NYC’s indie theatres preparing to reopen

NYC is full of movie theaters but they definitely fall into two camps — the national chains and the locally supported indies.

New York’s Indie Movie Theaters Are Cautiously Preparing To Reopen

By James Ramsay June 11, 2020 1:17 p.m. • 96 Comments

Nitehawk Cinema marquee reads: Onward

Nitehawk’s marquee in Park Slope Scott Lynch / Gothamist

On Sunday, March 15th, with five confirmed coronavirus deaths and 329 cases in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio told movie theaters they had less than two days to close.

It was a dizzying turn for the industry — de Blasio had instructed New Yorkers just two weeks earlier to “get out on the town despite Coronavirus” and go catch a movie.

But if the change was abrupt, the severity of the situation was obvious. On March 13th, two days before the mayor’s announcement, Nitehawk founder and executive director Matthew Viragh furloughed most of his staff, told them to apply for unemployment benefits before the rush, and invited them back to the Williamsburg and Park Slope theaters one last time to collect perishable items from the kitchens.

“We basically set up a little CSA in each location, where our staff could come in and grab whatever they wanted,” said Viragh. “It was like going to a grocery store, basically. And then we had a lot of stuff that had been made already, too. Even pre-batch cocktails. It was a sad moment, and it really started sinking in at that point that… we weren’t quite sure when we’d see each other again.” Advertisement

As the coronavirus forced much of the country’s service and hospitality industries to shut down (or adapt dramatically), there’s been something of a collective education in how these businesses operate, from the razor-thin margins at bars and restaurants, to the unforgiving demands of commercial rent. But for New York City’s independent and art house theaters, their situations are more complicated.

“Basically, we’re two businesses,” said Viragh. “We’re a restaurant, and we’re a movie theater. And they’re combined, but the restaurant runs like any restaurant, where the margins are tight. But we have more room for revenue… We’re actually the one that lobbied to change the law so that you can serve alcohol in a theater.”

Because of the challenge of operating a restaurant within the theater — and having nearly 180 employees who’d need to feel safe coming back to work — Viragh said Nitehawk may not open until next year, and he doesn’t expect business to get back to pre-pandemic levels for another 18 months to two years.

Meanwhile, at Film Forum in SoHo, the full expectation is to reopen next month.

“We don’t know exactly what that date is,” said Film Forum director Karen Cooper. “Based on Phase 1 having reached completion on June 8th — which is what Cuomo has told us — by the end of July, we’ll be at Phase 4 and be able to reopen. So my colleagues and I have been developing programming to start July 29th.”

Cooper said that when the theater reopens, attendees will be seated in a checkerboard pattern, so no one is directly next to or behind anyone. Certain staff members will be solely dedicated to cleaning and disinfecting. And ticket-sellers and concessionists will work behind plexiglass windows.

Film Forum may also be better poised to survive the shutdown than many of its competitors — regardless of when reopening happens — since it operates as a nonprofit.

“We’re showing movies, we’ve got a marquee, we’ve got a screen, we’ve got a projector. We look like a movie theater. We are a movie theater!” Cooper said. “But in fact, our ability to show the kinds of films we show, which are riskier and more challenging, foreign films, films with a political subtext — these kinds of films sometimes make real money, but most often make very modest amounts of money, and we couldn’t do that unless we have public and private support.”

In addition to the donations of 6,000 members, Film Forum receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and other sources. (Though Film Forum furloughed the 37 part-time employees who work in the theater, it gave them each $1,000 out of a $37,000 grant from the estate of Robert Osborne, the late Turner Classic Movies host.)

“Strangely enough, our survival may be stronger and more robust than the multi-million dollar chains!” Cooper said, referring to news that AMC, the country’s largest theater chain, may not be able to stay in business.

Film at Lincoln Center, another nonprofit theater, has a similarly secure future. As a constituent member of Lincoln Center, FLC — which is still its own independent nonprofit — is in no danger of losing its lease on the Walter Reade Theater. But reopening will have its own particular challenges around safety and social distancing, since the theater shares a physical building with Julliard dormitories.

For now, Film at Lincoln Center has pivoted to showing movies in virtual, online screening rooms (as have Film Forum and Nitehawk). Executive Director Lesli Klainberg said the viewership so far has been minimal.

“It’s more like in the hundreds than in the thousands, which is what we would normally have,” Klainberg said. “Some of the films we have are being offered by other art houses, so sometimes it’s just a matter of where they click. But for us, our films are not typically mainstream films, they’re foreign or independent films. Curation is at the heart of what we do. So even though our theaters are closed, we’re actually offering more films than we’d be able to offer.”

Klainberg said her organization’s biggest event of the year, the New York Film Festival, is still on for its scheduled start date of September 25th. But depending on the reopening guidelines — and what feels safe — she and her staff are considering a mix of outdoor screenings, digital screenings, and events at other sites besides the Walter Reade.

“We feel it’s important to try to deliver the festival out to the boroughs, and out to the city itself,” she said. “But it’s unclear what we can be prepared for. It’s extraordinary to see the enormous number of type-A personalities who are completely stymied in their ability to plan.”

Even though the pandemic has put a halt on film production around the world, movie theater programmers are optimistic about the glut of quality films that’ll come out in the next couple years, since studios and distributors are sitting on projects that’ve been held because of theater closures and festival cancellations. What they’re less certain about is whether moviegoers will feel safe — or otherwise incentivised — to return to a theater.

“My secret fear is that everyone is sitting at home watching every movie they’ve ever wanted to watch that they never had time to watch,” Klainberg said. “And when they come out of this, and everyone feels safe, we’re going to have to offer them something that’s new and unique and special, because that’s what they come to the movies for.”

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