These Film Programmers are Using Livestream Websites to Make Niche Works Accessible
“Oscar noms got you down? Good thing we don’t care about that shit over here,” reads a tweet by Annie Rose Malamet, self-proclaimed “lesbian vampire” and host of the Girls, Guts, & Giallo podcast, in promotion of her livestream program of the same name. Since 2019, Malamet has hosted the Girls, Guts, & Giallo podcast as an outlet to critically and non-judgmentally discuss controversial works of film that depict the intersection of femininity and subversion—some of her most popular episodes cover titles like Hellraiser, Jennifer’s Body, Rosemary’s Baby, Scream, and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Her theater service of the same name (alternately referred to as the “Sleaze Theater”) works in kind, hosting double features every week, each of which correspond to a monthly theme. Malamet formerly used Twitch to host her livestreams, but after having run into some problems with censorship of her work, she plans on creating her own website. Her intention with hosting these livestreams remains the same, though: to create an inviting space for users to interact in a live conversation with contentious pieces of history in an open, community-oriented manner. “I have cultivated an audience of smart, critically minded leather queers and sex workers who are hungry for analysis of film done by one of their own,” Malamet explains. “We are tired of the pearl clutching that happens in contemporary film criticism, and we hate sanitized art.”
Malamet’s theater service has been, according to many of her contemporaries, a foundational program in a growing underground movement to democratize film curation in the Internet age. Though the streaming economy has made more films available than ever for a select price, that wealth of choice can become overwhelming when non-contextually thrown at the viewer. Additionally, despite the bulk of film available to stream on services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max, whether or not the resulting work is of any quality is placed at the discernment of the viewer alone, which can result in a significant amount of time invested for diminishing returns, not to mention a presentation through these streaming services that places emphasis on instant gratification rather than concern for the craft and history of the work at hand. The constant need for popular streaming services like these to capture instantaneous audience attention has produced a struggle to include films that were released prior to 1980, but even then, where does that selective inclusion leave the important works of film history that may not satiate the audience masses? Besides, even when more historically-minded streaming services like Shudder and especially the Criterion Channel do intentionally include boundary-pushing work that spans across time period and genre, the user is still left to spend hours upon hours sifting through the vast catalogs of films available to find what best suits their curiosities.
In response to this market oversaturation, savvy film historians and curious bystanders alike have taken to livestream platforms like Discord and Twitch to broadcast customized selections of films throughout history for equally enthusiastic viewers. While Malamet has dedicated her life’s work to examining off-kilter expressions of femininity on-screen, she has only provided her livestream as an extension of this work for two years, and many of her fellow streamers have followed suit; the quarantine at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was when many of these streamers cite having come up with their ideas. For the cost of organizing and scheduling these streams, many participants are often asked by their respective server hosts to pay a certain monthly access fee, but no matter: for about $10 a month, the price is well worth the experiences gained from the service.
“Simply put, I show what I like and what I find valuable. My goal is to show people beauty, not in sort of a placid or complacent sense, but in the sense that real beauty disturbs and mesmerizes, compels and unsettles,” describes Gretchen Felker-Martin, film critic and author of the acclaimed post-apocalyptic horror novel Manhunt. Felker-Martin hosts the Deadlights Theater, a Discord server where she shows bi-weekly selections of films new and old that abide this purpose, most of which are in some way adjacent to the horror genre (the theater is named in reference to the Stephen King novel It). Citing films like The Loved Ones, It Comes at Night, Byzantium, and the 1978 iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as some of her biggest hits in terms of audience response, she says, “Bleak stuff has gone over big with the Deadlights gang, which feels about right for people whose common entry point is that they enjoy my work. I think we like to have extreme emotional experiences together. It's kind of a bonding ritual.”
Despite having been a critic and horror aficionado for some time, Felker-Martin credits Malamet as her primary inspiration for finally creating a community space similar to the Girls, Guts, & Giallo Sleaze Theater, and she says that hosting the theater has made her, someone who has already seen thousands of movies, even more voracious in her appetites. “I want to broaden horizons that aren't just mine, and to think about film in a global context. I mostly know American, French, English, and Japanese cinema; this has pushed me to branch out,” she elaborates. “My audience has met and exceeded my expectations at every turn, frankly. They've really blown me away.”
