VOD, Streaming or Virtual Cinema? Your Guide to Digital Movie Options

With most movie theaters closed for the foreseeable future, new releases have migrated to virtual cinemas or to video on demand. If you thought choosing a film at the multiplex was difficult, finding that same new movie in the current hodgepodge is potentially paralyzing. Distributors are only releasing a handful of titles, and the kind of film you’re interested in — mainstream, art house, revival — affects where you ought to look.

First, video on demand is a blanket term. Subscription Video on Demand, or SVOD, refers to a streaming service like Netflix or the free titles offered through your cable package, for instance; a monthly charge buys you unlimited viewings of select titles. Transactional video on demand, or TVOD, means paying for movies individually, either to rent for a limited time or to buy. The selection tends to be broader, and purchases theoretically last forever. (That said, changing rights issues over time mean that unlike with physical media, movies you have bought might not always be there to grab off your virtual shelf.)

Virtual cinemas are a newer, related option, set up to benefit theaters — art houses in particular — that the pandemic has shuttered. Those services work the same way as TVOD rentals, except that part of each admission price supports a real-life cinema of your choosing. And in many cases, the movies are the ones those theaters would be screening now.

Below is a guide to your viewing options for newer films.

Recent titles worth seeing: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a drama about a teenager seeking an abortion — Manohla Dargis described the film as “a low-key knockout” in her New York Times review — or “The Invisible Man,” a remake starring Elisabeth Moss that Dargis called “a creepy-scary overhaul with an unsettling #MeToo spin.”

Where to find them: Any major service that sells movies à la carte — Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, your cable package — should have these, although they aren’t included in any subscriptions. Think of watching each one as the equivalent of going to a box office and buying a ticket.

Why choose this option: If you want to see some of the films that would normally be playing in theaters right now, this is the way to go. For many of the movies, the rental price is $19.99. That is more expensive than a regular multiplex ticket but suddenly looks like a good deal if you are locked down with a group of people. You can park several children in front of “Trolls World Tour” without paying a separate admission for each one.

Where to find them: This is where it gets confusing. The best option is to simply go to the website of a theater you want to support and see what is “showing” there. Through Film Forum in Manhattan, for instance, you can buy admission to the harrowing post-World War II Russian film “Beanpole,” the wry Romanian caper comedy “The Whistlers,” “Sorry We Missed You” or “The Wild Goose Lake.” If you know which company distributes the movie you want to see — Kino Lorber for “Bacurau,” say, or Magnolia for “The Whistlers” — go to its website and click on the virtual-cinema option. Note that if you do this, you will be prompted to select the theater you want to support. Sometimes the virtual runs have closing dates, just as they would in real theaters, though a lot of those runs have been getting extended.

Why choose this option: When it comes to quality, range of options and keeping theaters in business, virtual cinemas are one of the few bright spots for filmgoing to come out of this pandemic.

Recent titles worth seeing: “Crip Camp,” on Netflix, a documentary about a summer camp for the disabled in the Catskills and the campers who went on to become activists in the American disability rights movement.

Where to find them: The pandemic has changed little here. Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus already offered their share of exclusive streaming movies, although before the nationwide theater closures, some of those movies would have had advance or simultaneous theatrical releases.

Why choose this option: If you already have a subscription to the service, the price is right, but the selection is limited. (A Netflix package will get you Netflix exclusives like “The Irishman,” but if you want to see “The Invisible Man,” you will have to go elsewhere.) The goal of these services is to keep you on one site, rather than browsing the full spectrum of what’s available to watch online.

Recent titles worth seeing: In major cities, theatrical runs for older films are common. Before the closures, Luchino Visconti’s “L’Innocente,” Bruno Barreto’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” and Istvan Szabo’s “Mephisto” had each returned to art houses for revival engagements, and “Cane River,” a rediscovered 1982 independent feature from Horace B. Jenkins, was getting its first-ever release. All are now showing in virtual-cinema form. And this may finally be the time to tackle Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour “Satantango,” recently revived for its 25th anniversary and newly available to stream. If you can find a way to watch it without interruption, as Tarr’s hypnotic, pathbreaking film was meant to be seen, so much the better.

Where to find them: As with the virtual art house new releases, the best place to start is with theaters’ websites. “Satantango” is available to rent on Vimeo and as a virtual-cinema purchase that can support Film at Lincoln Center, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and other theaters. “Cane River” is showing in a virtual cinema tied to a handful of theaters around the country, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “L’Innocente” and “Dona Flor” can be found through Film Movement, “Mephisto” through Kino Lorber. And Film Forum is still adding runs as if it were open, including one of a perennial favorite, the French heist classic “Rififi.”

Why choose this option: If you habitually watch older movies in theaters, you can replicate that experience at home in a limited way.

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