Joseph Masher, a New York-based movie theater operator, understands that audiences may be reluctant to return to the movies. After all, it’s been at least a year since most people have stepped foot in their local multiplex — or any indoor recreational space, for that matter.
What those folks may not realize, argues Masher, who runs the theater chain Bow Tie Cinemas, is the work that theater operators have put into making sure that movie theaters don’t become super-spreader hubs. That has included installing state-of-the-art filtration, increased distance between guests, contactless ticket sales and reserved seating, required masks (except while munching on popcorn) and hand-sanitizing stations galore.
“It’s a very safe experience,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. Please give it a try. You’ll feel almost normal again.”
It’s been a difficult year for film exhibitors such as Masher. Cinemas were closed for a significant part of 2020, leaving theater owners without any way to bring in revenue. Unlike restaurants, for example, there weren’t any “takeout” options that would allow movie theaters to bring in coinage as the pandemic ground their business to a halt. (Some locations sold popcorn and other concession snacks while their venues remained dark, and others organized virtual cinemas, but neither of those options brought in meaningful amounts of cash). In New York City, movie theaters were among the last institutions to get permission from the government to resume operations. It stalled the entertainment industry’s larger plans to revive the movie theater business, many argue, because the five boroughs bring in the largest amount of ticket sales in the country, outside of Los Angeles. Without NYC theaters operating at full capacity (restrictions have recently been lifted to 33% capacity), Hollywood has opted to delay most of the potential blockbusters on the calendar.
There may be a reprieve on the horizon. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday announced plans to fully reopen the city on July 1, meaning movie theaters and most other businesses would be able to operate at 100% capacity. That would be a notable milestone, especially for small business owners who have been struggling to make ends meet for the nearly year-and-a-half that COVID-19 restrictions have been in place. Yet the decision to fully reopen isn’t his to make. It’s up to the state and its Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
With that in mind, Masher isn’t popping champagne to celebrate just yet.
“It’s a lofty goal,” Masher says. “We hope it’s the case. The reality is that it has to be Cuomo’s decision.”
In the interim, Masher, who is the president of New York’s branch of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the trade organization that represents the exhibition community, has been lobbying to local government officials to immediately raise capacity in theaters to 50%.
“There’s no earthly reason we shouldn’t be open at 50% capacity now,” Masher says. “We’ve asked the governor’s office to open to 50% capacity before Memorial Day. We really need that.”
So far, he says, his pleas have been to no avail.
Most theaters in New York City, he points out, have been converted to luxury seating, referring to the plush chairs that dare moviegoers to not take the best nap of their life. The deluxe recliners take up more space than traditional movie seats, which means upgraded auditoriums accommodate fewer guests. (“There’s quite a bit of a disparity,” Masher says.) He’s supplied mathematical equations and sketched out drawings to demonstrate the distance between patrons, even at half capacity.
“We don’t have a definitive answer,” he says. “We’re hoping to know by May.”
A representative for Cuomo did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.
In any case, movie theaters know they have to give the ol’ razzle dazzle to energize patrons to return to theaters and part with the overstuffed streaming services that have occupied everyone’s time for much of the pandemic. Theater owners have gotten creative, orchestrating a national Cinema Week that’s modeled after Restaurant Week, an event that celebrates the best in dining for a fraction of the cost. During the week of June 22, participating theaters will offer incentives like discounted concession stand snacks and ticket prices, as well as free private theater rentals.
“That will, hopefully, be an annual event,” Masher says.
NATO has also helped launch an initiative called The Big Screen Is Back, enlisting stars like Matthew McConaughey to remind people of the magic of going to the movies, as well as honor the tens of thousands of movie theater employees who were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.
During last Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, Frances McDormand was the lone winner to call attention to the obstacles facing movie theaters during a night that is designed to champion the craft of the big screen. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” McDormand said while accepting “Nomadland’s” best picture win. “And one day soon, take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder-to-shoulder in that dark space, and watch every film that is represented here tonight.”
Masher praised McDormand for bringing attention to the film industry’s struggle and says the four-time Oscar-winning actress will be featured in one of the upcoming PSAs from The Big Screen Is Back, similar to the segment with McConaughey that ran ahead of the Academy Awards.
“It was great,” Masher says of McDormand’s speech. He adds, “She makes movies to be seen on the big screen.”