offerings, ticket prices, length of rental, and split with the theater are determined by each distributor, but the deep listings promise something to suit all tastes.

Alamo Drafthouse’s Alamo-at-Home

The beloved national chain is hosting first-run screenings of films like “Porno” and “Straight Up,” as well as classic choices like “Roar” and “Reefer Madness” and even new editions of their signature programs like Weird Wednesday and Terror Tuesday.


Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema

Boasting both new releases (including a wonderful selection of festival favorites from all over the map) and essentials, FLC’s new virtual space is filled with a wealth of options. This week, there are new screenings of French drama “Someone, Somewhere” and the Icelandic heartbreaker “A White, White Day,” plus a number of already-scheduled picks to round out the next few weeks. Rental prices vary, but 50 percent of all proceeds go to FLC.

Arclight Cinemas

The popular chain has retrofitted its robust Q&A offerings for a new venture into the virtual world, and is currently hosting screenings of the Magnolia documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” complete with a chat with subject Robertson himself. Fifty percent of the net proceeds will go directly to the theater.


The iconic San Francisco theater is hosting an enviable selection of indie features from many of the distributors listed above, with many also arriving complete with brand-new Q&As.


The non-profit Chicago institution is currently playing home to screenings of features like “Earth,” “Heimat Is a Space in Time,” and “Extra Ordinary,” with more to come.

Maysles Documentary Cinema

The Harlem-based doc haven has lined up a selection of exciting new documentary films, from “Slay the Dragon” and “Earth” to “Mossville: When Great Trees Fall,” many of them including new Q&As and even live Zoom sessions.

“Zombi Child”

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center

The Maryland-based outfit of AFI has a number of films available for virtual consumption, with new titles being added all the time. On deck this week: “Zombi Child,” “2 Weeks in Lagos,” and “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” and many more.

Festivals and Other Orgs


The annual festival is offering up two ways to support its films and work: the org runs intimate 30 seat Tin Pan Theater, which is now hosting virtual screenings followed by regular filmmaker conversations on Facebook Live.  Plus, BendFilm is doing revenue share with alumni filmmakers who want to host their films in its brand-new streaming library.

Virtual Art House (Oxford Film Festival and Film Movement)

Fans of the delightful Oxford Film Festival and Film Movement’s deep library can enjoy a real two-fer with the newly launched Virtual Art House, which allows viewers to support both organizations in one go, renting films like “Beanpole” and “Corpus Christi.” (Also of note: OFF is also kicking off its brand-new Weekly Virtual Film Festival series, showcasing films that were programmed for the 2020 edition of the popular film festival, just this week. Take a look right here.)


HamptonsFilm, the home of the lauded Hamptons International Film Festival, is now offering virtual tickets to a variety of Magnolia films, including “Once Were Brothers,” “Slay the Dragon,” and an upcoming run of the latest Ken Loach drama, “Sorry We Missed You.”

Woodstock Film Festival

The New York-based festival is diligently crafting an all-new virtual film and conversation schedule, focused on films from festival alumni.

Keep streaming, and stay safe out there.

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