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New York’s plan to reopen theaters key to Hollywood Quartz comeback

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After nearly a year of dust, New York cinemas can finally reopen.

City Theaters, the second-largest film market in the United States, behind Los Angeles, will reopen on March 5 at 25% capacity, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday. Masks and social distancing will be mandatory. The theaters, which closed in New York in mid-March last year, are among the last covered businesses to be allowed to reopen as state officials have reportedly been concerned about airflow. All theaters that reopen will have to meet improved ventilation standards, according to a press release from Cuomos’ office. The state allowed some county theaters to reopen with these same restrictions in October, but so far only about a quarter of the state’s 280 theaters have resumed operations.

Hollywood studios were waiting for New York and Los Angeles to reopen their theaters before pulling out their backlog of big-budget movies. Together, the states of New York and California account for almost 20% of movie ticket sales in the United States. The reopening of its theaters in New York offers a glimmer of hope for an industry that has been devastated by the pandemic even as the film industries of other countries like China are thriving.

With New York’s reestablishment, US studios may be inclined to stick to their release dates in late spring and early summer, rather than continuing to postpone them. Disneys Black Widow and universal F9both expected to be among the highest grossing films of the year are tentatively scheduled for theatrical release in May.

Shares of AMC Entertainment, the largest theater chain in the United States, jumped almost 15% yesterday afternoon on the news. In a statement, AMC CEO Adam Aron said this is an important step towards restoring the health of the film industry and announced that AMC will reopen its 13 theaters in the town on March 5. The company has flirted with bankruptcy in recent months due to the pandemic. Regal Cinemas, the country’s second-largest theater operator, closed all of its sites in October indefinitely and has yet to reveal plans to reopen in New York or elsewhere.

Whether or not theaters can operate profitably at 25% capacity depends on their size and funding. Most of the big chains, which have around 200 seats per screen on average, are likely to keep the lights on with such capacity restrictions. But many arthouse and independent theaters, which tend to have significantly fewer seats per theater, cannot stay open while meeting this standard. According to IndieWire, several small theaters in New York will not reopen immediately.

The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) applauded the news from New York, but pushed for a relaxation of restrictions. New York is a major market for films in the United States; its reopening gives film distributors confidence in setting and keeping their theatrical release dates, and is an important step in the recovery of the entire industry, NATO said in a statement. We hope to increase the capacity by 25% to 50% in the very near future so that theaters can operate profitably.

Theaters are currently open in 49 of the 50 US states (with New Mexico the only one to resist), and most are operating between 25 and 50% of their capacity. Provided there is good ventilation, theaters are safer than eating indoors, as everyone is facing the same direction and usually not speaking. Most states require moviegoers to keep their masks on their seats when not eating or drinking, but it’s unclear to what extent this is enforced.

No outbreak of Covid-19 in the United States has been attributed to theaters. In October, Japan was able to ease capacity restrictions on movie theaters, but the country also had significantly less transmission of the virus than the United States currently. Japan has also not tracked epidemics to theaters.

Hollywood still has a long way to go to recover from its one-year hiatus. But if ever there was a sign that better days are coming for studios and theaters, it’s that New York is finally coming back to the movies.

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