Many of the makeshift film programming services are provided by queer and trans hosts, which, in addition to providing a sense of security and accommodation among these communities, has resulted in an increased curiosity for selections that bypass traditional terms of respectability in art. Horror has proven especially popular among these streamers, both as a genre that is often overlooked by many popular streaming services and one that provides a visceral, mind-bending, and often unabashedly sexual approach to thematic content and creative execution. “I've always had a fascination with representations of femininity and women in subversive films. Watching these movies at 1 A.M. on public access and other weirdo channels from the early 2000s was instrumental in forming my sexual and social identity. Over the years, I've accumulated a wealth of specialized knowledge on subversive cinema,” says Malamet. “My favorite thing to hear is that I’m changing the way people engage with film and art in general. Teaching is everything to me; even my last name means ‘teacher’ in Hebrew. I am just nothing without the rapt attention of pupils.”
Horror movies aren’t the only artforms to experience a resurgence due to the popularity of these niche film curation services, though—really, anything that can be thought of as breaking away from normative tastes can find a home in these spaces. Michael DeForge’s service Stuck Inside Watching Shit has included themes described by him as ranging from, “‘Children’s Drawings,’ ‘Public Washrooms’ and ‘Infrastructure.’” Additionally, Dobes Crusher, host of the aptly-named service Video Toilet, tells me, “A lot of what I screen and how I choose my programming is informed by the diverse and fairly international audience who sometimes request themes (‘horror anthologies,’ ‘East Bloc animation,’ ‘musicals that bombed!’) suggest movies, or teach me about unusual media I've never heard of. I'm always trying to watch something new along with my audience. I also tend to add in short films, cartoons, old educational programming as well to add to the experience.” Indeed, Video Toilet does run the gamut in terms of subject matter and form—Dobes is an illustrator first and a film enthusiast second, which is mirrored in Video Toilet rosters. “People respond well to offbeat humor, practical effects, unusual or beautiful visuals, compelling action, or certain levels of charming incompetence. Amsterdamned wowed my audience with its premise of a serial killer diver in the Dutch canals, wild canal boat chases, and surprisingly beautiful night shots and cinematography. Sometimes it's about the sheer fairytale beauty of a film like The White Reindeer, or it's about something chaotic and strange like Blood Beat, with its inexplicable samurai possession in rural Wisconsin.”
Yet these programming services aren’t just a learning experience at the individual level, but a community space, too, which makes the predominantly queer and trans bent of their hosts that much more impactful. “My audience started with my friend group—primarily queer people, and most of them queer furries. I'm queer and trans myself, so birds of a feather really do flock together. A fair amount of them are also horror movie fans, artists, writers, and physical media collectors,” Dobes demonstrates. “What I've given them is a queer-friendly space to be themselves and talk about their interests. They really like seeing unusual films and especially queer themes. I'm always thinking of ways to surprise my audience with films they might not otherwise have heard about.” Here, the chat function of apps like Discord provides an unexpected dimension to the bonding experience of watching a film altogether. “The really surprising thing for me is that I didn't originally expect to have such an active community that would be meaningful to so many people,” Dobes goes on to explain. “Some audience members tune in every weekend for my shows—they actively miss my shows when they can't attend or I can't host them. There's others who can't attend the streams because of schedule conflicts that still love being active in the chat channels.”
Providing such a welcoming space on a regular basis isn’t always as easy as it seems upon first glance, however. Many programmers report their ambitions sometimes becoming loftier than their capacity to actually elaborate on those plans: finding a monthly theme that intrigues a prospective audience and researching which films could be shown in what order is often a much more difficult task than many curators initially expected when creating their servers. “When I start planning one of these nights, I have grandiose ideas as to interweaving different recurring bits, editing together very specific moments from completely obscure material, and getting the timing seamless, so that there’s nothing that takes you out of the experience like an accidental appearance of someone promoting their YouTube channel or something,” says Paul Freitag-Fey, host of the Psychotronicon server, which he created with the intention of providing a contemporary simulation of an offbeat late-night cable channel. “But then reality of the actual day-to-day time I have to do editing on a vanity project kicks in, and it doesn’t quite turn out as good as I’d expected. But I’m still generally satisfied with the results.” Dobes Crusher says they even keep a list of potential choices to help narrow down selections when the time to curate a new month’s worth of programming comes. “It gets a bit obsessive,” they explain. “A lot of research goes into finding films and suitable short films to pair with them.”
