Popcorn and all other concessions will not be sold at the IFC Center, at least for now. But films, real films, will be shown on its five screens from Friday for the first time in nearly a year.
“The room will be black, you won’t be on your phone!” ” Kajillionaire Director Miranda July marveled in a video testimony. It’s a dramatic change from the home viewing environment during Covid-19.
IFC, a Greenwich Village mainstay that took over the abandoned Waverly Theater site in 2005, is one of a number of New York City art houses reopening today. The economy is intimidating. With the state’s coronavirus restrictions capping attendance at 25% of capacity, theaters cannot expect more than a few dozen ticket buyers per show at the start. Even on such a modest scale, the market will be watched closely by the movie industry, which boomed last weekend with Tom and Jerry totaling $ 14.1 million despite streaming on HBO Max.
After polling its members, the IFC decided to reassure customers (based on their feedback) by requiring masks from everyone on the premises at all times and by hanging food and drink. Even without this crucial source of income, IFC Managing Director John Vanco felt it was crucial to reconnect with the public after a year of isolation.
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“People have asked me if I think I will wait to open,” he told Deadline in an interview. “And I said ‘No. Partially open is only bad versus fully open.’ It was obvious to us that we wanted to do this. For a period last summer when it seemed that a sharp drop in coronavirus infections would allow theaters in the city to obtain state permission to reopen, Vanco said his staff are coordinating preparations.The theater has joined the CinemaSafe program, an initiative led by the National Association of Theater Owners, and follows its safety protocols, from ventilation to cleaning.
Several well-established New York sites have decided to wait, in the hopes that restrictions on coronaviruses will ease further and allow at least 50% of footfall. The Film Forum has set for April 2 its reopening. Others, like the Metrograph on the Lower East Side and the Uptown Film at Lincoln Center, which operates the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and its own repertoire house, haven’t signed up on a date.
The Angelika Film Center and its siblings, Village East and Cinema 1, 2, 3 in Turtle Bay, join IFC when it reopens. Landmark’s The Quad, a short walk from the IFC Center, is also back in business, playing My Zoe, The night of kings, The world to come and Supernova and offering a limited menu of food and drink.
The movie scene in Lower Manhattan, for decades a stronghold of cinema, is very different from a typical weekend six weeks before the Oscars. Regal Cinemas, unlike its mainstream rival AMC, has decided not to reopen at this time. This erases the competition from the circuit’s Union Square megaplex, a prime location for platform releases (think back, through the dawn of time, to movies like Uncut Gems).
Don’t expect to hear too many box office numbers from specialist distributors. Many companies, including Disney-owned Searchlight, which has one of the year’s most notable specialty titles in Nomadic country – does not intend to report major New York expenses. (The Angelika, Village East and Cinema 1, 2, 3, play Nomadic country and A24 Minari.) The usual goal of bringing in the big ones per room, even if the total is not huge, is to whet the appetite of bookers in the weeks that follow. With the 25% cap and many venues that could hold maybe 100 seats, some numbers per theater could number in the hundreds, not the thousands. It is still a starting point.
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“Like any other market in the country that has reopened, business will start slowly and grow,” said Landmark Theaters COO Paul Serwitz. “In a market as unique as New York, people have arguably been locked in at a higher level than most other cities. Along with the ease of getting around town, there will be slow construction at a reasonable level of activity.
In addition to the limits on ticket sales, theaters also had to incur significant costs to outfit theaters for a Covid operating environment. “Things like HVAC systems or PPE – these are basically sunk costs and it’s a huge barrier to a specialized operation like ours,” said one exhibitor. “Doing that and then opening up with such limited capacity is just not doable.”
Even before the pandemic, rising rents and a shift in talent and movies to streaming services put pressure on cinemas. In 2018 and 2019, New York City lost Lincoln Plaza and Landmark’s Sunshine, two important hangouts. Landmark last summer also closed its 57th Street location on the Far West Side. CineMex Holdings USA filed for bankruptcy last year, eventually reopening some locations but leaving its newly renovated CMX CineBistro on the Upper East Side in the dark. Alamo Drafthouse, whose downtown Brooklyn site has thrived since 2016, filed Chapter 11 this week, baffling regulars and arthouse distributors.
Compared to the feat of reopening, post windows – a controversial topic recently in the C-sequel and on Wall Street – aren’t as offensive to some art houses. Vanco notes that IFC has never had an issue with reserving movies that are available at the same time they come out on VOD or streaming. Its sister company, IFC Films, was an early pioneer of date-and-date releases.
A four-week series at the IFC Center titled “What’d We Missed?” will give screen time to two dozen works whose big-screen glory has been cut short by the pandemic. It’s a mouthwatering idea for those who had to catch Bacurau, The sound of metal Where Ammonite at home. Vanco’s bet is that ticket buyers will show up regardless of the windows. It wouldn’t be the first time the location has attracted customers looking for an immersive experience. The Waverly, IFC’s predecessor, is where The Rocky Horror Picture Show first screened. “I don’t want them to have a pandemic asterisk next to their names indicating that they didn’t perform in New York and were not part of New York film culture,” Vanco explained.
Netflix will also have a significant presence under the IFC marquee, with the New York theatrical premieres of Da 5 bloods, man, Ma Rainey’s black stockings and The Chicago 7 trial. The streaming giant signed a lease at the end of 2019 for the operation of the Théâtre de Paris on 58th Street. The 71-year-old one-screen palace next to the Plaza Hotel will reopen on March 19, playing a mix of the company’s award titles.
The Motion Picture Academy allows films to qualify for the Oscars this year, even without theatrical screenings. That fact, coupled with the closure of travel, theaters, and festivals, has resulted in an unprecedented awards season, but the re-emergence of New York’s art houses brings a touch of the familiar. IFC’s annual reservation for Oscar nominated shorts will begin April 2. With new films like My year Salinger and The Vigil, this week’s bill includes, in addition to Netflix titles, La Llorona, a shortlisted candidate for the best film and documentary in a foreign language MLK / FBI, another pre-selected movie.
As the weather warms up, a number of specialist films will be shown outdoors, a newly relevant, if not aesthetically ideal setting. Film at Lincoln Center is among the attendees of Restart Stages, an initiative starting next month that aims to reconnect arts organizations with audiences, with security measures in place. State guidelines will allow up to 400 people to enter Damrosch Park, a corner of the Lincoln Center campus familiar to former attendees of Fashion Week, TV shows or the Mostly Mozart music festival.
Queens Drive-In also opens its spring season today with a screening of Coming 2 America. Programmers at the Museum of the Moving Image and Rooftop Films have rounded up a selection of repertoire titles, but also plan to mix newer rates. Next is the Tribeca Film Festival, which this year is slated for June.
Landmark’s Serwitz stresses that the action in New York and elsewhere should not be seen as a return to normalcy. “Everything will change with regard to specialty films and their distribution and operation across the country,” he said.
Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.