The coronavirus pandemic has affected how we go about our daily lives. A safer-at-home order is in effect, and many local businesses, such as O Cinema South Beach, have been forced to close indefinitely.
While Miamians are finding comfort in the little things, like ordering delivery from their favorite restaurants or binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix, they can now support their favorite arthouse cinema.
Last Friday, March 27, O Cinema launched Virtual Cinema. The initiative is exactly what it sounds like: the magic of O Cinema in the comfort of your quarantine quarters.
“We’re describing it as the same O Cinema experience; it’s just online now,” cofounder Kareem Tabsch says. “All of the films are curated and are films that we would be showing in the theater otherwise. We’re now making them available in the virtual space.”
The process is simple enough: Log onto O Cinema’s website, select an available film, buy your ticket, and start watching. Viewers will have access to the movie on their device for a few days; depending upon the film, it could be three or five days. The cost also varies but averages $12 — just like tickets at the movie theater.
Tabsch and his team are working to preserve the traditional moviegoing experience, so new films will be available every Friday and run through the following Thursday. Currently, Bacurau, Zombi Child, and Once Were Brothers are screening virtually.
“It’s an exciting way for us to keep doing what we’re doing and keep our audiences engaged with the kind of content they want to see,” Tabsch says.
Theater owners decided to close this past March 11 and announced it publicly the next day. That same week, O Cinema began posting on its social media pages small-screen movie recommendations that could be easily streamed or rented via video on demand. As with everything the theater does, the selections were curated by the staff. But Tabsch wanted to do more. He began thinking about what else he could do, what new system he could implement, and, ultimately, what would keep audiences interested.
“We knew that we have to keep engaging with our audience,” Tabsch says. “This is a scary time for a lot of people, so as much normalcy that we could keep for them is going to be important.”
He began speaking with industry friends and film distributors, and it wasn’t long before the idea for a virtual theater was formed. “[COVID-19] left us in a really tough spot. After [we closed our doors], we thought, What do we do? How do we keep serving our audience? That’s how virtual cinema came about.”
The current state of the coronavirus crisis has influenced the film industry. Companies such as Disney are releasing films on streaming platforms that were initially slated for theatrical release. Others are halting releases altogether.
“I don’t think the moviegoing experience is ever going to go away,” Tabsch says matter-of-factly. “What I hope that [this time will do] is allow us all to realize how important human interactions in social situations are. We talk so much about living in the virtual space, but what is evident right now is that people want to be outside. They want to see friends, they want to see loved ones, and they want to see movies.”
Tabsch traveled to Taiwan in late 2019, and during his trip, he heard rumblings about the novel coronavirus. When he left Asia, to keep himself informed he began to read about the cases developing in China. It wasn’t until late January, when he was back home in the States, that he began to see the effects trickling into his life. The filmmaker was at Sundance to premiere his latest documentary feature, Mucho Mucho Amor, about the famed Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado, when he noticed new rules for social engagement. At the prestigious film festival, Tabsch says, attendees were asked not to shake hands.
A month later, his concerns intensified when he learned that local government officials called off the music fests Calle Ocho and Ultra. Also, the Miami Film Festival, where Tabsch was set to show Mucho Mucho Amor, ended prematurely owing to COVID-19, just two days shy of the screening of his closing-night film.
“You never knew how it was going to manifest itself locally,” Tabsch says. “When we made the decision to close O Cin, it was a difficult one... We knew it was going to come with some financial hardship, but we also knew, more importantly, that it was the right thing to do.”
Tabsch himself is spending his at-home isolation watching a bunch of movies and working on new creative projects. Although he can’t say for sure when O Cinema will reopen, he’s already thinking about future programming.
“Movies are meant to be seen on the big screen with friends and strangers sitting in a room together,” Tabsch says poetically. “While the Virtual Cinema is a great way right now to continue watching those films, we know that people are going to be really eager to come back once we reopen for the experience you only get at a movie theater.”