PRINT May/June 2020


Tsai Ming-Liang, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes. Production still. Ticket Woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi). Photo: Lin Meng-Shan.

MID-MARCH: As the reality of the pandemic in New York came into focus, calls to close cinemas spread across the local film scene. The lives of the four of us are typically devoted to going to the movies and encouraging others to do so, too; suddenly we found ourselves desperate to persuade the theaters we love to cease operations as soon as possible.

Unlike some forms of disaster, epidemics can be predicted, modeled. Italy offered a grim preview of what might be in store for us stateside. So did history: Film scholar Thomas Doherty recently shared a 1920 Billboard article that quotes New York’s health commissioner refusing to shutter movie theaters during the then-ongoing influenza outbreak. The morbid calculus of the 2020 pandemic was impossible to ignore, yet the conversations it necessitated were difficult. For theater proprietors, the closures’ implications—financial ruin and mass unemployment—were staggering, their effects cascading: These exhibitors support distributors and therefore filmmakers and crews.

On March 10, as “flatten the curve” graphs circulated ever more widely, Sierra sounded the alarm on Twitter: “HEY NYC, CANCEL YOUR EVENTS.” Nellie echoed the sentiment, as did Thomas and Ed, who began by shelving their program “A Film Club for Adrienne Kennedy,” which had been slated to run at Artists Space that week. As a group, we then hastily prepared what would become the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, a mutual-aid effort by Light Industry and the repertory-cinema listing site Screen Slate. By March 13, we had embarked on a crowdfunding campaign, staying in constant, fervid contact through our DMs. The fund, we hoped, would provide quick relief to theater workers who’d lost their jobs because of the crisis and serve as a stopgap measure before more robust public assistance became available.

We were quickly overwhelmed by both the generosity of those donating and the scale of need before us (ours were just two of the myriad organizations around the country turning to GoFundMe in an attempt to mitigate the economic free fall). On March 15, the mayor declared officially that all cinemas, theaters, and concert halls had to close. This necessary step in slowing the advance of Covid-19 also made clear how many hourly workers—ticket takers, concessionaires, projectionists—would pay an immediate price for our city’s well-being. In the space of ten days, we raised more than $80,000 from nearly fifteen hundred contributors. Significantly, although a few pledges rose into the low four figures, most were around fifty dollars. No stars swooped in to save the day. (That was a dream that we’d admittedly entertained, poking a few celebs on Twitter—we’re still waiting, Tom Hanks!) In the end, it was everyday moviegoers who rose to the occasion, kicking in the price of tickets they’d otherwise have been buying, handing it directly to the ushers instead. We used those proceeds to fill the more than 350 requests we received from newly furloughed workers at cinemas all over town, from art houses to multiplexes. Split evenly, the funds came out to $225 each: little more than grocery money. Still, the disbursements were crucial; many applicants mentioned having little savings and that they’d been let go overnight with no chance to prepare.

WE’VE LONG SINCE REDISTRIBUTED the last of the money through PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App, but many questions about the future of film, in New York and elsewhere, remain unanswered. When will cinemas reopen, and in what form? Which ones will even make it to the other side? Already unfortunate consequences are unfolding throughout the field. Production has been frozen across all sectors of the film industry, and financing for upcoming projects is uncertain. Festivals have been postponed, denying works vital exposure and thus delaying new acquisitions by distributors. Publications have laid off longtime critics, creating vacancies that may never be refilled. The runs of what would likely have been the most celebrated releases of the year—Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau (2019) and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), for instance—were curtailed after mere days in theaters. This impossible situation, a film culture without cinemas, has prompted a number of ingenious alternatives. Distributor Kino Lorber is partnering with venues on home releases of titles that would previously have made theatrical debuts. Twitch streams from Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater seek to retain the shared liveness of IRL moviegoing. The desire for collective encounter, so fundamental to cinema, continues as before.

Our struggle against precarity is a common one. Now is the moment to agitate for collective security.

What remains certain, however, is that our struggle against precarity is a common one. This difficult hour for cinema workers is but a sliver of the difficult decade for American workers more generally, who have long been left to fend for themselves in a pitiless market. This country’s tatterdemalion safety net fails to catch so many in the best of times; the number of people it will let through over the coming months is unfathomable. Now is the moment to agitate for collective security. After the predictable disappointments of the first, corporate-friendly bailout, we must demand far more from future rounds. Another key challenge will occur within the workplace itself. It’s worth noting that the theater employees who fared best amid the closures were those with union backing, a power hard-won from often-hostile bosses. We’re heartened to hear whispers among furloughed cinema staff about plans to organize their shops—whenever they can get back on the job.

The ultimate question, then, is how cinemas, or indeed any arts organization, should be structured when the pulse of daily activity returns. How might these institutions be reconceived to address their imbalances? After years of thinking of the workplace as a “family,” especially in the cultural sphere, we might wonder: In what family are members exiled from the clan the second they become liabilities to the household’s bottom line? As the leaders of the largest establishments deliver solemn pronouncements about the sacrifices made to satisfy their freshly constrained budgets, we must ask what they themselves have sacrificed. Will those at the top only perpetuate schemes that prioritize lavish executive salaries? Or will they instead begin to cultivate environments that protect all employees equally, stemming the flow of pink slips and building accountability into their new models?

Either way, these decisions will not go unnoticed. Transparency is essential. Before we respond to the pleas for support from major arts organizations, we should require that they reveal, in precise detail, where those donations will be apportioned. Which workers have been fired? Which stay on, and how are they being remunerated? When we finally come together again we will see, with bracing lucidity, what, and who, they value.  

Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, and a programmer at large for film at Lincoln Center. Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry and a Critic in Residence at Bard CollegeNellie Killian is a film programmer, a contributing editor to Film Comment, and a Light Industry and Screen Slate board member. Sierra Pettengill is a filmmaker, writer, and Screen Slate board member.