Streaming Dreams

How the Virtual Movie Theater Is Becoming a Thing

From a group-watching app to festivals finding new life online, Seattleites are rethinking how we watch.

By Stefan Milne October 14, 2020

The Millennial Experience, a sort of essay in dance and interview, is a part of the Seattle Queer Film Festival, which is available for the first time online. 

For the last six months, a few friends and I have had a nearly weekly movie night. We pick something suitable—many Nicolas Cage movies, Steel Magnolias, Tremors—cue it up in our various homes, and fill a text thread with jokes and GIFs. It doesn’t feel like going to a movie theater, exactly, but it’s rooted in something similar, a group gaze, watching as a communal act.

Last week, the governor’s office permitted King County movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity, Phase 3 be damned. But the future of watching with a crowd is at best uncertain. So far AMC Theatres and Far Away Entertainment (which runs West Seattle’s Historic Admiral and the University District’s Varsity) have announced plans to reopen on October 16. Columbia City's tiny, rad Beacon Cinema will return, too. But the rest of the week’s news didn’t foreshadow an especially theatered fall and winter: Tentpole releases—the new James Bond, the new Dune—got bumped to next year. Regal Cinemas decided to close all 536 of its U.S. theaters.

Many Seattle theaters don’t plan to open until next year, and plenty in audiences won’t set foot in theaters until we’ve been vaccinated. So while we adhere to our couches and stream for public health, it’s worth asking: How will this change the way we watch movies? Seattleites, from movie theater directors to app developers, are looking for the answer.

Back in March, SIFF closed its two theaters and started streaming movies and educational events, taking the same care with curation—heavily independent, international, directed by people of color, and women. Beth Barrett, SIFF’s artistic director, says she thinks that will continue even after stay-home restrictions lift. It helps with something theaters have struggled with: "We have five screens, and there are 10 films that we want to be on those five screens every single week. How do we expand that access?” Instead of showing a film on the big screens for three nights, an indie theater could put it online for a couple weeks: more movies and a revenue bump for theaters that are struggling to stay open.  

So far, some approaches are working better than others. Vivian Hua, executive director of Northwest Film Forum, saw a jump in festival attendance when the Capitol Hill theater went online in the early days of lockdown. Since then, numbers have fluctuated, but overall streaming festivals still draw close to what they did in person. Standalone titles have suffered, though. There’s a sense, Hua says, that “if it’s not a local or very curated program, it might as well be like tuning in to Netflix… but maybe even more inconvenient, because all of the distributors have different platforms.” That, and a single title (say, $8–$13) often costs as much as a month on a big streaming service.

So, it seems, making streaming feel like a community event, achieving that group gaze, is important. NWFF has tied online events to showings: hangouts, Q&As. They’re nice to try to build community, but “honestly,” Hua says, “it’s sort of hard to get people to engage in an additional Q&A on top of already watching a film.”


That question of engagement is at the center of Seattle-based start-up Scener’s mission. Earlier this year, the co-watching app debuted its “virtual theater.” On Friday night, I downloaded the Chrome extension, linked it to Netflix, and joined the online premier of The Haunting of Bly Manor. First, there was a pre-screening interview with one of the show’s cameo actors, Greg Sestero, aka Mark from The Room.

As he and an interviewer spoke in Zoom-like windows about movies and quarantine hair, the 40 or so people in the audience lit up the chat-box, a mishmash of friends and strangers proffering emojis and jokes (“My name is Bridget, and I like to party”). When the show started, the video windows vanished and the chat remained.

Scener allows video and text chat during a movie. 

This didn’t feel much like theater—the chatter of strangers became less fun as the show played, and the app crashed briefly, mid-showing—but it’s a beginning. Scener launched a couple of years ago and it hit “a really interesting turning point” at the beginning of the pandemic, says Joe Braidwood, the company’s co-founder and COO. People wanted “to find novel ways to connect online.” Last week it announced another $2.1 million in funding. 

Scener is working to distinguish itself in a crowded field, alongside competitors like Teleparty, Twoseven, and Amazon Watch Party. How’s it different? For one, most others are text messengers synced to a movie. Scener allows Zoom-like video in the sidebar, even during the screening (mostly useful for small, private showings). It also connects to most major streaming services, not just one. And it’s meant for scale. The virtual theater can host up to a million users at once, though only half as many have downloaded the extension so far, and current screening crowds are much lower. The most I saw at once was 43.

Say it’s widely adopted, though. With thousands of viewers, wouldn’t the comments section just become a crushing waterfall of language, there only to distract you with the relentless emoji-ing of strangers? And, for that matter, what’s the point of video chat when you have tons of viewers? We already threw enough side-eye for talking in real theaters. 

Braidwood said in bigger showings, like a weeklong film festival Scener did with Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in September, the screening host can toggle how the audience interacts. Maybe there’s a pre-screening interview with the director and chat; then everyone watches the movie together without distraction and reconvenes afterward for the recap. Or break off into groups to watch. Or maybe eventually, Braidwood offered, Scener will show avatars of everyone in the room—silent visualizations of presence. (The company did prototypes with Snapchat last year.)

What features you pick, of course, depends on what you’re watching. The Seattle Queer Film Festival returns this week for its 25th anniversary, all streamed and available for the first time to people outside of the city. It's not on Scener and I doubt I’d want rows of bitmojis and text chatter distracting from the beauty of The Millennial Experience, a sort of filmed essay, told in dance and interview by Seattle director Alex Crozier. It's partly about—what else?—Millennials' reliance on technology. But during Netflix’s Oktoberfest: Beer and Blood, which Scener is showing on Friday in its Stream and Scream festival? A few dirndled and lederhosened avatars might enliven the proceedings.  

Seattle Queer Film Festival
Oct 15–25, $13–$199

Stream and Scream
Oct 1–31, Free

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