This past year has taken online streaming to a whole new level.

There are new platforms (HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+), new viewing records (looking at you, Bridgerton) and more original content than ever. But Marie-Louise Khondji is in a different business. She’s the founder of Le Cinéma Club, an online screening room that showcases one film—for free—each week.

Most of the offerings are shorts and many are directed by up-and-coming names. According to Marie-Louise, the goal is to make film discovery accessible.

It’s cinephilia for all.

Le Cinéma Club began in 2015, but Marie-Louise had been thinking about something like this since her college days in Paris. “I’ve always wanted to create a place for film online. When I got out of college, it was the beginning of online distribution, of streaming,” she says. “When I started [Le Cinéma Club], there was very little curation. I had no idea what I was doing.”

The idea was “to create a distinctive place for film online and one that would both honor the filmmakers that we would screen, but also be a place where it would be very easy and special to discover films. And also one where you could satisfy your curiosity for different voices and different images.”

While other platforms “felt like a big supermarket” filled with movie jackets and titles, Le Cinéma Club would place the filmmaker front and center. “For that, you need to have only one film at a time and put the full spotlight on that filmmaker and film.” That’s how the site’s credo of one film per week came to be.

"Marie Louise Ou La Permission", by Manuel Flèche—a Cinéma Club pick

“Our audience is made up of cinephiles, creatives that are looking for inspiration and people that love culture in general,” says Marie-Louise. “But I always try to present the film in a way that makes it accessible for anyone.” Marie-Louise experimented early on with what that virtual screening room would look like. “Very quickly, I put aside the idea of having a fake curtain open,” she says. Instead, she opted for a minimalist, elegant space.

A place for online cinemas

Marie-Louise grew up in a filmmaking household in Paris. Her father, cinematographer Darius Khondji, has worked on such films as Uncut Gems, Se7en and the Oscar-winner Amour. So Marie-Louise has been watching movies, and visiting sets, from a very young age. She even lived in L.A. for a short while as a teenager while her father was shooting locally. “There was never a time where movies weren’t a central part in my life,” she says. “When I was a teenager, at the age when you start thinking of what you want to do, I was pretty confident in my taste in film. I felt very close to, and at ease with, the language of cinema, if that makes sense.”

At first, she wanted to be a producer—and she still hasn’t crossed that idea off her list. “For me, producing film is a way of strengthening the kind of cinema you like, helping make those films get made and get seen. It’s a little bit of the same motivation that I had with the Le Cinéma Club.”

Around the time she started Le Cinéma Club, she moved to New York and quickly fell in love with the theaters there. “There are a lot of movie theaters in Paris, and I love them,” she says. “But as I started Le Cinéma Club, I became even more interested in independent cinema, in repertory screenings, and I think the programming in New York of repertory movies is so excellent.” The Metrograph, Film Forum, Film at Lincoln Center, Anthology and MoMA are the ones she frequents most—or used to before the pandemic began last March. “I miss them so incredibly much. It’s hard. There’s a special feeling of entering the space. It’s extremely cozy, because it’s a place I’ve always loved going, where I’ve been excited to see movies, discover movies, a place where I feel incredibly happy. I also miss the big screen, the facts of watching a film on a big screen, with great sound and projection.” 

Marie-Louise Khondji (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

That’s not to say Marie-Louise isn’t watching movies in quarantine. She’s clocking just as many, if not more, and still holds out hope for the future of theaters. “I’m a little bit of an idealist. I think people will always want to go movie theaters. I don’t think that the love for movies is diminishing in any way.” 

She does think there’s been a renewed interest in older movies, as new ones have continued pushing back their release dates. But while she supports all kinds of moviegoing, she’s on a mission to get people “to discover things they wouldn’t necessarily discover on their own.” Which is why, “very early on, I asked myself, how I can I make it free?” Marie-Louise often works with films that need more visibility, or highlights filmmakers’ early work around the time of their new release. Artists are often drawn to the platform because of the unique presentation of their work, as Marie-Louise has always intended, with one film and filmmaker front and center.

New voices, front and center

One of the main goals remains to showcase a new generation of filmmakers. That means featuring a lot of short-format work. (This also makes it easier to negotiate international rights each week.) But Marie-Louise tries not to think of it as a short-form vs. long-form binary. Yes, short films have often been equated with student films, through which emerging artists are just learning the ropes. But she thinks the tides are changing, bringing forth a sort of short-format renaissance, if you will. Attention spans are dwindling, and more and more people watch on their phones, but there’s always an appetite for something cinematic.

And on Le Cinéma Club, embracing short and long format equally gives Marie-Louise a sense of freedom. “I love the idea of, one week, showing a six-minute film and, the week after, one that’s 60 minutes. I think formats have always been very restrained because of the way movies were screened, and that was normal. I love the idea of exploding that format a little bit. I love to see filmmakers exploring new formats and trying to get out of this short film versus features space.”

Each week, with the help of her team, Marie-Louise chooses the film that will debut on Friday and stream for the next seven days. “The funny thing is, I wasn’t a programmer before—I wanted to be a producer. I became a curator as I was doing this, so I started with what I liked personally.” Now, she tries to keep the programming “extremely eclectic and surprising and fun and different from week to week.”

She has discovered underground, experimental cinema through the process, and mixes work by emerging filmmakers with that of celebrated auteurs she likes, often lesser-known works from their filmographies. She pays attention to festivals, and asks her industry peers for recommendations. She scours social media and the internet, a process she likens to following breadcrumbs, for talent she wants to spotlight. (She’s even worked with the Academy Film Archive to acquire hidden works.) And, she tries to keep it relevant with the cultural calendar, reacting almost as a magazine would. The latest offering was Incense Sweaters & Ice, a film by Martine Syms that explores surveillance across three generations of Black women.

"Incense Sweaters & Ice", by Martine Syms

Marie-Louise reminds us that, though six years in, Le Cinéma Club is still a young project. She can see it growing in a number of ways. “I think we can do what we do even better, making our showcase of film more significant and growing the journal.” She can envision events, once the pandemic is behind us, and possibly original content, returning to her early producing dreams.

But for now, where does Le Cinéma Club fit in in the era of Netflix, Hulu, Criterion Channel and so many other streaming services? As a companion, more than anything: “a commentary service that is here to highlight cinema in general, across genres and across platforms.”

“The idea is really to foster cinephilia and just keep the love for cinema alive, making sure that there’s conversation about movies,” she says. Marie-Louise is not in this for competition. In fact, she was happy that cinemas and festivals figured out a way to exist online. “Whenever I see something good happening for film online, I’m glad,” she says. “And I think the more partnership, the more people work together, the better it is.”

Lead photo is a still from New Acid, by Basim Magdy.

When are the 2021 Oscars?

The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25th at 8 pm EST. Watch live on ABC (or w/ TV provider login).