As an actor, Liam Neeson is in rare company these days. He’s one of the few stars with movies that have actually opened in theaters in the past 12 months.
“We have streaming services, and they’re wonderful. But at the end of the day, we’re social beings. We like being with other people,” he says. “There is an inner joy of sitting there with popcorn and seeing a story unfold on the screen. Many of us are missing that.”
On Friday, he’s planning to stop by AMC Lincoln Square — what he calls his “home cinema” — to surprise audience members at a screening of “The Marksman,” one of two Neeson-led action thrillers that debuted theatrically amid the pandemic. It will be the first time in nearly a year that many New Yorkers have seen a movie on the big screen.
Neeson says he’s terrified of public speaking (“I’m not telling a lie,” the seasoned actor says of his glossophobia), but his brief appearance at the AMC venue on New York’s Upper West Side is his way of showing gratitude to a group of moviegoers so eager to see a film in theaters that they’re venturing out during a pandemic.
For those who operate movie theaters in New York City, the reopening has been a long time coming. They have watched and waited as restaurants, gyms, bowling alleys and recreation centers have gotten permission to flip the lights back on and welcome back patrons. All the while, they’ve remained in the dark — both literally and figuratively. In daily press briefings, government officials offered little information about where cinemas fit in to the city’s guidelines for reopening during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Everyone gave up, to some extent,” says John Vanco, who runs IFC Center in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Vanco and others sat idly by as theaters in other parts of the country began reopening last summer. Once cases of COVID-19 started to spike around the holidays, New York-based theater owners began to feel hopeless. “We all thought late spring was the earliest we’d reopen. It’s been a fairly opaque process,” says Vanco.
It was a surprise to many when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced without fanfare last week that movie theaters in the five boroughs could open at reduced capacity starting on March 5. That gave film exhibitors less than two weeks to rehire staff members, many of whom had been furloughed or laid off, reorder concessions and outfit their cavernous venues with plexiglass, hospital grade air filters and other safety measures. Though welcomed, the process was no simple endeavor.
“There’s excitement, and there’s panic,” says Matthew Viragh, the founder of Nitehawk Cinema. “It got sprung on us in under 10 days notice. It’s very jolting.”
The tight timeframe proved too ambitious for several venues. Alamo Drafthouse’s Brooklyn location, Cinema Village near Union Square and Metrograph on the Lower East Side weren’t able to reopen by March 5 but plan to do so later this month.
Viragh had a slight advantage. Since Nitehawk, with two locations in Brooklyn, has dine-in theaters, it was able to reopen last summer as a restaurant, offering indoor, outdoor and takeout options to locals in Williamsburg and Park Slope. It made for an easy decision to start showing movies again, even at reduced levels. Some auditoriums at Nitehawk only seat 25 people to begin with, which essentially makes the quarter-capacity limit a private screening.
“It’s about showing people we can run our theaters in a safe manner,” Viragh says.
Cinemas had to heavily consider the pros and cons of reopening with attendance capped at 25% or 50 people, a mandate that all but guarantees they won’t be profitable at first. Regal Cinemas, which has several locations in New York City, says it will stay shuttered until theaters can operate at 50% capacity.
“The 25% capacity looks bad compared to 100%,” IFC’s Vanco says. “But compared to closed, it looks pretty good.”
Business owners choosing to restart operations consider it an investment in the future of moviegoing. It’s a small step, one that will slowly but surely get people reacclimated to seeing a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible.
“We likely won’t generate profits for a while, but we think it’s important to get our customers back,” says Scott Rosemann, division manager of Reading International, which owns Village East and Angelika Film Center.
As those theaters began selling tickets for the first time in what feels like an eternity, Rosemann says he felt encouraged.
“When you’re capping out at 50, it’s not that hard to sell out,” Rosemann says. “It’s nice to see ticket sales have been strong. We know audiences will come back slowly.”
New York City theaters will be required to have reserved seating, with many venues opting to only sell tickets online to limit contact. Manhattan-based multiplexes will have the usual safety protocols: masks, extra sanitization, frequent cleaning of high-contact surfaces, deeper cleanings between showtimes and overnight, hospital-grade air filters and plexiglass partitions around concession stands. Theaters are also blocking off entire rows between occupied seats.
At least one venue won’t be reopening with the alluring scent of buttery popcorn in the lobby. IFC Center surveyed thousands of members, and Vanco says hundreds of respondents indicated they would feel more comfortable returning to theaters if removing masks was not an option. To that end, IFC Center will not be selling concessions. It will make it more difficult to operate profitably because, even in normal times, cinemas rely on popcorn, candy and soda sales to stay afloat.
“I’m happy to give up concessions for the short term if it allows us to rebuild that confidence with our audience,” he says. He anticipates that concessions will return as customers start to feel more comfortable.
Joe Masher, president of New York’s branch of the National Association of Theatre Owners, had been at the forefront of frustratingly arcane conversations with local government officials as he lead the charge to get theaters reopened in the city. Movie theaters outside New York City were able to reopen last October. He has been busy this week in guiding any exhibitors who were conflicted about reopening under the impaired conditions.
He hopes that as coronavirus cases decline and more people get vaccinated, theaters will be able to operate at 50% capacity, making reopening a more financially viable proposition. That will be key, Masher says, in getting studios to feel confident in releasing their buzziest movies.
“Studios are looking at the capacity levels,” he says. “New York City at 25% capacity is not as appealing to Disney, which is looking to release ‘Black Widow.’ We need product to play. We can’t just keep playing ‘Tenet’ and ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’”
It’s a different situation for some arthouse theaters, which don’t rely as heavily on the Hollywood franchises and properties that fuel the rest of the industry. Most populate their screens with indie fare and plan to use their place as community tastemakers to their benefit. Nitehawk still intends to showcase Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which opens in theaters this weekend, but it’s augmenting its slate with screenings of “Nomadland,” a sweeping Oscar frontrunner starring Frances McDormand, and “Minari,” a tender look at a Korean family that relocates to rural Arkansas. Those titles are already available to watch online, but that’s not a deterrent to the indie venue.
“When everything exploded onto streaming, it was very difficult to keep up,” Viragh says. “Movie theaters like Nitehawk curate a tight collection of movies. Our guests trust our judgement and taste.”
IFC Center is launching a series called “What Did We Miss,” highlighting the movies that didn’t get an opportunity to play in NYC theaters. Some of the standouts include “Ammonite” with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Miranda July’s dark comedy “Kajillionaire,” poignant drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Sound of Metal” starring Riz Ahmed.
“There’s been a lot of debate about: Is this the end of the movie business? I’m not saying we’re above the fray, but we’re operating above those debates because we’re very focused on the experience of connecting filmmakers to audiences,” says Vanco of IFC Center.
For audiences who have been stuck at home, it’ll be the first distraction-free movie experience, as well as the chance for an outing — no phone, no kids, no doorbells ringing with the latest delivery from Amazon or FreshDirect.
“It feels like we’re doing something positive for all the New Yorkers stuck in their too-small apartments for too many months,” Vanco says.