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Whither the Virtual Silent Movie Theater

Virtual Cinema, for most art-houses and film viewers, was a stop-gap measure during the pandemic. It was a way to keep going while everyone waited for it to be safe to re-open and to return to movie theaters. It also built a new audience, one best served by virtual cinema, and one that now faces being left in the dust.

Last summer, when the first reopening happened – just before Delta and Omicron – with one exception, the art-houses I’d done a few silent film livestreams for told me they were ending their virtual cinema programming and offerings. They all hunkered down while getting through variants that made their reopenings a slower melt than anticipated. But melt it did, and the interest in offering live programming held at the dwindled level.

Live-streaming a live-scored silent film program is complicated. The format and tech of the ones I is probably more involved than those done by the 4 (or is it 5?) other folks who gave it a shot after I launched The Silent Comedy Watch Party in March 2020. It’s a lot of work, and there’s more stress. Live-streaming a feed isn’t the same as turning on a projector.

Now that the move appears to be going back to showing movies to people in movie theaters, what happens to the portion of that virtual audience for whom there is no art-house or museum or micro-cinema to go to? Or for the segment of the virtual audience who do but whose comfort level isn’t at a place where going back to a movie theater is okay yet?

Perhaps it’s because I – along with the rest of the Silent Comedy Watch Party makers – have heard from and corresponded with so many of our viewers from around the USA, North and South America, and other parts of the globe, that I think of the streaming-only viewers differently. They’re still an audience, even if none of them are in the same room or continent. And, in a way, they’re in a virtual art-house cinema together, watching synchronously something that is both a film screening and a live musical performance.

The virtual cinema may have functioned over the last couple like a pop-up shop you might see at a holiday time. But for certain portion of the world’s silent movie fans, the virtual silent cinema is a new art-house that opened in 2020.

3 thoughts on “Whither the Virtual Silent Movie Theater”

  1. We are so grateful for The Silent Comedy Watch Party. We happen to live near Niles, CA where Charlie Chaplin developed his Tramp character while at Essaney Studio in Niles and because of this we had access to silent films with live accompaniment. We took so many people there who had no idea that this existed. The only good thing about the pandemic is that it motivated your passionate team to go live online with this wonderful program. It is not only vastly entertaining but we have learned so much about the actors, the studios, directors, etc. We are disappointed that you had to scale back and greatly appreciate you working so hard to present this on a monthly basis. it would be so wonderful if it can inspire young people to carry on with the preservation and presentation of these films. We cannot thank you enough for your efforts!

  2. I live in Kansas. There is roughly 3 silent film showings a year. Over the past few years it was great to attend weekly or monthly showings of films. To be a part of a community while being home alone or with family. AARP and The Film Foundation have virtual films, but those are modern or classic films. Thank goodness we still have The Silent Comedy Watch Party.

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