the big screen

Less Popcorn, More Distance: How Indie Movie Theaters Are Gingerly Reopening

Photo: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

On March 13 of last year — just two days after Tom Hanks announced he had contracted COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season — Nitehawk Cinema closed its two locations in Williamsburg and Prospect Park. Within a day, BAM, Metrograph, IFC Center, Film Forum, and Alamo Drafthouse’s Downtown Brooklyn location had all followed suit. The announcements all included some variation on closing their doors “until further notice,” though internally there was cautious optimism that they could be up and running again within a few weeks. (Film Forum even suggested a possible March 31 reopening.) But things haven’t been the same for New York City cinephiles since, and they won’t be today even as theaters reopen for the first time in nearly a year.

Under the new rules, city cinemas are limited to 25 percent capacity and 50 guests per screen. Masks will still be required in all theater spaces except when eating or drinking while seated, and all theaters must use assigned seating that will ensure guests who are not part of the same group are kept apart.

The film industry itself has changed a lot since last March. Throughout last year, studios were either bumping their films to 2021 and beyond or eschewing theaters entirely in favor of VOD releases. Warner Bros. took the drastic step of feeding all of its 2021 films to its nascent HBO Max streaming service on the same day they opened in theaters. It was a crushing blow to theatrical exclusivity, which had traditionally protected theater owners with a three-month window before anything could be seen on TV.

Still, reopening is particularly encouraging news for independent theaters, which traditionally steer clear of financially dependable blockbusters and often have extremely tight profit margins. Nitehawk will relaunch with a limited menu and five out of its seven Prospect Park screens in operation. Alamo Drafthouse, which filed for Chapter 11 on March 3 and closed a number of its theaters for good, will be reopening its Downtown Brooklyn location Thursdays through Sundays, but the House of Wax bar remains closed. (The company also maintains that its planned Lower Manhattan location will still open this fall.) Film Forum’s longtime Village space won’t be reopening until April 2, and its programming and safety protocols are yet to be announced.

As theater owners and managers prepare for their first screenings — whether tonight or some weeks or months down the road — they told us more about what reopening will look like, and what they think the future holds for moviegoing.

Tim League, founder of Alamo Drafthouse, says the Downtown Brooklyn location is uniquely positioned to rebound.

We were analyzing which locations made the most sense to open up, but Brooklyn and L.A. were always no-brainers. We did some cursory evaluations to make sure we weren’t going to lose tons of money by doing so, but [laughs] yeah, we knew we were going to open Brooklyn again in pretty short order. We have a little bit of a longer path than most people — we’re not going to make March 5. More realistically, toward the end of the month or the first part of April.

We will be offering a reduced menu so we can ensure that the kitchen stations are very far apart, so staff are not working side by side with someone on an eight-hour shift. We also shut down the box office — we’re only doing online ticketing. We built an online order system, so you can order your food in advance via the app. All these things to minimize interactions. We have these weird Ghostbusters-style fogging units, so each room will be sanitized after every screening, and have a team that ensures the sanitization of any public area, including the restrooms.

Matthew Viragh, founder of Nitehawk Cinema, thinks theaters can still co-exist with streaming.

Going to the movies is a very safe piece of normalcy that people can thankfully start doing again. I’ve been streaming and consuming a lot of movies at home, but it’s just not the same. There’s the phone distracting you. Or the kids. Or someone’s outside. The main thing I’m looking forward to is leaving all that at the door and giving myself over to some amazing storytelling.

That’s why I think movie exhibition isn’t going anywhere. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom over the past year regarding our industry, and, honestly, it got very ugly. I know a lot of great theaters may not make it to the other side. But we’re geared toward competing against streaming because we offer a much different experience than what you get at home.

Film Society of Lincoln Center has decided not to re-open yet.

While we are aware of the recent announcement from the governor’s office allowing New York City movie theaters to reopen, in the interest of the safety of our staff and audiences, Film at Lincoln Center’s theaters will remain closed. We continue to monitor the situation closely and will share further information about our plans to reopen when possible.

John Vanko, general manager of IFC Center, opted to reopen without the popcorn and soda.

We’re not selling concessions at all to start, so we can have a clear, across-the-board policy of all masks, all the time. We think that will make people feel more comfortable about sitting indoors with strangers. Some people might not be into sitting six feet away from a couple who have popcorn in their lap and masks off the whole time and are chatting with each other. It’s hard enough to get people in serious numbers with the capacity restrictions, so we just wanted to make it was as comfortable as possible for as many people as we possibly could. I just wanted to be able to serve both the most adventurous film fans, in terms of what they’re willing to do, but also have a mind toward people who are feeling more conservative about coming back. We wanted this to be an inclusive experience and not just for the fearless. For this phase, though, we’re just happy to get to be able to open.

Scott Roseman, district manager for the Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas 123, and Village East, is putting plenty of safety protocols in place.

We’re reopening with Tenet at Village East in 70-mm., fully realizing that people have had the opportunity to go to New Jersey or Long Island to see that film. But we feel the opportunity to come back to the cinema and see a film in film is a really great opportunity to bring back our audience and to celebrate the cinematic experience.

They can sit with their friends and family together in the auditorium, but we can assure them that there will be at least six feet between them and other parties. Our ticketing system will automatically make that happen, so there are no concerns there. We’re disinfecting seats between every show; we’ve improved our filtration systems and all the other protocols that people have come to expect. You can purchase tickets on the app, and we’re now offering food and beverage purchases on the app or at in-person kiosks to minimize human contact. We’ll still be opening at 10 a.m., as we did prior to closing, and we will be staying open for our last shows, which will begin at 9 p.m.

How New York’s Indie Movie Theaters Are Gingerly Reopening