When Belcourt Theatre closed its doors to audiences in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the sense of loss was palpable among Nashville’s film fans.
The historic arthouse theater was experiencing a renaissance after a massive building renovation and relaunch in 2016. Now, its screens were dark.
Like other businesses built around the in-person experience, the Belcourt had to shift strategies in order to adapt to the new normal of social distancing and online gatherings intended to help ‘flatten the curve.’
With studios pausing new releases, the big question for the Belcourt’s longtime Programming Director, Toby Leonard, was this: How can we continue to engage Belcourt patrons — lovers of documentaries, queer cinema, foreign films, new releases and repertory classics — while they are isolated at home?
“There used to be 20 to 30 movies coming out every Friday, but that’s no longer the case,” Leonard said. “We were working two to six months in advance to create the right balance of programming week after week for our patrons. All that was upended when COVID-19 hit.”
The question became how to provide “the Belcourt experience” at home where patrons already have access to a wide variety of movies through streaming platforms.
“We shifted to partnering with film distributors to offer films via a streaming service so our customers could access the type of films they would normally come out to the Belcourt to see,” Leonard said. “There is plenty of content online, but ours is unique because we’ve selected the best of the best. We’re still being very picky about our programming, it’s just that now it’s offered online.”
Listed on the Belcourt’s website, the selection of fims available for screening is long and varied: a documentary about mushrooms; a sweeping gay love story with Georgian subtitles; a compilation of viral cat videos; an award-winning Norwegian heist movie; an Icelandic thriller; a collection of kid flicks; and more. All are available on demand for about $10 to $15 per ticket. (Member pricing is suspended until the theater’s doors open again.)
While post-film discussions can no longer percolate in the Jim Ridley Lobby, customers can interact with other film fans through the Belcourt’s new Living Room Film Club. A partnership with the Nashville Scene and the Criterion Channel, the new initiative offers viewers a weekly film streamed online, followed by a 30-minute discussion via Zoom with filmmakers, critics and academics.
“Education and engagement have been critical to keeping our community together; that’s at the heart of what we do,” said Allison Inman, education and engagement director at the Belcourt. “We created the Living Room Club for those patrons who not only come for the movies but stay for the Q&As, the seminars, and the skype conversations with directors. With the Living Room Club, they continue to be engaged and are regularly showing up on Zoom — and I think that’s been special.”
Campy thrillers and monster movies are also available via streaming service, bridging the gap for fans who used to gather in person at the Belcourt, many of them in costume, for midnight movies. Thirty minutes prior to each streaming show, viewers can log on to Twitch to hear commentary from Belcourt’s front-of-house staff, along with a custom pre-show trailer experience created by Belcourt’s Media Editor, Zack Hall.
“People show up in crazy outfits and weird backgrounds,” Inman said. “It’s a lot of fun and very entertaining.”
Nashvillians are not the only ones streaming the Belcourt’s new curated online content. Inman said people from all over the country, as well as Canada and Japan, have signed up to stream movies and join in discussions.
“The cinema community is finding out what’s happening and coming here,” Inman said. “And I’m ‘going’ to events in cities across the country, too. So that’s the silver lining for me.”
Community outreach continues, too. Inman meets online weekly with participants in Strong Leads, a high school girls group offering screenings and discussions about women in film. This fall, she plans to continue Students of Stonewall, an LGBT film club held at the Oasis Center via the Belcourt Mobile Theater. How exactly that will work remains to be seen.
“Whether school is back in session or not, I plan to continue it,” Inman said.
Now, with the state of Tennessee moving into Phase 2 of reopening, the Belcourt’s leadership is preparing to pivot yet again.
“I’ve got my head in all sorts of models and thinking about what things are going to actually look like when we start to open our doors,” says Leonard. “My head is spinning.”
This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.