Beyond the painstaking process of determining which films would be interesting to a prospective audience, the politically boundary-pushing nature of the art many of these streams display can prove dicey when faced with the threat of violating the terms and conditions of the livestream services many of these programmers use. Overcoming Twitch’s censorship has been a particular hassle for Annie Rose Malamet, who, after only twenty minutes of showing a film, was shut down by the website and forced to find an alternative means to showing her selection for the night. “It was depressing for me,” she recounts of the experience. “I have dedicated my life to censored/banned art, so the prescience of being censored myself is not lost on me. The right to sexual expression is deeply important to me, so when things like this happen, it feels like a rejection of my personhood.” Malamet’s experience on Twitch isn’t unique, either—Michael DeForge was suspended by the platform for airing the gay, softcore vampire romantic comedy Love Bites. With the help of a collaborator named Mason Buck, Malamet was able to create her own livestream website that allows her the freedom to broadcast whatever she wants, but the experience was illuminating nonetheless. “I have learned that censorship of sexual freedom on the Internet is even worse than we all think. It's a very scary time.”
Despite the challenges that streaming under the regulations of such large websites can present, many of these programmers have found the experience ultimately beneficial, both for the hosts in question and their respective audiences. “My patrons (whom I call ‘Teacher's Pets’) and I joke that we have ‘mind orgies’ in the chat. We're all wildly horny and perverted, and our Discord server is incredibly flirty,” Malamet highlights as one of her favorite aspects of hosting her theater. “Every week I show films that people tell [me] awaken new kinks for them, and that is my favorite response. Two weeks ago we watched Blind Beast, and watching all the horny, kinky disabled people go wild for it was amazing. They tell me every week that what I show is their new favorite movie. Recently, The Mafu Cage and Blind Beast were extremely well-received. I think because they're obscure and hard to find and people were shocked by how incredible they are, and angry that these works are not more known.”
In the age of market oversaturation, not only has the communal aspect of these servers provided a sense of camaraderie, but it has also given contributing viewers a less isolating alternative to the more regimented nature of services like Netflix or Hulu. “Streaming is cold and inhuman. People often tell me that they love the streams because they love having movies picked for them and not being able to pause to play on their phones,” says Malamet. “People want films picked by humans, not an algorithm. It's an intimate experience. Also a lot of good shit is not even available on streaming, so these streams are even more vital even though it seems like we have more choice now.”
That general malaise directed towards the streaming economy is a sentiment shared by numerous other programmers. “I am desperate for platforms on the internet in general that aren't corporate-walled gardens, but maybe that ship has sailed. I want more spaces for artists making idiosyncratic work and sharing older material outside of the current aesthetic,” says Evan Dahm, who runs The Ambiguity Program, a server that highlights overlooked animated films from the 1920s–80s. “There is a lot of value in just seeing the different ways things have looked outside of our moment, and in realizing that we haven't arrived at a ‘conclusion’ to visual culture; we're making stuff in history just like everyone else has, and we shouldn't close ourselves off to material outside of the current moment.”
That said, market domination has provided a glimpse of hope for the programmers attempting to change the streaming landscape however possible. “In the age of corporate streaming content like Netflix and the like being the default choice for entertainment, we’re no longer accustomed to turning on the TV and flipping channels, randomly watching whatever comes across your eyes and, as a result, often stumbling on something amazing that you never would’ve seen before. That’s the kind of experience I try my best to replicate,” comments Paul Freitag-Fey. “Standard streaming platforms are great for content that you know you want to see, but I try to provide content that you had no idea you wanted to see and now you either need it in your life forever or want to get it out of your head as soon as possible. I like to think that when you join my stream, you’ll know what to expect thematically, but you’ll have no idea what to expect in the execution.”
Though many of these programmers have humble ambitions, that such diverse and challenging material is welcomed with open arms in these communities is a sign that the instant gratification of the streaming economy can’t kill the curiosity of its viewers, no matter how hard it tries. “I think it's preferable to be in a space run by a queer weirdo than to be in one run by Jeff Bezos, or one that's answerable to venture capital investors,” says Gretchen Felker-Martin. “I do my best to guide and help my subscribers as they build their relationships to film, and I'm making a modest living, yeah, but that money stays in my community—and by community, I mean the queers and freaks and weirdos I actually know and love. It's not going to line corporate pockets or go where it'll never, ever come back into circulation among people like me and my viewers.” Whether they’re a quiet revolution or a niche curiosity on a weekend night, what all these servers have in common is the community that keeps viewers in regular attendance. So sit back, silence your phone, and enjoy the movie—but stay awhile afterwards, because you may find other viewers who are just as excited to be here as you.