Back in early March of 2020, Christie Marchese was feeling good. She’d just received a $100,000 investment for a new company that was set to launch that month. Her plan was to apply the Airbnb model to the movie industry and turn individuals into movie screening “hosts” who would be given the tools to organize film screenings in places like churches and community spaces. This would bring smaller, independent films to areas of the county they might not normally travel to, and also allow filmmakers and others to help build a bigger audience for a film that, say, was only destined for streaming.
“Our thought was, can you have a movie theater chain that distributes independent films, foreign-language films, to a much wider network of theaters that aren’t traditionally theaters? Where you don’t have to show a movie five times a day for three weeks to barely break even?” says Marchese, who’d already dabbled in the entertainment space as the founder and former CEO of Picture Motion, a social impact agency that builds campaigns around TV shows and films. “So can we use mixed-use spaces? And can we create a financial model that encourages entrepreneurship or that taps into that—to sound super cheesy—gig economy? Where someone could make $500 hosting a movie one night a week? That’s pretty good money.”
Then, of course, COVID-19 hit. Suddenly a company built around in-person gatherings was an unsustainable proposition. Marchese’s dream of disrupting the movie theater business was put on hold. But rather than wait the pandemic out, she turned to her CTO, Tim Knight, and asked, “can you build a virtual cinema?”
After all, people might not be able to attend a live, screening of a film, but they could attend one digitally. Knight came up with a prototype for a digital platform with built-in, live text chat and video broadcasting capabilities so that after a film is streamed, audiences can participate in a panel discussion or virtual chat with a filmmaker.
And so was born Kinema, which recently closed $2 million in seed funding led by Kindred Ventures. Lupa Systems and Galaxy Interactive are also backers. The company expands on Marchese’s pre-pandemic business plan in that it’s set up to accommodate both in-person and virtual screenings. Its ambitions also go beyond smaller, independent films. Marchese says she’d ultimately love for Kinema to allow people to screen blockbusters—even Marvel movies—in order to bring them to audiences who don’t fit the superhero fanboy demo or who live in rural areas where there are not major movie theaters. As independent theaters shut down in the wake of the pandemic and even the big chains are struggling, the model couldn’t be more timely.
One of Kinema’s first test cases came last September when the company was still technically in stealth mode. Indie filmmaker Sanjay Rawal’s documentary Gather, about Indigenous American food systems, had just been released on iTunes, but the film was unable to be screened at festivals or any other in-person screenings. Using Kinema’s tools, Rawal became his own “screening tour manager,” Marchese says, and worked with hosts to organize over 200 virtual screenings of the film; one attracted 1,200 people, far more than ever would have been able to pack into a movie theater. Rawal then had the ability to interact with audiences after the screening and could follow up with them via email. He split the revenue from each ticket sold with Kinema. (The average ticket prices for Kinema screenings, Marchese says, is $9.18 and is determined by the host.)
Rawal wrote in a blog post that “Kinema provided a feeling of intimacy and connectedness for many during a time of deep sorrow and global crisis. Audiences gathered across time zones and borders to share the spirit of resilience that our film presents.”
More recently, the director of the Bruce Lee documentary Be Water, which debuted on ESPN last summer, teamed up with comedian Ronny Chieng, investor Steve Jang, and Olympic figure skater Maia Shibutani to cohost a screening of Be Water through Kinema. The group promoted the film on social media beforehand and nearly 200 people showed up for the film, which was followed by a live, online discussion.
“The chat room was amazing,” Marchese says. “Everyone was telling stories about Bruce Lee and how he impacted them. That kind of energy—that’s why this works well. You can see how people are connecting.”
Attracting a lot of people is great, Marchese says, but the power of the model is that social media and other promotions for a Kinema event can draw interest to a film title beyond the screening itself. Shibutani, for instance, has over 107,000 followers on Twitter. A tweet about Be Water can drive interest in the film independent of the Kinema event and lead people to seek it out on other platforms. In this case, that’s a rare, welcome boost for a film that’s nearly a year old.
But perhaps the greatest power of Kinema is its ability to get people watching things together again. The trend in isolated viewing was exacerbated by COVID-19, but even before the pandemic, audiences were growing accustomed to watching things solo on Netflix or HBO Max in the privacy of their living room. A convenient practice, yes, but hardly a communally engaged experience.
“Attention is the most valuable resource we have,” Marchese says. “When you have people watching something together, and you can’t stop the film—it’s going to keep going—you have engaged people. You have focused attention, and it’s going to leave a deeper impact.”
Marchese says the inspiration for Kinema came from when she was working at Picture Motion (PicMo), which in addition to building campaigns around social-impact films, organized screenings. “We did a bit of research and we looked at where movie theaters are,” Marchese says. “I think 45% of movie theaters are in four states: California, New York, Florida, and Texas. So not too surprising, it’s where there are mass concentrations of people. But then we crossed that with the PicMo list we had of where people were booking screenings, and 75% of our list were outside of those states.
“Ava DuVernay said it best; she’s doing a lot of this work herself. ‘If Selma can’t play in Selma and Straight Outta Compton can’t play in Compton, we have a problem.’ We’re missing audiences.”
With Kinema, one of the biggest challenges was making studios and other distributors feel secure that their films were protected. The company thus implemented a feature that prevents anyone from recording their screen. And through a cloud-based delivery system that runs through an app, hosts are able to download a film securely to their computer. They are unable to store the film, and within a certain time frame it disappears.
Down the line Marchese would like to build the company out to include screenings for the public, which people could find on Kinema.com. Her long-term dream? “When you go on Fandango looking for a showing, you’ll see our screenings.”