Alone, Together – How Watch Parties Look to Mend Cinema’s Communal Experience Frayed by COVID-19
While the advent of streaming services has made film watching far more personal and convenient, they are still unable to capture and duplicate the experience of enjoying a good movie with a crowd. The crippling suspense in the air. The roars of laughter. The person behind you constantly kicking your seat.
On March 26, all entertainment venues – including theatres – in Singapore were closed to contain the spread of COVID-19. We thought, oh that’s not too bad. At least we can still hang out with friends and even watch a movie together at someone’s place, right?
Before we knew it, Singapore initiated unprecedented “circuit-breaker” measures, outright banning any social gatherings and limiting public movement, making an already gloomy year even more dreadful.
Amidst these uncertain times, there have been a few watch parties over the past month hosted by local organisations and businesses in an effort to recover some normalcy.
Over the past week, I have ‘attended’ three of these watch parties: Portrait of a Lady on Fire hosted by Anticipate Pictures, Mean Girls hosted by the Singapore Film Society (SFS), and The Blind Side by the Happiness Initiative. While it was not my first time watching these three films, I found it strangely comforting to experience them again knowing that I am watching along with a crowd.
The first local watch party to crop up on our radars was of Toni Erdmann organised by Anticipate Pictures, an independent film distribution company based in SIngapore. It was hosted by local filmmakers Kirsten Tan and Boo Junfeng on Sunday, 29 March, as a “low-key fundraiser” for the company, with the audience being able to watch along with them through Zoom.
Vincent Quek, founder of Anticipate Pictures, shares, “When the COVID-19 measures were first announced for cinemas on Thursday (26 March), Junfeng immediately reached out to ask how we were doing. I was very heartened by his gesture, and later that day, when we went live with our links of movies on iTunes that were available to stream, he asked about Toni Erdmann and whether he could do something with it.”
“By Friday afternoon (27 March), he said he wanted to host a watch party with Kirsten whom he had already been in touch with of his own accord. We came up with a quick publicity plan for the watch party, launched on Saturday morning (28 March), and by Sunday afternoon (29 March) we had the party!”
As a film distribution company, Anticipate Pictures sources and secures the rights for films from around the world to be screened at either the Singapore or Thailand market. They would then speak with exhibitors to try and release the films. The closure of entertainment venues has undoubtedly seen the company take a financial hit.
To date, they have brought in award-winning features such as Toni Erdmann and Portrait of a Lady on Fire – films that possibly wouldn’t have reached Singapore’s shores without Anticipate Pictures. Some of its extensive catalogue is now available for rental streaming on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand.
For Anticipate Pictures, their goal for the watch parties is to highlight the fact that good cinema is still available online even though theatres are closed. At the same time, they look to promote some of their past films that are no longer in theatres but can still be discovered by new audiences.
So far, to participate in their watch parties would require viewers to rent the film through these platforms. Vincent shares that while these watch parties and rentals won’t be enough to keep the company afloat (“unless we see all the audience from the theatrical convert to streaming”), they are still of help.
“Beyond the fact that the watch parties and encouraging of rentals generate some revenue when we will otherwise receive none, there has been tremendous interest and awareness hitherto seen as people start to realise that there is a company like ours behind some of their beloved films that screen at their favourite cinema.”
“We hope that audiences will be able to experience the movies alongside hosts and guests whom may be able to share and commiserate along with the themes of the highlighted film, from the comfort and safety of their homes.”
The next weekend saw the SFS and Happiness Initiative host their own watch parties, ‘screening’ comedy-thriller I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore and romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Priyanka Nair, SFS Community Manager, shares, “Singapore Film Society usually programmes an average of two “Core Screenings” a month for our members. This is usually done by selecting a film and opening an RSVP channel for our members to register that they’re coming. With the closure of cinemas because of COVID-19 measures, our regular “Core Screenings” have also been temporarily halted.”
Their first watch party came about when its members chanced upon the Netflix Party Chrome extension soon after the cinema closures and thought of giving it a go. The extension includes a a group chat and synchronises video playback between those participating in a party.
“All of us at SFS love watching films with the rest of our film-loving friends, and we didn’t want the closure of cinemas to stop that enjoyment. So we decided to take it online.”
She continues, “The main objective of the watch parties is to maintain the community that [the SFS has] built around film. I know that stay-home is difficult to adjust to and there’s plenty of people who are posting about mental health wellness at this time. So a part of these watch parties is to ensure that there’s social support in whatever way we can offer in this trying period.”
In addition to I Don’t Feel At Home…, the SFS has also screened the cult-classic Mean Girls. They will be looking to do more topic-themed films along the way. On these choices, Priyanka explains, “When we programme films, I’m also thinking about what people would like to watch as a break from all the other chaos that we’re experiencing in this period. It’s a good way to connect and offer support.”
Likewise with the Happiness Initiative, their watch parties are also an extension of its organisation’s goals. In line with their picks for the Happiness Film Festival, they chose Silver Linings Playbook and The Blind Side for its heartwarming qualities and themes around positive psychology.
Sherman Ho, Project Manager and Co-Founder of the Happiness Initiative, details, “There are a lot of negative things in the media right now with COVID-19 related news. Now with the “circuit-breaker” measures, there’s a lot of tension and fear in the environment as well. A key reason why we organise these watch parties is to create a more positive environment to help people feel not so negative or fearful of the current situation.”
