As cinephiles shelter, studios are catching on to virtual movie nights

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Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

This is a tough time to be a movie lover. Sure, the panoply of streaming platforms means there’s a wide world of films at our fingertips. However, the option of experiencing great cinema in a theater environment has been suspended indefinitely. Across America, movie theaters have closed their doors. Studios have bumped their big releases to months down the line and film festivals have been forced to cancel or postpone. So where can we shelter-in-place cinephiles go to experience the communal thrill of the theater experience? Online. There, studios, filmmakers and fans are finding ways new and old to create virtual movie nights.

Over the past weeks, Twitter has come alive with an unofficial screening series of Twitter Watch Parties. These are fairly informal affairs, where a shared start time and hashtag is announced so fans can tune in and leap into the conversation. Far from new, these Live Watch tweeting events mimic the exciting atmosphere that grew naturally out of the airing of television shows like Game of Thrones or RuPaul’s Drag Race. Log on within the hour that a new episode first airs and you do so at your own risk, for the night is dark and full of spoilers!

With an easy setup and a potentially enormous audience, Twitter Watch Parties for VOD and streaming movies are catching on quick. On Friday, March 27, four very different movies faced off with clashing Watch Party times. The film-reviewing app Letterboxd promoted a live-tweet of the critically acclaimed period-romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The fan-focused website Nerdist promoted a rewatch of the kooky 1985 comedy Clue, “hosted” by several of its staff via tweeted reactions. Valiant Comics celebrated the new-to-VOD release of the Vin Diesel-fronted superhero flick Bloodshot, while Universal Pictures touted the digital rental of the controversial horror-comedy The Hunt. In an unexpected way, it was like going to the movie theater and having an array of options and audiences to choose from. 

Universal has already offered a series of Twitter Watch Parties to excite audiences about titles that saw theatrical runs cut short by theater closures. As The Invisible Man and The Hunt debuted on PVOD (on March 20 and March 25, respectively), directors Leigh Whannell and Craig Zobel hosted Twitter Watch Parties with a special assist from Blumhouse impresario Jason Blum for the latter. These parties pushed #TheInvisibleManAtHome and #TheHuntAtHome into Twitter’s trending topics, spreading the word about the films’ digital debuts.

More Twitter Watch Parties followed that offered new guest hosts and new angles from which to experience the movies. Last weekend, a second round of Live Watch Parties was hosted by influencers like SMOSH Games’ Dave ‘Lasercorn’ Moss and Joshua Ovenshire, film critic/TCM personality Alicia Malone and Good Girls star and live-tweet legend Retta. Ahead of these parties for The Hunt, Emma and The Invisible Man, their hosts promoted the movies via their preferred social media platforms, which included YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. And Universal is not alone in taking to Twitter Watch Parties for promotion.

To toast their titillating VOD titles, indie horror distributor IFC Midnight has invited its talent to host similar parties. Scream queen Barbara Crampton did one for her latest, Beyond The GatesRust Creek director Jen McGowan shared insights into her chilling thriller. And last Friday, Swallow’s writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis hosted a Twitter Watch Party for the horror-comedy that had critics gagging — in a good way!

In a statement to Engadget, IFC Midnight EVP of Acquisitions and Production Arianna Bocco spoke to the goal of these Twitter Watch Parties:

“One of the best parts of seeing a film in a theater is experiencing a film with an audience and feeling connected with those around you and engaging in meaningful discussion. It’s exciting to see the communal experience evolve in the current climate and adapt to new avenues of communication. Although we can’t gather in person, we feel this is a great opportunity to continue to connect and engage with fans and creators from home!”

Some filmmakers are going DIY, setting up watch parties without studio involvement. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Tank Girl, the film’s director Rachel Talalay reteamed with her leading lady, Lori Petty, for a rousing Twitter Watch Party of the cult classic. Under the hashtag #TankGirlLives, the pair shared anecdotes, studio notes, production design sketches and plenty of behind-the-scenes fun facts with fans.

However, Twitter Watch Parties aren’t the only option for fans or filmmakers to make an “event” of watching a movie at home. The emergence of Netflix Party has created a new opportunity for both. The Chrome extension allows viewers to watch a title in sync via a shared link. Plus, there’s a chat room option to allow for texted conversation during the screening.

Inspired by this innovation, writers/directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein created a Netflix Party to promote their now-streaming directorial debut, Freaks. After thrilling critics on the film festival circuit, this celebrated sci-fi indie hit Netflix in a big way. Viewers watched it in droves, pushing Freaks to the number two spot in Netflix's top 10 most popular movie titles. That’s when Lipovsky and Stein decided to party.

“There was tons of Twitter traffic about the movie — the weekend before, there had been a new tweet about Freaks every minute,” Stein told Engadget. “So we thought doing a live Q&A would be a fun way to connect to new fans of the movie and answer their questions.”

What the pair setup was a Saturday-night Netflix Party with a live Directors’ Commentary. Joining the writing/directing duo in the chatroom was editor Sabrina Pitre and executive producer Rick Alyea. More of the crew intended to sign on, but they hit a snag realizing the Netflix Party caps out at an undisclosed number. Stein’s estimating somewhere between 30 and 40 people. 

Despite getting messages on social media from frustrated film fans who couldn’t get into the party, Stein was pleased with the results. “There was actually a good mix of people who had seen it a lot and new viewers,” he said. “I had been worried about new viewers coming at all because I knew the chat room would end up discussing spoilers right away. And I was right, but it didn’t seem to matter; most of the spoiler-talk from repeat viewers ended up being inside jokes that seemed to go over the new viewers’ heads. And honestly, it was so much fun for me to see the live reactions of the new viewers who were experiencing the movie for the first time.”

Compared to a Twitter Watch Party, a Netflix Party is a more intimate affair. Instead of viewers following a hashtag that will offer a universe of tweets, this has the throwback vibe of a ’90s AIM chatroom, where the conversation can be a bit more focused. Yet, the goal of both is the same: to create a fresh sense of excitement that mirrors the experience of a movie theater packed with giddy viewers. Of course, in place of shared gasps and laughs, these modes of expression offer bursts of memes, gifs and “OMG!” replies. It’s a different language with a common root.

However, for those movie lovers seeking something more familiar, there’s one more option: video chats. This was how my first Virtual Movie Night odyssey began, and it was to celebrate a truly special moment in cinema history: the VOD release of Cats. Love it or loathe it, this bonkers adaptation of the hit Broadway musical is astounding. So when my self-quarantining friends and I were itching for social interaction, we jury-rigged a movie night via Skype. We each purchased Cats, picked a “showtime” to start and then watched it together in a video call, which gave us a Brady Bunch-like wall of each other’s faces as we watched in shock, awe, excitement and horror.

Of all the virtual movie nights I’ve given a go, this one most closely simulates the theater experience. Your friend isn’t there next to you to clutch at during the wild bits. But you can hear their laughter and see their expression of bewilderment. Yet in each of the above, you can connect while far apart. Therein lies the magic of the movie theater, however you choose to find it.

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