New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today theaters in New York City, which have been closed for nearly a year, will reopen March 5. There are restrictions, of course; seat availability is limited to 25 percent, with a maximum of 50 per auditorium. Masks and other protocols will be in effect, including requirements on air filtration systems.
Industry sources say the news was a welcome surprise and AMC has already confirmed that its 13 theaters — which include some of the country’s top grossers — are among those that will be up and running.
City Cinemas, which operate the Angelika, the Village East, and several key upper East side locations, will open March 5. Among those that won’t are Film at Lincoln Center, Film Forum, and MOMA, with the BAM Center in Brooklyn uncertain.
The New York reopening is great news, but before we can expect a seismic shift in box office more films will need to be on the calendar; we’d also need California online, since it traditionally provided up to 15 percent of the North American gross. Here’s what else we can expect.
Just in time for awards titles
March 5 is a week after the official cutoff for Oscar-qualifying releases; it’s also the day that Oscars nomination voting begins. The reopening will allow a wide array of contenders to play on the big screen in a city that is home for many Academy members. This year most titles have alternative platforms, but those that can gain theater play will receive elevated attention. These include Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father,” which opens February 26, and SPC’s documentary contender “The Truffle Hunters,” which opens March 5 with no home parallel showings announced. This increases the likelihood it stays in theaters for longer. “Nomandland” (Searchlight) and “Minari” (A24) have opened elsewhere, and have home options, but they likely still get top theaters.
IFC Films has multiple titles set to open over the next two months, with its own five-screen Film Center likely to show most of them. Expect those theaters that reopen to have competing films beating down their doors.
Unlikely to change immediate studio plans
Though the city is key to wide releases, capacity limits combined with audience uncertainty make it unlikely to see immediate date shifts. Films set for March and April include “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Disney) March 5 and “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Warner Bros.), both of which are already set for parallel home platforms.
It could factor into major May titles like “Black Widow” and “Cruella” (Disney), and “F9” (Universal). These seating restrictions, if they continue, would be a likely factor in that decision; so are global circumstances. Europe is lagging badly on vaccinations; the U.K. is doing better, but theaters in England won’t open until May 17.
Key platforms need a moment
Venues like Film Forum, Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Modern Art include calendar programming that is often set months in advance. They also have small capacities, making the 25 percent rule a guaranteed money loser. It’s worth noting that while New York waitstaff are currently eligible for vaccination, theater workers are not. Some theaters, like the Alamo in Brooklyn and the Metrograph, might be in a position to be creative with this opportunity.
The next week will be a glimpse of the future
Cuomo’s surprise announcement came on a Monday. Theaters need to assess their ability to operate on short notice and to weigh their options. Should they play as many films as possible, or give multiple screens to fewer films? Mark the occasion with special promotions or event programming? How much should they worry about theater exclusivity?
More than anything, March 5 represents the start of the new normal. As a major market returns, the entertainment industry will observe the new rules of engagement in the post-COVID world. Precedents broken tend to stay that way.