It was almost spring last year, and Marian Luntz was hearing all the buzz from the big international winter film festivals. Sydney. Rotterdam. Berlin. As longtime film curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Luntz was doing what she does every year: tracking films she might like to program for the museum. MFAH was off to a strong 2020. They showed all of the nominated Oscar Shorts, as they do every year. “People turned out in droves,” Luntz recalled recently over coffee. And the museum did well with 63 Up, the latest documentary from Michael Apted (who died January 7 of this year).
That was the last film they showed before everything shut down on Friday, March 13, 2020. The museum’s bustling Brown Auditorium Theater, designed in 1974, went silent in the face of Covid-19.
But the show, as they say, must go on. Even if it’s confined to your living room.
The pandemic has thrown all conceptions of film exhibition into disarray, with streaming platforms fighting over the right to launch Oscar contenders and one major studio, Warner Bros., opting to premiere its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max (and to a smattering of viewers in select theaters). It’s a new ballgame. And Luntz now finds herself programming films for an invisible audience. “I visualize them,” she says. “I always used to lose sleep about our programming, and which films people would come to. I think it’s about the same.”
MFAH Film, like the majority of cinema out there, is now an at-home affair. To watch you go to mfah.org/virtualcinema. You surf the menu, choose a film, and you’re directed to the distributor’s website, where you buy your ticket and watch on your screen of choice. Maybe invite a few people in your bubble over.
But what’s missing is the same here as anywhere else: the murmur of an appreciative crowd, the visual scale at which movies are meant to be seen, and a night of culture out on the town.
Luntz—a native New Yorker with a decades-long passion for film who just marked her thirtieth year at the museum—has had some adjustments to make. Usually the museum is the platform that sells tickets, reports to the distributor, and divides the box office. The new setup “is actually a flip of the model,” Luntz says. When you click on a film from the MFAH website, it takes you to the distributor’s site. “The distributor has the platform,” Luntz says. “They report to us, and, eventually, pay us our share of the ticket sales.”
The pandemic has brought all manner of confusion to moviegoers, most of it boiling down to a single question: Where do I see the movie? Many are still stuck in a Netflix mindset, wherein we treat a destination streaming service like a Redbox and choose from an assortment of older movies and some newer original programming. But those days are gone. Now you need to know which platform to visit to see a specific film.
In this world, an exhibitor like MFAH is at an advantage. It has a loyal following, an imaginative curator, and some top-notch partnerships. For instance, Kino Marquee, a streaming offshoot of Kino Lorber, provides a steady stream of current art house and repertory films, including festival favorites and award winners. On the MFAH website, you’re a click away from, among others, Identifying Features, a border drama that recently won the Gotham Award for Best International Feature; and The Reason I Jump, a lyrical documentary about nonspeaking autistic people, which won the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary in 2020.
Luntz also still goes out of her way to program films about art and artists. MFAH recently offered Beyond the Visible—Hilma Af Klint, the story of the pioneering female abstract artist (“It was a box office success on the streaming superhighway, and it’s a beautiful film”); and My Rembrandt, a documentary about obsessive Rembrandt collectors.
In other words, the change in venue doesn’t mean a change in quality, or in mission (art and diversity remain priorities). And there’s something to look forward to if and when this pandemic ends: a new 200-seat theater, the Lynn Wyatt, now fully completed and waiting to show something, to go with Brown Auditorium.
Until then, keep your Wi-Fi humming, wear a mask for group viewing—and always trust in your curator.
Bayou City-centric Must-sees
Five key Houston films, according to Marian Luntz:
- "Eagle Pennell, who lived in Houston, gave a distinctive impression of Texans to the world with the no-budget Last Night at the Alamo (1983), a hit on the international festival circuit. Filmed in Houston, it finds a colorful group of hard-luck characters scheming to save a bar (The Alamo) from the wrecking ball of redevelopment."
- "When I moved to Houston in the fall of 1983, the Houston scenes of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984) were being filmed. The first assistant director was Claire Denis, who has gone on to become a prominent director. The film’s dailies were viewed overnight in the MFAH Brown Auditorium."
- "Jason’s Lyric (1994), a romantic urban drama, doesn’t shy away from sex or violence. Houstonians will appreciate its locations, including Third Ward and the early-’90s downtown skyline. Jada Pinkett’s waitress works at This Is It, Forest Whitaker gives a poignant performance, the soundtrack is great, and all radios are tuned to Majic 102."
- "Bull (2019), directed by Annie Silverstein, premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Partially filmed in Houston’s Acres Homes neighborhood, it’s a character study about a friendship between a troubled teen girl and an aging rodeo cowboy."
- "Ghosts of Sugar Land (2019) is an autobiographical short by Bassam Tariq (Mogul Mowgli), inspired by the radicalization of one of his high school friends."