The Salt Lake Film Society plays movies at two arthouse theaters — the Broadway and the Tower — which both prioritize playing independent and foreign films often not shown at mainstream theaters.
According to Rachel Getts, SLFS marketing coordinator, when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 and forced theaters across the country to close, the organization launched their own website to replicate the theater experience the following month.
Furthermore, Getts stated that since COVID-19 shut down venues around the state, small organizations like the film society have relied on the community to make it through these difficult times.
“We need people in this community in order to survive,” Getts said. “That was true before there was a pandemic and it’s even more true now.”
Though Getts said the organization prepared for the worst-case scenario last March — having closed in-person screenings for a long time — the transition from physical theaters to online was still tough.
“We had to really emphasize to people that we’re still here, we’re still showing films, we’re still doing stuff even though our venue is closed,” Getts explained. “There was a lot that we had to do in a very short period whilst we’re all dealing with our stuff as a very small organization.”
Working with the MAST media accelerator studio — a non-profit program of SLFS — the organization swiftly built technology that allowed online screenings to replicate the independent film experience.
Miles Romney, the head of MAST, and Tori Baker, CEO and president of SLFS, proposed SLFS@Home at an SLFS board meeting last March in preparation of a possible shutdown, according to Getts.
After launching April 3, 2020, the platform is now being used by nearly 30 indie theaters across the country, Getts noted.
Movies currently playing, as well as upcoming films, are listed on the home page, where filmgoers can buy tickets or donate to SLFS. Movies can be watched at predetermined showtimes or be purchased to screen anytime on-demand.
Getts believes SLFS has survived the pandemic because of the success of SLFS@Home and the ongoing support from core fans and the community.
In addition, the organization ran a successful summer drive-in series via the SLFS Studio Backlot Motor Cinema, which allowed filmgoers to maintain social distance while attending screenings.
Since SLFS’s creation in 2001, the organization has steered clear of mainstream theater trends such as devoting prime-time showtimes several months a year to superhero and action films that they feel tell the same story repeatedly. Rather, SLFS prides itself on giving voice to underrepresented groups of people and sharing unique stories through the movies they show.
Foreign films screened by SLFS explore a wide range of issues; 2018 Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifting” focuses on a poverty-stricken family making ends meet, commenting on the ever-widening class divides in Japan, while “Birds of Passage” tells the story of the origins of drug trafficking in Colombia.
The goal of SLFS is admirable: To truly reflect the lives and culture of everyone in society through film.
As more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, SLFS staff look toward the promise of an eventual return to normalcy. At the same time, they do not want to rush reopening or risk having to close again. Getts said the success of SLFS@Home allows for this flexibility.
“We’ll open when it’s safe for our staff and for our patrons and not before then,” she noted.
Even with online adaptations, Salt Lake Community College students like journalism major Scott Whittaker are looking forward to returning to traditional venues.
“I miss theaters, especially the Broadway,” he said.
For now, Whittaker and other people in the community who feel the same can take advantage of the replicated independent theater experience fully online.
Tickets, screening schedules and details about other SLFS events can be found at slfsathome.org.