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When will movie theaters reopen? They may look vastly different

"A summer opening seems unlikely."

Collier Sutter
Written by
Collier Sutter

A cool movie theater is hard to beat on a hot, humid day. But, much like the rest of NYC, theaters are currently closed, and not set to reopen until phase four of New York’s reopening plan. Questions are swirling on the future of seeing a flick on the big screen. Will there be alternate-row seating? Will masks be made available for patrons? How will folks feel comfortable sitting in a theater? We reached out to New York’s film leaders and theaters to hear what opening doors to customers may look like.

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When can New Yorkers expect to go to the movies again?

Theaters shouldn't be warming up the popcorn poppers anytime soon. Vice President of National Association of Theatre Owners, Patrick Corcoran, says that while he hopes to have most theaters in other parts of the United States open by late June/early July, for New York, there are no dates set. “It will depend on the course of the pandemic and when public health official give the go-ahead on the reopening phases. The late June, early July target is within the realm of possibility.” As of right now, movie theaters are currently in phase four, but Corcoran thinks they should more appropriately be included in phase three.

Local independent movie theater Nitehawk Cinema thinks reopening in July seems like a stretch for NYC movie theaters. Its founder, Matthew Viragh, says that's due to lack of time to prepare and with summer blockbusters already delayed.

“Late July is when the first major studio release of Tenet is scheduled, and I would hate to miss that film or the other few slated for August,” he tells us. “But realistically, without more movie releases, government clearance and a runway to prepare our facilities and new pandemic procedures, a summer opening seems unlikely.” Viragh says they are following what's happening with Broadway theaters and watching how other parts of the country are slowly re-opening. “We will certainly be on the tail end of opening in NYC,” he adds.

Lincoln Center similarly says they have no set dates at this point. “Film at Lincoln Center is working closely with government and health partners and will be following their guidelines in terms of when we will re-open. We have not determined any specific dates at this time but look forward to reopening and providing the best in cinema to New Yorkers again when possible.” Greenwich Village’s IFC Center, similarly said in a statement, “we haven’t received guidance from New York state or New York City government yet about reopening, and won’t be able to make any plans until then.”

What will movie theaters look like once they are opened?

The experience of going out to the movies is certainly going to be different.

NATO tells us that movie theater owners will need to implement physical distancing in auditoriums (seat spacing) and actively control distancing in the lobby and concessions areas. They will also need to put in place protocols around cleaning and disinfecting seats after every show time, constant cleaning of concession areas and restrooms. “Staff will need to be trained for the new procedures, be checked for illness before reporting for work,” says Corcoran. “Masks and gloves for employees. Each company will have to consider how to implement those procedures for themselves, in line with public health directives, as every location is different and will have different needs.”

Nitehawk Cinema is taking pointers for the future from other areas that are reopening now. Head honcho Viragh suggests that they may “potentially run at 25-50% capacity to allow space between groups in rows, limit touch points, limit capacity and require common sense like masks for all staff and customers. When we decide it is safe to open, we’ll have proper safety procedures in place to protect our customers and staff and it will certainly be a modified experience overall until we ultimately have a vaccine.”

The New York Times also reports that lawyers are sorting through what kind of liability theaters could face if audience members contract the virus. Moviegoers in the future could possibly need to be part of theater loyalty programs to provide their information for contact tracing purposes.

And even with health protocols in order, there's a few more pressing questions: If you can't eat or drink without taking off your mask, will concessions (which are often priced high to keep ticket prices low) no longer be offered? And when theaters eventually do reopen will potential customers simply be too nervous to actually fill the seats?

Philip De Semlyen contributed additional reporting.

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