Canada’s indie film industry looking for ways to find audiences’ eyes amid COVID-19 closures

Everything went sideways for Jeff Barnaby a couple weeks ago.

Like the rest of us, the Canadian filmmaker found himself suddenly thrust into a strange new world of self-isolation and social distancing. However, his universe was additionally upended when he also found out the Coronavirus outbreak was going to sideline the theatrical release of his new indie feature Blood Quantum — a movie he began writing 15 years ago. 

Yes, as soon as cinemas decided to shut their doors from the public, Blood Quantum’s release was swiftly postponed “until further notice.”

“There’s a part of me that thinks the film would have done quite well in a theatre,” laments Barnaby during a recent call to discuss his acclaimed thriller about a Mi’kmaq community that discovers its immune to a global zombie plague. “Of course, I’m talking as if we’ve already cancelled (the release) but I honestly think it’s inevitable. There’s no way these mass places of gathering — bars, theatres, whatever — they’re not just going to be back to business as usual.”

It turns out Barnaby was right. Elevation Pictures — the movie’s distribution company is now abandoning hopes for an eventual theatrical run and instead announced they’ll be releasing Blood Quantum straight to VOD later this month. It’s a devastating blow for a Canadian indie film that, at the best of times, struggles to compete for theatrical real estate against Hollywood blockbusters. 

But it is a strategy that many independent studios are now adopting for their projects. That’s how Hollywood studios have begun to release most new titles. After all, while its multiplex run was cut short by the pandemic, Vin Diesel’s comic-book thriller Bloodshotis now prominently featured across VOD platforms ensuring at least some monetary compensation for its theatrical losses. That still presents a challenge for the indie houses however because most studio-backed movies will be heavily showcased on the main pages of all streaming sites. The same can’t be said for more modest fare like, say, the upcoming cancer-themed Canadian dramedy Tammy’s Always Dying (it’ll be available May 1 on most platforms by the way).

If the COVID-19 outbreak has shown us anything, it’s that the independent spirit that makes up the foundation of the Canadian film industry will have to live on in the age of streaming and beyond. And how quickly audiences will return to those empty theatre seats is another question however. In the meantime, theatres and movie distributors are becoming increasingly shrewd in the shadow of the shutdown in finding unique ways to screen diverse content online. 

In that spirit, here are three ways for moviegoers to support overlooked films like Blood Quantum and discover other independent gems from alternate sources other than massive mainstream platforms like Netflix.

Hot Docs

North America’s largest documentary festival — just announced it will partner with CBC to launch a “festival-at-home” experience. As such, a selection of first-run docs that would’ve debuted at the Toronto-based festival will air on CBC as well as stream on CBC Gem as “Hot Docs at Home”  The next screening is 9/11 Kids (Thursday, April 23), a fascinating film that catches up with some of the now-grown schoolchildren that were having storytime with George W. Bush the moment the President was told of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11.

The NFB 

The National Film Board of Canada always has plenty to offer. Their award-winning Screening Room features over 3000 productions that stream free of charge. Choose from animations, classic documentaries or experimental content. One of the latest notable additions is First Stripes, which follows several Canadian Armed Forces recruits over 12 intense weeks of training.

Kino Marquee

American distributor Kino Lorber has created a virtual exhibition initiative in which they’ve partnered with various theatres to screen such arthouse flicks as the Cannes-prize winning Brazilian thriller Bacurau. As CEO Richard Lorber stated in a press release, such an initiative will allow “film lovers and the (theatres) a way to mutually support each other … (theatres) can keep selling tickets to great cinematic experiences online.” Although there are no partnerships with Calgary theatres yet, moviegoers can still support other independent Canadian cinemas and watch some of the world’s best foreign-language or arthouse movies. 

Additional note: To honour those on the front lines of COVID-19, Kino Lorber is now streaming acclaimed 2014 doc The American Nurse for free. Check it out here:

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.