Editors Note: Deadline’s Reopening Hollywood series focuses on the complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide a forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus.
Warner Bros. is launching Tenet as the first post-pandemic studio tentpole nationwide. But exhibitors fear the U.S. theatrical film business cannot rebuild until the nation’s biggest box office capitals, New York City and Los Angeles, are permitted to open.
We’ve already seen the financial devastation, debt and layoffs major chains have struggled through. It’s even worse for owners and employees in the independent theater space, where it was already hard enough to make a buck.
Adding insult to injury, New York theater owners have watched as Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed the reopening of casinos, where COVID-susceptible seniors line up at slot machines, bowling alleys, where there’s physical exertion under low roofs, and gyms, sweat festivals that are Petri dishes for passing viruses. Malls too, and indoor dining everywhere except New York City.
Cuomo, who has had his hands full fighting the pandemic, battling President Donald Trump and starting the public school year, rarely mention movie theaters at his briefings but has said he considers them riskier and less essential than other businesses. It’s not clear why.
Exhibitors have used the past six months to develop safety protocols, stagger seating and eliminate points of contact in ticket taking, concession stands and restrooms. Moviegoing essentially involves sitting still in a well ventilated auditorium, wearing a mask and quietly staring at a screen.
The governor last week said Labor Day and back-to-school is “a factor we have to watch” as is flu season heading into fall.
“At this rate, we’ll never open,” said an understandably agitated Joe Masher, CEO of Bowtie Cinemas and head of NATO New York, who recently organized a series of press conferences in front of shuttered mom-and-pop theaters around the state. There, theater operators and local officials touted their safety protocols, the 10,000 jobs the industry provides statewide and the boost theaters give to small town shopping, dining and retail.
“It feels like torture,” said Kevin Parisi, owner of the Madison Theater in Albany. “If we miss this movie season, there will be fallout that is unprecedented.”
Production execs like Solstice Studios’ chief Mark Gill have noted the absurdity of penalizing moviegoing while favoring bowling alleys and gyms. This was when Solstice was the first to brave the waters by opening the Russell Crowe-starrer Unhinged without the country’s two biggest markets.
Cuomo greenlit the reopening of casinos today, just as Tenet opens.
Indie theater owners are sympathetic to the challenges the governor is up against, but they face extinction if they don’t reopen soon.
“It’s got to be an impossible job to govern during this. I can’t even imagine. But I look at facts and data and I don’t see any reason why theaters can’t open in New York,” said Masher. “We are in intensive care right now. It’s a business no matter what and if this is how it goes down, this is pretty awful.”
Masher is begging for at least a date so theaters and studios can plan and market. “Why can’t he just say, ‘If the numbers are good, movie theaters can open, say Sept 15’?”
Cuomo’s regular COVID updates continue to showcase numbers that are among the best in the nation.
New York theaters adhere to NATO’s CinemaSafe guidelines. They ensure advanced ventilation, masking and social distancing. Showtimes can be staggered so there’s no mingling in lobbies. The industry has been trying to make its case but, according to Masher, hasn’t had much engagement with the administration in months.
Said Karen Cooper, head of the nonprofit Film Forum in New York City: “We’re getting hospital-grade filters. My joke is, ‘If you don’t like the movie, we’re going to be able to do open-heart surgery on you.’”
“I am trying to wrap my head around why,” said Parisi. “We are a very safe industry. As essential, or more essential, than a lot of businesses that are allowed to open. It’s upsetting to me that there is no value to people being well mentally,” a sentiment other theater operators echoed, describing the transporting quality of cinema during a stressful time.
With Bowtie’s NY theaters missing Tenet, Masher is pinning his hopes on Warner Bros. Wonder Woman 1984 in October. “I’m ready to go if we lose that movie,” an exasperated Masher said. “After that, there is nothing until Thanksgiving.”
The lack of a clear reopening strategy for moviegoing’s top two markets has created uncertainty for studios, which can and are still pushing back until next year audience-drawing blockbusters, or seeking streaming alternatives as Disney has with Mulan.
“We are just terrified about the rest of the calendar after Tenet, Masher said. “There’s no certainty until James Bond in November that anything will stick to the calendar,” he said (MGM has committed to a Nov. 25 U.S. release for No Time To Die.) “The studio release calendar is still precarious. Without New York and California, most studios will not take the risk,” he said.
Bowtie’s 50 locations include five theaters in New York. Masher said the chain furloughed 900 employees, some of them twice when he had to re-close his Connecticut theaters after reopening them in June, only to find there were no new movies to attract patrons. He’s luckier than most indies because Bowtie’s theaters in New Jersey, which just got a green light to reopen Friday, and Connecticut, are accessible to New Yorkers.
Others haven’t made it. The 57th Landmark in Manhattan is history, as are theaters in Greenburgh, in Westchester County, and Roslyn and Manhasset in Long Island. The Claridge in Montclair, New Jersey, an arthouse theater that was already struggling, has also closed for good.
