For the first time in nearly a year, New York-based movie theater operator Nicolas Nicolaou can breathe a sigh of relief. That’s because Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that cinemas across the five boroughs could reopen starting next month, a potential reprieve for a sector of the entertainment industry that’s been walloped by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nicolaou owns three theaters in the city — Cinema Village in Manhattan, Alpine Theatre in Brooklyn and Cinemart Cinemas in Queens. Due to damage from frozen pipes, he doesn’t expect those venues to reopen until April 2. When he can reignite the marquee lights, his locations will be running at 25% capacity, or 50 people per auditorium — which means it will be nearly impossible to make money. Still, he says he’s grateful for the opportunity to welcome patrons after what he refers to as “the worst year of my life.”
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“At 25% capacity, you can’t operate profitably,” he says. But he plans to restart his businesses anyway because he feels it will be “proof that coronavirus can’t be traced back to movie theaters.” He adds, “Within a reasonable amount of time, we hopefully will be allowed to operate at 50%, which makes more economical sense.”
The approval for New York City movie theaters to reopen has significance that extends far beyond the Big Apple. With multiplexes in the most populous city in the country shuttered, studios have been forced to delay their biggest movies — or ship them to streaming services. While the news doesn’t necessarily mean blockbusters will be greeting the big screen anytime soon (theaters in Los Angeles, another mega movie market, remain closed and cinemas that have reopened elsewhere are mostly empty), many still consider it a positive development in repairing the battered film industry.
“It’s a very important piece of the puzzle,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “This will hopefully embolden studios to bring out their big movies. I don’t want to be too Pollyanna, but at least this gives us a shot of having some return to normalcy.”
For larger cinema chains, such as AMC Theatres, it’s more realistic to reopen in two weeks despite the short turnaround. AMC, which has the biggest footprint in the country, plans to reopen all 13 venues in NYC on March 5. Adam Aron, the company’s CEO, said on Monday the decision is “another important step towards restoring the health of the movie theater industry.”
Consistent with protocols in other AMC locations, he says NYC venues will abide by the AMC Safe & Clean policy, which includes “social distancing and automatic seat blocking in each auditorium, mandatory mask wearing, and upgraded air filtration with MERV-13 air filters, as well as many other important health, sanitization and cleanliness efforts.” The National Association of Theater Owners, the film exhibition industry’s main lobbying group, noted that cinemas nationwide have been operating “safely and responsibly” at higher capacity limits for many months without any outbreaks of COVID-19.
Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, the second and third largest circuits in the nation, won’t be affected by the announcement. All Regal locations have been closed since September and won’t reopen until studios begin releasing more franchise movies. And Cinemark doesn’t have any venues in the city.
Alamo Drafthouse, a smaller chain known for in-theater dining, intends to reopen its Brooklyn space in the immediate future. It’s unclear how independently owned theaters in New York City, institutions like Angelika, Film Forum, IFC Center or Metrograph, plan to operate. For many, it may be more financially viable to stay closed.
A spokesperson for Alamo Drafthouse says, “We don’t believe we’ll make it by March 5th — there’s a lot to do — but we look forward to reopening City Point [in Brooklyn] as soon as possible, and we’ll make plenty of noise when we do.”
Dusting off projectors is only half the battle. There’s also the matter of, you know, getting people to go to the movies.
Prior to the pandemic, New York City resident Stephanie Walls frequented movie theaters with the same compulsion that might inspire one to pop into a bodega for warmth in the wintertime. If she simply walked by a theater, she would check the showtimes and buy a ticket on a whim. That’s partially how the 34-year-old came to watch “Black Panther” seven times the week the Marvel blockbuster opened in 2018.
But despite her deep and almost reflexive love of going to the movies, Walls doesn’t plan on returning anytime soon. She hasn’t received any doses of the COVID-19 vaccine yet, and even when she does, she anticipates that she will be wary of resuming her old way of life.
“I don’t know if I have faith in how the country has proceeded with the pandemic,” Walls says. “I can only control what I do and make sure I have the least possible exposure.”
Brooklyn native Drew Katz, 24, says he used to go to the movies twice a month and estimates he saw “everything.” Now, he says, nothing short of a vaccine will get him to go back.
“There’s no way to tell if the air filtration is working,” he says. “No amount of distancing is going to convince me it’s safe to sit in a room with 49 other people for two hours.”
Juan Manangon, who lives in Brooklyn and has paused his AMC Stubs A-List subscription, admits he’s not sure how to feel about theaters reopening. “I want it to be how it was in the Before Times, but it won’t be,” says the 39-year-old media researcher. “If I do decide to go, I would wait a couple of weeks to see what people are saying — reviews of health protocols and how the city is doing in terms of infection rates.”
It’s less hazy for 35-year-old Matt Parker. He won’t be returning until he’s vaccinated. “It’s simply not worth the stress of worrying about the risk,” he says. “We’ve gone this long with sacrifices. [I] need to see it through so it was all worth it.”
Brooklynite Antonio Harris, on the other hand, has no hesitation. He considers returning to cinemas as a restoration of “some type of normality.” With theaters in the boroughs closed, he’s journeyed to Jersey City to get his fix — seeing “Promising Young Woman” three times.
“There was never anyone there,” he says. “It was an eerie feeling, but I was OK with it being empty. It was a relief.”
He told himself he wouldn’t indulge in concession snacks, but ultimately the allure of buttery popcorn was too tantalizing to refuse. “I had to get it,” says the 24-year-old, a recruiting coordinator at a technology company. When he wasn’t munching on popcorn, he made sure to stay double masked.
Brennan Jackson, 25, similarly says he is thrilled to get back to watching films on the big screen. He plans to buy a ticket for Disney’s animated adventure “Raya and the Last Dragon” on March 5, the day theaters in New York City can reopen. “It’s a sign that things are slowly but surely starting to get back to normal,” he says. He hasn’t been vaccinated yet, but he says the precautionary measures in place are enough to make him feel safe. He likens a trip to the movies as the same risk level of going to the grocery store.
“If there was no capacity limit to theaters, I wouldn’t want to go,” he says. “But seeing they are limiting up to 50 people is fine by me.”
“Honestly,” he continues, “I need somewhere to go after being alone for pretty much a whole year.”
Nicolaou, the theater owner, hopes other New Yorkers feel similarly restless. In the decades he’s owned his venues, he’s kept ticket prices down to ensure locals of all financial backgrounds can afford a movie stub. Even with reduced foot traffic, he plans to continue charging lower rates.
He acknowledges it may be a slow process. And though the virus is still spreading in the United States, Nicolaou remains optimistic that the country will emerge from the global health crisis by abiding by the pandemic safety guidelines provided by science experts.
“We have to listen to Fauci,” he says. “He’s from Brooklyn.”
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