James LeGros hangs up his tie to become a business partner for a new pizza parlor/bowling alley in the charming "Phoenix, Oregon," which is having a novel online release that will benefit shuttered theaters. (Photo courtesy of Joma Films)

As movie theaters shutter and Bay Area film festivals ponder the next steps and new dates for some unknown time post-coronavirus, studios and indie distributors are breaking with their own traditions and moving their original features online.

Meanwhile, film festivals, theaters and indie filmmakers hit hard creatively and financially are regrouping and devising ways to stay afloat in an uncertain future.

The San Francisco International Film Festival — the longest-running film festival in the nation — decided to to cancel its 63rd season slated for April 8 through April 20. And beyond special events, the steady offerings at local theaters are now nil as major theater chains such as AMC and Regal and indie theaters such as Oakland’s New Parkway, the financial and artistic casualties could be huge for filmmakers, organizers and businesses.

“This is unprecedented in the 63-year history of this event, and we are devastated by this news,” the SFIFF team said in their announcement to festivalgoers. 

“We are proud of the festival program we have assembled, and we are still planning to publish the lineup on March 18 for the public to see what we have been working on for the past several months. We remain champions of the filmmakers whose work we were planning to share with our audiences, and we intend to continue supporting them in reaching audiences in any way we can.”

Film festival schedule changes

Already, the International Ocean Film Festival canceled its March program at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco, while the San Francisco Silent Film Festival switched from their April 29 to May 3 dates to Nov. 11 to 15. Upcoming festivals, including the Center for Asian American Media (CAAMFest) slated for May 14 to May 24, are considering moving as well. Other film festivals — including Frameline, the largest LGBTQ festival in the world — could hang in the balance as well.

“From what I’m seeing, the film festival world and the creative community in general are all trying to reshift in this new normal,” said Masashi Niwano, CAAM’s festival and exhibitor director.

“Because the news continues to evolve on an hourly basis, it’s quite overwhelming and hard to solidify any real plans at this moment.”

And that fluidity triggers making hard choices and seeking innovative ways to reach entertainment-hungry audiences.

“On my end, we are close to making the hard decision to move our festival to later in the year. We are exploring opportunities online to provide content to a public that we know would enjoy thoughtful films and frankly, need a break during these trying times. I have seen some innovative and creative programming online — which is exciting. If anything, maybe this will push cultural arts organizations and film festivals to think about what types of programming we can continue to provide that could be experienced from peoples’ homes,” Niwano said.

As the harsh reality of financial hardships pile up, the artistic community could use support, he said.

“Like most businesses, I know there are film festivals and filmmakers who are really hurting right now. Please support them in any way you feel comfortable with,” Niwano added.

Streaming and online offers

Meanwhile, one indie drama is adopting a truly innovative approach, a move that financially benefits small theaters slated to show their March 20 release while offering it to customers online. More on that later. 

As reported by Variety and IndieWire, NBC/Universal Studios is the first out of the major studios moviemaking gate to stream potentially as early as this Friday two of their most critically adored titles, both of which had been showing in theaters. 

Autumn de Wilde’s sly take on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and Leigh Whannell’s eerie, terrific update of “The Invisible Man” with an Oscar-worthy turn from Elisabeth Moss, could be available to watch from your comfy couch as soon as Friday. “Emma” was released via Focus Features, which is the more artsy division for NBC/Universal cinematic fare.

Additionally, the bounced about and violent takedown of polarized political factions, “The Hunt,” targets a Friday streaming window. The hard-R-rated satire stars Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank and other stars you might not want to get too attached to.

In perhaps the boldest news, the animated “Trolls World Tour” release from DreamWorks and with the voice talents of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, retains its April 10 release, but will debut online. Smart move, NBC/Universal Studios.

Other studios might follow suit and release titles online. 

‘Phoenix, Oregon’ set to be released March 20

The most ingenious, certainly compassionate plan yet comes from the team behind the upbeat charming indie feature “Phoenix, Oregon.” To help indie theaters struggling through these hard times, the producers, filmmakers and distributors joined forces and asked viewers to go online to buy a ticket, with profits shared with the local indie theaters slated to show it.

The R-rated feature — due to language only — will be released March 20 and stars one of indie films MVPs, actor James LeGros. It’s an underdog tale perfectly suited for the times right now.

In a news release, the distributors encourage customers to follow these steps:

Visit www.phoenixoregonmovie.com and select the theater that will benefit from the screening. Purchase a ticket and then email a copy of your purchased ticket/receipt to home@phoenixoregonmovie.com. You will receive a “one-time” link and will get a digital copy of the film when it is released over the summer.

Producer Annie Lundgren says there were many contributing reasons about releasing the film this way; from offering viewers a chance to see it, to supporting theaters that in turn supported their indie releases over the years.

In a prepared statement, Lundgren stated:

“Several of our opening weekend theaters have welcomed our films and championed our careers for many, many years. During the next few weeks, we hope audiences will consider buying a ticket direct from one of these theaters with the option to watch from home.

“To create the most impact for theaters, this is open to anyone in the U.S. Movie-fans may choose to support any theater screening “Phoenix, Oregon” (pick your favorite or the one nearest you).

“This is different (from) a ‘day and date’ release in that all of the digital streaming revenues are shared directly with the theaters. This offer is open while COVID-19 restrictions exist,” she adds.