Movie-lovers will finally be able to return to theaters this Friday as much for the thrill of watching a film on the big screen, as for the film itself.
“The theatrical experience is something that has been missing for our audiences and our members," said John Vanco, the general manager and senior vice president of the Greenwich Village-based IFC Center, one of the few indie theaters expected to open on Friday.
"Regardless of whether or not you could technically watch some of these movies on your phone or your Apple Watch or your television doesn’t really matter very much to us … people for a century and then some have loved coming out to the theater and sitting in front of a huge screen and falling into a movie."
Of the films the IFC Center will initially be screening, Vanco said he's especially excited about four that happen to be Netflix movies: Da 5 Bloods, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Mank.
Friday's opening marks the first time in a year that theaters across New York City will open. But their debut comes with new restrictions, like a 25% occupancy rate, or a maximum of 50 patrons and mask requirements. And while many theater owners are eager to welcome back customers, reopening during a pandemic has its challenges.
AMC, the country’s biggest theater chain, plans to reopen all 13 of its locations in the city on Friday. The Angelika, plus its new fellow theaters, Village East Cinema and Cinema 123 on the Upper East Side, are reopening on March 5th, too, with the Village East offering Tenet in 70mm among its slate.
But several smaller, independent theaters aren't immediately poised to start screenings again.
BAM Rose Cinemas confirmed they are not planning to reopening at present. Film at Lincoln Center posted a notice to customers on its website that it would not be opening on Friday. It reads, "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 remain closed."
Metrograph in Manhattan also remains shuttered. Its website also cites the governor's reopening announcement, explaining, "While we can’t wait to see you, we must evaluate all the details–safety and logistical–for our team and for you. We’ll be in touch soon with more updates."
Film Forum, a nonprofit movie theater in Greenwich Village, plans to open April 2nd.
Wendy Lidell, senior vice-president for the art house distributor, Kino Lorber, said the governor's two-week notice, along with the occupancy restrictions, pose challenges for theater operators.
She said at least one theater owner told her they can’t turn a profit at just 25% capacity. There are also safety issues, Lidell said.
”Some theaters are choosing not to sell concessions because audiences are concerned about people taking off their masks to eat."
The IFC Center won't be serving concessions Friday. But for Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, concessions — which includes full bar service — are a main draw.
"We build experiences around movies, we provide inspired food and drink, we provide more than just what you can get at home," said Nitehawk’s founder, Matthew Viragh.
At the start of the pandemic, Nitehawk experimented with showing movies through virtual screening rooms. Viragh said he expects the theater's location to work to its advantage when it reopens March 5th—the way it did during the summer and when outdoor dining was allowed.
"We’re right on Prospect Park, and you’re allowed to take cocktails to go, so that was some pretty big business for us, serving cocktails to go for people heading into the park," said Viragh.
He said it makes sense for theaters to open in the city, since they’ve been open just over the city limits, and he said he thinks movie theaters are as safe as restaurants—which opened to indoor dining last month.
"If you’re going to allow theaters to open outside the city limits but not two blocks over, it just seems a little strange, especially when you’re allowing indoor dining, which I think is a little more of a risk than going to a movie theater, where you’re spaced out, facing one direction, and not speaking."
In addition to limiting capacity to 25%, which in some smaller independent theaters almost amounts to a private screening, the state guidelines require assigned seating, enhanced air filtration systems, and mask-wearing at all times except when seated and eating or drinking.
Some moviegoers are looking forward to returning to the big screens.
Andrew Campbell, a Midtown resident, told Gothamist that he and his best friend are eager to get back in a theater.
"At this point we’re willing to sit through pretty much anything," he said. "Reopening theaters gives a potential break for people who have been home alone for an entire year, who kind of get forgotten about."
Wendy Lidell from Kino Lorber said a year ago she was worried her regulars wouldn’t be returning.
"We were lamenting the fact that our audiences tend to skew older, and older audiences would be the last ones to come back to theaters because they’re more cautious," said Lidell.
"Now, of course, it’s older audiences who are vaccinated, so they may be the first ones to come back! So we’re feeling hopeful about that."