Despite the long-awaited news that allowed New York State movie theaters to reopen, anxious movie-goers still find themselves resigned to virtual cinema screenings.
Movie theaters in New York State remained closed due to COVID-19 regulations, but after facing mounting pressure from theaters across the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) announced Oct. 17 a reopening plan for these businesses. Theaters were officially allowed to reopen Oct. 23, but the doors to many in Tompkins County remain closed.
According to the plan released by Cuomo, theaters can operate at 25 percent capacity with no more than 50 patrons allowed on an individual screen at once. The state is only permitting theaters to reopen in counties with COVID-19 rates less than 2 percent on a 14-day rolling average.
Unlike many surrounding counties , New York State gave Tompkins County the go-ahead to reopen its theaters, but there are other requirements, such as the mandated installation of MERV-13 air filters, that have impeded meeting the Oct. 23 reopening date.
The required MERV-13 filters are the heaviest constraint on theater reopenings, according to Brett Bossard, the executive director of Cinemapolis Ithaca. Other businesses that were allowed to open before theaters were similarly required to enhance their air filtration systems, causing MERV-13 filters to be in short supply.
Considering the close time proximity between the governor’s announcement and the reopening date, theaters also lacked adequate time and information to make preparations that conform with the guidelines, Bossard said.
“We were sort of left completely in the dark,” Bossard said. “There has been a lot of frustration among theater owners and operators… because [the state] was providing no guidelines, no benchmarks, [no] roadmap to reopen, and it was impossible for us to make any preparations.”
Theaters have fought for New York to lift these restrictions for a while. About a month ago, Cinemapolis joined forces with about 20 independent theaters in the state to write a letter to Cuomo, channeling their frustration and imploring him to provide a roadmap. He faced mounting pressure from corporate theaters, too. In Times Square, the Regal E-Walk marquee read “48 states have reopened theaters so far. Why not New York, Gov. Cuomo? #ReopenOurCinemasNY.”
“I think it was very strange to say the least that our sector was left out,” Bossard said. “Casinos, which I consider a very high-risk environment, could be operating at a 25 percent capacity. It was frustrating that movie theaters were not given, at the very least, a similar list of restrictions to start planning our operations.”
As an independent theater, Cinemapolis has been able to pivot its business model during the pandemic in order to fulfill its mission to “provide its patrons with access to the best film has to offer,” Bossard said. The theater has tried to fulfill its mission by creating a virtual cinema, where patrons can purchase tickets for screenings to watch at home. While the virtual cinema is not the same as seeing a move in-person, Bossard said the initiative has been met with great success and enthusiasm.
“[The virtual cinema] is certainly going nowhere. It’s going to be in our toolbox for quite some time,” Bossard said. “It will certainly continue for the next couple of years. We’re going to have patrons who are not going to want to return immediately to a cinema even with the capacity restrictions and everything else, so we want to make sure that we’re still serving those patrons.”
The impact of the pandemic has been especially severe for commercial movie theaters who lack the same flexibility as independent theaters to drastically adapt their business models. Regal Cinemas’ owner Cineworld, the second largest theater chain in the nation, reported an operating loss of $1.34 billion for this year.
Earlier in October, Cineworld shut down all 536 Regal Cinema locations across the country. Upon receiving the reopening news from Cuomo, however, the company announced plans to reopen 11 theaters across New York. But the Regal Cinemas at the Shops at Ithaca Mall is not one of these theaters, and it remains closed indefinitely.
Beyond adherence to strict health guidelines, a problem unique to commercial theaters is that there are not many new movies for them to show. Commercial theaters are reliant on Hollywood production, and the pandemic has disrupted the production of commercial films.
“For a lot of larger commercial theaters, it’s a bigger concern that there just aren’t movies to show to the degree that would attract enough audience to make it worthwhile to operate,” Bossard said.
Like Cinemapolis, Cornell Cinema has also been able to adapt its operations to a virtual screening model during the pandemic, a model Cornell Cinema anticipates will carry it through the spring semester, as Cornell has not announced any alterations to its in-person event guidance for the spring..
Even if the University relaxed its guidance in the near future, Cornell Cinema manager Douglas McLaren said the theater would most likely remain closed to in-person screenings for most of the spring semester due to the costs and preparations associated with reopening. Some of these preparations include rehiring and training student staff, booking and shipping films for theatrical exhibition and sanitizing the theater space and equipment.
Even though the physical theater remains closed, McLaren said that Cornell Cinema’s virtual screenings have been met with great success. By offering a majority of its films for free, Cornell’s virtual cinema diverges from other virtual models. Furthermore, through its virtual model, the cinema has been able to host online programs beyond films for its patrons, such as filmmaker talks.
“We’ve had great engagement with undergrads, graduate students [and] community members,” McLaren said. “This has also been really nice, because although Cornell has remained closed to outside visitors, folks are still able to engage with us virtually.”
Cornell Cinema has relied on multiple funding streams to subsidize the cost of its screenings. In addition to receiving funding from the Graduate Student Assembly, the theater supports itself with grants from New York State, the Cornell Council for the Arts and the Performing and Media Arts department.
McLaren expressed gratitude to the University for its support through the pandemic, adding that he respects its decision to prolong the pause on in-person screenings.
But it is still unclear what the future holds for Tompkins County theaters. Nevertheless, McLaren and Bossard agreed that the pandemic has generated new opportunities to engage with broader audiences and experiment with novel cinematic approaches that could lead to long-term benefits.
“Theaters are in the lemonade business now,” Bossard said. “We have been handed a bushel of lemons and we are doing our best to make lemonade.”