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Williamstown's Images Cinema Offers Movies at Home During Shutdown
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:58AM / Thursday, April 02, 2020
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A publicity still from 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band,' which begins screening online this week from Images Cinema.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For decades, operators of movie theaters have been competing against home entertainment.
 
First there was television, then cable, then VCRs, then streaming services.
 
Movie houses have not given up on trying to beat 'em. But in the age of COVID-19, it cannot hurt to join them. … At least temporarily.
 
In late March, Images Cinema, the century-old theater on Spring Street, began offering first-run independent films through various distributors that patrons can watch on their computers or internet-enabled televisions.
 
The new approach to engaging audiences came about fairly quickly after Images, like a lot of businesses, was forced to close its doors in the middle of the month, according to the theater's executive director.
 
"It really was not something that was at the front of anyone's mind a month ago, and then as we all just adjusted so quickly things change day by day," Doug Jones said. "One of the big concerns for independent theaters because we're often so community-based, is we have a very loyal audience of film lovers and people who love the organization. That's true of Images and true of theaters across the country.
 
"But the thing that brings us together is getting together at the theater. When that was no longer able to happen, a big concern for a lot of people was how do we keep this community together in some way."
 
Currently, Images is screening two films online, the documentary "Fantastic Fungi" and "Bacurau," an action/adventure film from Brazil.
 
Either can be viewed through links on the Images Cinema website. "Bacurau" costs $12, which gets you a five-day pass to view the 131-minute film. "Fantastic Fungi" rents for $4.99, which gives you a 48-hour viewing window, or can be purchased for $14.99.
 
Part of whatever the user pays to view the film goes to the local movie theater.
 
"The traditional agreement we have with distributors is we show a film and split the ticket price," Jones said. "A percentage stays at Images and a percentage goes to the movie studio. This is the exact same thing. For every online rental or purchase someone makes through our Images-branded site, we get a percentage of the virtual ticket price."
 
Jones said the virtual distribution model developed quickly out of conversations between distributors and theaters, like Images, who network each year at the Art House Convergence conference, held each winter in Utah just before the Sundance Film Festival.
 
"All these independent theaters were out there saying: What do we do now?" he said. "At the same time, some of the small distributors were like: How do we get our movies seen now that the theaters aren't opening.
 
"A few of the distributors were on various streaming sites … usually for movies that had already been in theaters. Quickly, we all pivoted and said, what if we tried giving people access to these movies online - movies brand new to theaters. It's been a cascading thing."
 
The filmmakers, too, have bought into a new way to screen their work.
 
"With ‘Bacurau,' [Wednesday] the filmmakers are getting together through Zoom with one of the actors and doing a live Q&A people can tune in to and watch," Jones said. "Filmmakers are in a similar situation as all of us trying to adjust to the new situation.
 
"Right now, it's better for a film to be seen [online] than not seen at all. Nothing will match going to a movie theater, but it's better than a film sitting on a shelf for years and years and not finding an audience."
 
Jones said there are enough films in the virtual distribution pipeline to allow Images to entertain its audiences for the foreseeable future. The online model also has allowed Images to give its patrons a "second chance" to see "Fantastic Fungi," which screened at the Spring Street venue before the onset of social distancing.
 
On Friday, Images will begin streaming "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band," a music documentary that includes interviews for Robertson's collaborators like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Martin Scorsese.
 
Down the road, Jones has lined up Romanian comedy "The Whistlers" and American comedy "Saint Francis."
 
"We're being thoughtful about it," Jones said. "We don't want to throw everything out there at once. We're trying to schedule it out and give each film its due. Just because it's online, it doesn't mean it's not important and doesn't deserve the same love and care."
 
For now, Images is staying with the model of being a pass-through for the distributors, who are doing the work of setting up the platforms for viewing. That means different links and different pricing models for the local audiences. Jones said it is conceivable the theater could set up its own platform for online screenings, but that would require more technical know-how than the small business can bring to bear.
 
Instead, he is just happy to be able to continue offering cutting edge, independent films and maintain a connection to Images' audience.
 
"You can still gather together — albeit online — and still have great movies to talk about," he said. "It's never going to be the same as watching a movie in a movie theater, but when that's not a possibility, it's a pretty good alternative."
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