With most theaters closed since March, intrepid fans are finding ways to keep moviegoing alive, minus the “going.”
The simplest way is a Netflix watch party. The streaming service supplies a link to start your chosen movie simultaneously on multiple computers and a chat function. (Note: When theaters are open again, let’s remember not to chat.)
“It’s not really a temporary replacement for going to a theater — getting snacks and being able to [sit] with your friends — but we can watch at the same time and share reactions,” said Lucy Johnson, 16, of Minneapolis, who has had several movie parties with friends while isolating in their homes during the pandemic. “It’s a better experience than just renting a movie by yourself.”
Dan Gardner, 68, of Belle Plaine, is one of nine men in a movie club hatched on a golf course four years ago, when the golfers realized they all wanted to watch films that their wives didn’t. Mostly retired and in their 60s and 70s, the members used to gather for breakfast, then go to the multiplex as a group and kibitz afterward.
Gardner says their experience has deepened as a result of meeting via Zoom, which brings the movie buffs into each others’ homes.
“It’s certainly brought us closer together, because some of us knew each other only from golf or maybe only because he was a friend of somebody else,” said Gardner. “Now, we get to know about each others’ families. It’s an incredibly unique group and really a lot of fun.”
While their prosaically named “Movie Club” is as much about socializing as it is analyzing movies, some clubs swing wildly in the other direction.
Terry Serres, who may be the local champ of online movie discussion, is involved in several groups, including his esoteric Club Varda/Denis/Akerman, laser-focused on the films of three French-language directors: Agnès Varda, Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman.
“I’m exploring for myself and if anyone else wants to, too, that’s great,” said Serres, 59, a restoration ecologist who lives in Minneapolis. A few cinephiles have joined to watch and pore over related articles and films, and more have commented on the group’s Facebook page.
Serres’ other ventures are more accessible. Even before COVID-19, he often set up virtual movie dates with overseas friends, which have continued. Also, he has gathered film buffs for synchronous viewings of streaming titles such as “The Handmaiden” and “Bringing Up Baby,” with intermissions for refreshments and Facebook Messenger discussion. And he’s part of the public Online Cinema Group of Long Island, whose members from across the country operate like a book club: They watch the same title individually, then discuss it on Zoom on Saturday afternoons.
Those chat seshes can be revealing, as when Serres found his dislike of “You Can Count on Me” put him in the minority.
“I like the exchange of ideas within this group. People are smart and very respectful of different opinions and they’re not afraid to disagree,” he said.
After a 2019 when he vigilantly followed what turned out to be a banner year for movies, Serres said clubs have helped him stay involved in a fractured and perplexing 2020.
“Last year, when I was so into movies, I would get impatient for them to come out here,” said Serres, who tracked down two advance screenings of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and jokes that loving it is a prerequisite to being his friend. “I was on top of what was coming out and what their possible virtues and attractions might be. This year I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that at all.”
Even as he pursues online movie socializing, Serres said it inevitably reinforces a singular feeling: “I like the theatrical experience.”
Peter Schilling, a freelance writer who has done movie publicity, is trying to capture part of that experience. A little more than a week ago, he hosted a private Facebook group to approximate the social piece of viewing Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” the most highly pedigreed movie to open since theaters closed.
“This is one of the few times there had been a new release on streaming that felt exciting,” said Schilling, who also hosts the Cinema Book Club at Moon Palace Books. “Normally, we can talk about it but we’re all social distancing so I’m not running into anyone in coffee shops or, obviously, seeing anyone in theaters.”
Enter his “Da 5 Bloods” club, to which he invited a couple dozen cinephiles. Said Schilling, “I wanted to replicate as best I could that charge you get just after a new movie has opened. It’s a lot of fun when you anticipate the opening and you can’t wait to see it,”
Schilling’s theater-owner pals have invited him to physically-distant screenings while their venues were closed to the public. But, like others who have organized online events, he said there’s no substitute for enjoying a good film with a room of fans.
With venues starting to unlock their doors and big titles such as “Mulan” and “Tenet” earmarked for July, fans say they’re eager to get back into multiplexes once they feel safe.
A concession worker at the Parkway Theatre (which her dad, Ward, co-owns), Johnson is ready to return to both work and fun at the theater. Gardner says his group embraced the ease of Zoom but longs to see each other without computer screens separating them.
Online clubs have opened up new ways of engaging with movie lovers that Serres will continue in the post-COVID world, he said. But he wants the real thing, even if it involves waiting in lines and shhhing the occasional stranger.
“Everybody I know is eager for the movies to come back. I posted a ‘They Live’ review on [the movie-fan site] Letterboxd and some local guy who follows me said, ‘Hey, that’s my favorite John Carpenter film.’
“He said, ‘It’s so good with an audience!’ ” recalled Serres wistfully. “Remember audiences?”