For the past couple of weeks, the handy “coming to local screens” sidebar that usually runs alongside this column has not. It may have something to do with the fact that there’s genuinely nothing playing on any big screen in Maine thanks to social distancing in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Still, we need our movies. And while we here at the Indie Film desk offered up some eclectic streaming alternatives last week, most of us are scraping the bottom of the old Netflix barrel at this point. (Man, it’s almost like people should have listened when we video store types told you Netflix wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.)

But we’re here to provide solutions, not complaints, for Portland film fans, and, as is often the case, that means turning for help to Jon Courtney, PMA Films programmer and all-around Maine movie maven. Since the Portland Museum of Art, where Courtney diligently and creatively books some of the most challenging, thrilling and downright different movies to come to town is responsibly closed for the time being, you’d think that PMA Films would be similarly dark. (And that the busy Courtney could get some sleep.) But, nope, thanks to workaholic Courtney’s love of movies and ingenuity, PMA Films is back, in socially responsible home-viewing form. 

Creating what he’s dubbed a “social distancing video store” for now, Courtney has transformed the always informative PMA Films website into a one-stop screening room, where lovers of the Museum’s signature blend of arthouse, indie and documentary films can rent those movies from home — and continue to support PMA from a safe distance. “For indie programmers and theaters, at first it was high panic mode,” Courtney said. “We were all discussing what to do and if there would just be a glut of unseen movies after this is all over, or whether we would make an attempt to put these all online. For a while, it was a question of who was going to jump first.”

“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band,” a rollicking and illuminating portrait of rock band The Band.

Well, PMA Films jumped, right into the streaming game. On the website now, film-famished PMA supporters can simply click a link and rent a handful of movies that were already scheduled to premiere at the Museum. At present, that includes the rockumentary about The Band, “Once Were Brothers,” the Will Forte-starring Irish supernatural comedy “Super Natural,” SXSW indie favorite “Saint Francis,” and the documentary “Fantastic Fungi,” about those fascinating mushrooms. Said Courtney of the (temporary) switch, “We’re trying to lead with some lighter fare, since right now people have a limited capacity for taking in things that are too heavy.”

Fair enough. And Courtney also promises that, thanks to the growing number of distributors who are recognizing the need to adapt to these unprecedented, theater-emptying circumstances, the roster of PMA Films available for home viewing will only grow. Citing the efforts of indie film stalwarts like Kino Lorber, Film Movement, Magnolia and others, Courtney is eyeing a typically wide-ranging lineup for the weeks – or months – to come. “As long as our distributors are comfortable, we’re anticipating adding two to three films a week and leaving them up on our website during the time of our closure.”

As we’ve all come to recognize during this time of shared uncertainty (economic and otherwise), supporting local businesses is more important than ever. And with a portion of each rental fee being returned to the PMA from the distributors (“sort of reversing the flow of how it usually goes,” Courtney said), Maine moviegoers (who aren’t going anywhere) have the opportunity to watch a really good movie while ensuring that PMA Films is in good shape to start things back up once our “ ‘Under The Dome’ in slow motion” (laughs Courtney) forced isolation is done. “There are ripples that we’re not going to understand until later,” Courtney said of this industry-stilling event. “Some movies may not ever get finished, others will become like these sort-of orphans. And there are theaters that are not going to survive this, that just aren’t ever going to open up again.”

To battle against that unthinkable fate, Courtney says that, in addition to PMA Films, local Maine movie venues like Portland’s The Apohadion and Brunswick’s Frontier have also started exploring the world of on-demand rentals. “We’re putting our heads together so there isn’t any overlap,” said Courtney, proving that, like the best citizens, indie film programmers know when it’s time to look out for our neighbors. 

To rent the initial crop of PMA Films’ “social distancing video store,” go to Prices vary, but Courtney compares them to renting a first-run feature from Amazon or your cable company. In addition, watch the site for the “always evolving” variety of programming to come, including, says Courtney, some exciting local content, as well as possible live filmmaker Q&As via remote. Meanwhile, wash your hands, stay indoors and enjoy a great movie that Netflix is guaranteed not to have.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

A screenshot form “Fantastic Fungi,” available for rent from PMA Films Image by Louis Schwartzberg

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