Both of these organisations use the Netflix Party extension to host their watch parties, with participants joining in through a link shared on their Telegram channels and event pages. While there hasn’t been any technical difficulties on their end, both share that the main hiccups came from the extension being relatively new leading to participants being unfamiliar with how it works.
Both Priyanka and Sherman are the hosts of their watch parties, sharing fun-facts and trivia to kick-start conversations in the group chats. As an after party, a Google Meets discussion regarding the film is also held for participants to mingle – this, however, has been challenging to facilitate.
Sherman explains, “I think Singaporeans are generally more camera shy so while they might enjoy the process of chatting through text while watching along, they might not want to turn on the camera and join a group of people they don’t know. I think it takes time – maybe after a while people will get to know each other and be more comfortable.”
Anticipate Pictures’s watch parties were held slightly differently. Their first with German comedy Toni Erdmann was a watchalong with Junfeng, Kirsten and Vincent over Zoom before a film discussion between participants (and concluding with a group rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All”).
Its second session with Queer Palm winner Portrait of A Lady On Fire had each participant manually synchronise the film, before joining a post-show chat hosted on Instagram Live by local writer Amanda Lee and Kirsten. Together, they spoke with writer-director Desiree Akhavan and portrait photographer Li Wanjie to break down the themes of the film.
Vincent shares, “There were some minor technical issues but that was mostly because of bandwidth and buffering issues and a little bit of finagling on the part of the hosts on how to run these watch parties for the first time. But on a far more interesting note, audience behaviors change when Zoom is the medium of the watch party, versus Instagram Live which allows viewers to be a little more anonymous.”
“[The watch parties’] reception has been fantastic! I think it’s mainly because we had hosts and speakers who are recognised to be highly knowledgeable about the themes in the films. This was a way for them as well to try something out outside of their personal comfort zone and build up rapport for struggling businesses like mine who toil usually outside of the public eye.”
There are plans by Anticipate Pictures to have more watch parties and they are working to ensure that each of them are “must-tune-in” events. The company is currently in the midst of getting their entire catalogue on Vimeo and hope to ride out the “circuit-breaker” month with as minimal spending as possible.
Similarly, both the SFS and the Happiness Initiative have received positive receptions. Both organisations will be aiming for two watch parties per week, while looking into hosting them on other platforms for those that don’t have Netflix subscriptions.
As for the future of watch parties in the post COVID-19 world, the SFS will look to integrate both online and offline movie-watching while working on “alternative film-viewing experiences” such as silent-disco-esque viewing, series bingeing, or outdoor screenings.
For Anticipate Pictures, the team isn’t ruling out the possibilities of such. However, these watch parties will more likely be of their library titles rather than new films still in release in cinemas.
As the Happiness Initiative is not as centred around films as the other two organisers, future watch parties once social distancing measures eases would depend on responses. Sherman shares, “We will probably continue if we see a consistent stream of people coming back – especially when these are very easy and low-cost. You don’t have to worry about film rights, you don’t have to worry about venues, and you don’t have to organise all these things that come with physical screenings.”
On whether watch parties will be the thing of the future replacing the physical film-going experience, all three interviewees ruled out that possibility, passionately championing the latter’s merits while acknowledging the opportunities that these parties present.
Vincent summarises, “I believe [watch parties] will be a new way of reaching out to audiences and even speakers who won’t be able to be physically present at screenings, but it won’t be the game changer we are looking for. Building a community requires love, dedication and a need to be specific with what you are passionate about…This, I feel, is the tried-and-true way of bringing out the best in the cinema-going experience.”
Priyanka adds, “I doubt [watch parties] will completely replace cinema-going in the future because at the heart of it, movies were always, and still usually are, made to be watched in partial solitude on the big screen. In partial solitude, I refer to the experience of sitting beside friends but still respecting the movie by completely immersing yourselves and not talking loudly, or making comments that will disrupt the viewing experience of others. It’s an understood golden-rule of cinema-viewing, but there’s something special in the experience because of it.”
With the “circuit breaker” measures it seems inevitable that watch parties would only be much more popular from here – especially informally amongst friends. On the broader scope, these three organisers have also shown that it’s possible to coexist in the same space without oversaturation.
For some of the best that cinema can offer and nuanced discussions led by movers and shakers of Singapore’s film world, there is Anticipate Pictures. For a varied selection of popular (and excellent!) films, there is the Singapore Film Society. For pick-me-ups and life-affirming films, there is the Happiness Initiative.
And perhaps most importantly, all of them fill the pangs of loneliness – even for a while – in these strange, strange times.
Keep up to date with these watch parties by following the Facebook page of Anticipate Pictures, the Happiness Initiative, and the SFS. Updates on the watch parties of the Happiness Initiative and the SFS are also available on Telegram. Check out the films available from Anticipate Pictures’s catalogue for streaming and rental on their website.
– INTERVIEWS: Navigating COVID-19 – Insights From the Heart of the Industry
– INTERVIEWS: Pausing the Reel – How the COVID-19 Outbreak Has Affected Local Film Festivals
– 100 SECONDS ON THE RED SOFA: Anticipate Pictures