“It all depends on how understanding the landlords are,” said Anne Stampfel, who operates three small theaters on Long Island and Queens with her husband Henry. The couple met at a movie theater where Henry worked, and they eventually bought. They love the business.
Stampfel said the couple has tapped all the acronyms, from EDIL (Economic Injury Disaster Loans), to PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) to SBA (Small Business Administration) loans. “I was a real keyboard warrior,” she said. “Every bill I owed we renegotiated or revisited – cable, utilities, insurance. To live, we went on unemployment for the first time. We are still on it. I feel terrible taking and not giving. I have never been in that position.”
“We have so many sleepless nights,” she said. “I feel like I’m a plane circling in the airport, waiting to land. Pretty soon we are going to run out of food on this airplane.”
The Madison, which allows dining even without movies, is scraping by. “We were brand new. Just spent a fortune renovating a historic movie theater that opened for Star Wars on Sept. 19,” said Parisi, who works in commercial real estate leasing. A second theater he remodeled in Hudson, New York was set to open in March but didn’t. Pre-COVID, he had 20 employees moving to 40. Now there are two.
New York is a crucial market for specialty releases and September is typically when prestige films start to platform out on the heels of festival premieres in Venice, Toronto and Telluride. With the festival circuit in an extremely low gear and the Oscars pushed back to April 25, the rhythm will be completely different this year. Absent a vaccine, it is hard to know how many limited releases can gain traction this fall and winter, especially with many New Yorkers wary of moving about the city in the colder months, even if they are open.
Knowing how precarious their situation is, arthouse exhibitors say they have taken a highly collaborative approach with state officials compared with that of mainstream theater chains, insiders tell Deadline. They say major chains have since moderated their stances but were super aggressive early on. Cuomo has immense leverage and political capital so wasn’t inclined to bend.
“From the beginning, we told the governor’s office, ‘We don’t need to sell popcorn — we just need ticket sales to have a chance,’” one New York arthouse source said.
“Our mission is to play the movies. I don’t look forward to being open without popcorn, but it’s putting the emphasis in the wrong place,” agreed Film Forum’s Cooper.
The sense of uncertainty prevails in LA as well, although the closures are more obviously explainable by the summer coronavirus surge.
“It’s completely out of exhibition’s hands and very much in the public and urban officials’ hands,” said Greg Laemmle, CEO of Laemmle Theatres, which operates a number of arthouse in Los Angeles. “When the virus is highly prevalent, it doesn’t seem like the environment is ideal to reopen. I don’t want moviegoing to be a negative.”
New York is in a better position, he thinks, having shut down businesses everywhere and reopening cautiously. Los Angeles, where COVID levels are currently higher than New York, won’t reopen theaters until certain criteria are met.
New York theater owners argue that at least California exhibitors have some guidance based on parameters that have been publicly disclosed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Achieving a so-called “red zone” would make it possible to reopen theaters in Los Angeles County. That requires daily new COVID-19 cases of 4-7 per 100,000 people, positivity tests in the 5-8% range (as well as a squishier “equity” component). San Francisco and San Diego have already hit the target numbers. San Diego is open. The San Francisco mayor’s office has yet to weigh in.
Industry insiders see it taking at least another month until LA theaters get the go-ahead to reopen.
“I don’t think businesses should open before schools open,” said Arclight Cinemas President & COO Ted Mundorff. But it’s been rough, he said. “As you look at theaters that are operating across the country, they’re operating at a loss.”
Even when theaters are allowed to reopen, it isn’t as simple for indie chains as merely switching on the lights and starting to show movies. It could take some of them as long as five weeks to staff up and prepare. Laemelle said his chain would need three to five weeks following the county’s okay. Theaters need to activate online ticketing, prepare for reduced auditorium capacities, get concessions restocked and staff fully trained under new COVID-19 safety guidelines.
The largest circuits can reopen faster after receiving state approval – usually within ten days.
There haven’t been notable cinemas to permanently close in Los Angeles on par with Landmark’s 57th location in New York City. But a number of concerned exhibitors say the EIDL program is being inadequately funded. The PPP program dictates that a proprietor must continue to run a payroll, and that’s not the reality of movie theaters, which have either furloughed or laid off staff. Word is that NATO is helping cinemas navigate the Restart program — low-cost loans which enable shuttered business to return to operations.
With the industry poised for something unprecedented in the post-1980s blockbuster era — opening a $200 million feature without the nation’s two biggest markets — New York theater operators at least are hoping one of them comes online very soon.
Said Parisi: “We’ve spent lots of time on safety plans, on distancing, on a whole action plan [based on] government orders and CDC guidelines. We are super confident we can do this as well or better than anyone else. We can control seating. The irony is that everyone says the virus is mostly spread by coughing and sneezing and speaking loudly. In a movie theater you are silent.”
Anthony D’Alessandro and Dade Hayes contributed to this story.