Exhibitors in New York State are speed dialing former staffers and bookers after a surprise weekend announcement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that long-shuttered cinemas can reopen Friday under guidelines expected early this week.
Joseph Masher, president of NATO New York and CEO of family-owned Bowtie Cinemas, anticipates the long-awaited state playbook will pretty much echo CinemaSafe protocols the industry has adopted across the rest of the country and been explaining ad nauseam to state officials for months with no apparent luck – until Saturday. The governor announced most movie theaters outside of New York City can reopen at 25% capacity, or up to 50 people per screen, on Oct. 23. Concessions are in. The openings apply to counties with infection rates below 2% on a 14-day average and no cluster zones.
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‘We had a very good talk” with officials on Friday, Masher said, referring to himself, NATO chief John Fithian, Robert Sunshine, New York State NATO executive director and a few others. “They did indicate we would have some good news in the next week. [The next day was a surprise] We are ecstatic. We know we can operate safely and we will prove it.”
The news is a boon for cash-strapped chains and financially teetering mom-and-pop theaters in the state. Westchester and Long Island are big parts of the New York City DMA, as are northern NJ and Fairfield, CT, and all are open or reopening Friday, so that’s good. The looming question now is how long NYC itself will remain dark.
“We’re hopeful that the administration will get the city open ASAP now that they realize the importance of it to the worldwide box office. We will keep working with them to do so. Hopefully they’ll let Manhattan open sooner rather than later as the infection rate meets their definition for opening,” said Masher.
The worry is this: the state’s impressive trajectory in taming COVID hit a speedbump recently as clusters of the virus popped up in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and a handful of counties, largely tied to Orthodox Jewish Communities. Two weeks ago, the state reinstituted shutdowns of schools and non-essential businesses in these so-called Red Zones where infection is highest and also clamped down in surrounding areas designated Orange and Yellow.
At a press briefing Sunday, Cuomo was encouraging about this “micro-cluster strategy” and said numbers “are moving in the right direction.” He said he’ll announce policy shifts – in terms of increased or decreased regulation — if there are any this Wednesday.
Manhattan, as Masher noted, is cluster free. Cuomo hasn’t yet indicated if the state views New York City’s five boroughs as a block or will let theaters open piecemeal by location.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Eric Handler, a financial analyst at MKM Partners, told Deadline Sunday. “It still need approval for NYC. The biggest issue right now are the clusters in Brooklyn and Queens. It doesn’t seem likely the government is going to be all that willing to break NYC into segments, which would allow Manhattan to reopen first.”
Staffing up fast enough to open on Friday is the biggest challenge, several exhibitors said. Theaters across the nation, with no revenue coming in since March, had to furlough or lay off workers in droves. Exhibs are less than thrilled with the 25% capacity cap. “We were hoping for 50%,” said one.
Charles Cohen, CEO of Cohen Media Group, a producer and distributor as well as an exhibitor through subsidiary Landmark Cinemas, said “any lifting of the mandate to allow people to go back to the cinema is welcome relief.” However, he also noted how hard it is to open a new film, especially the indie and foreign language fare Landmark is known for, without New York City and Los Angeles. “Those cities define the market,” he said, adding, “As a distributor ourselves, we have ten films we are sitting on we know we have to open in New York and LA.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is letting theaters reopen on a county-by-county basis depending on local infection rates. Many theaters in the state are open and industry players hope for movement in Los Angeles over the next several weeks.
New York, which initially had the nation’s highest infection rate, now has one of the lowest. A battled-scarred Cuomo has been abundantly cautious. But as he slowly reopened the state in phases through late summer, movie theaters were yanked from the list into limbo. To exhibition’s dismay, state officials seemed to believe theaters were considerably higher risk than other re-opened businesses like bowling alleys, casinos, gyms and indoor dining.
With the Los Angeles also closed, Hollywood studios began postponing big releases needed to draw audiences to theaters, depressing theatrical revenue around the world and putting the industry’s future in question.
“They did not understand the impact,” Masher said. It was brought into high relief by recent public meltdowns at the nation’s two biggest chains. Regal parent Cineworld closed its U.S. and U.K. theaters, blaming New York. AMC Entertainment said last week it could run out of cash by year end if nothing changed.
A statewide marquee campaign got the industry a lot of press. A question — “48 states have reopened theatres safely. Why not New York, Governor Cuomo?” — blared from marquees, including the Regal cinema in Times Square.
Kevin Parisi, owner of the Madison Theater in Albany, NY, who had likened the endless shutdown to “torture” in a Deadline story in early September, said he’s “super excited by the opportunity to get back to the business of showing movies” and will be meeting with his booker early this week to figure out what to play.
Bowtie’s Masher is working hard to get its Westchester and Capital Region (around Albany) theaters open by Friday. He’s looking to 20th Century Studios’ release of The Empty Man and United Artists wide re-release of The Addams Family for Friday, along with After We Collided from Open Road and few smaller releases. The chain will add in Tenet, The War with Grandpa, The New Mutants and Unhinged.