What to Know
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last month that theaters could reopen at 25 percent capacity, with no more than 50 people per screen, at the start of March.
- Local indie theaters have long struggled to stay afloat, even prior to the pandemic, having to battle it out with streaming services for "stay-at-home" individuals and big-chain theaters.
- Operators of these local establishments discuss the effects of the pandemic and their road to recovery.
After a year-long shutdown, movie theaters can reopen their curtains and pop the popcorn, allowing for the return of a treasured pastime that's been relegated to the living room couch.
Local indie theaters turning the lights back on after a 12-month hiatus have strong competition with the big-name theaters and streaming services that only grew in size during the pandemic. AMC and Regal theaters may bounce back thanks to federal support and name recognition, but can the smaller theaters recover from the economic fallout brought on by the pandemic or has the curtain come down permanently on these beloved, hidden treasures?
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last month that theaters could reopen at 25 percent capacity, with no more than 50 people per screen, at the start of March.
News 4 New York spoke to three independent theater operators to gain more insight on how the pandemic changed their theaters and whether they could recover.
"It's like you're asking me about my main child, Cinema Village. Cinema Village was built in 1963, and I played many independent movies from all over the country, and overseas. I thought what Cuomo did was correct, but every month we were closed it was getting more difficult. For me, having the freedom of playing these movies across the three theaters I own was more important than anything," said Nicolas “Nick” Nicolaou, who owns three theaters across the city: Cinema Village, Alpine Cinemas, and Cinemart Cinemas.
The stakes for Emelyn Stuart, who owns Stuart Cinema and Cafe in Brooklyn, are just as high.
"I cannot even afford to think about this reopening not working. I am one of the first Black Latina's to ever open up a self-funded theater. That means no one gave me money. No banks, no investors, this was all funded by me. I thought this pandemic was going to be temporary, but there was no good news coming in. I built this for artists and independent filmmakers. I liquidated all of my assets a little over two years to open this theater and like all of my counterparts, we have all faced some difficult challenges," Stuart said.
One of the indie theaters claimed victim to the pandemic was The Landmark at 57 West, according to its president. The closing of this luxury art independent cinema marked a blow to moviegoers in Uptown Manhattan.
"We have two theaters in the city: The Landmark at 57 West, which is now closed permanently due to the pandemic, and Quad Cinema. The Quad is a staple of lower Manhattan in Greenwich Village. It has a tremendous community and neighborhood reputation and it's in the truest of the word an 'independent theater.' The Quad is known for its revival and retrospective with a series of film programming," Paul Serwitz, President and COO of Landmark Theaters, said.
Independent theaters have been struggling to keep afloat prior to the pandemic because of the niche audience they cater to as well as competing with big-name, chain cinemas. When asked if these theaters were more impacted than the big-name cinemas, the independent theater owners had their own opinions about the mass movie theater industry.
"I think a lot of us indie theaters were more affected than the big names because just look at the where PPP (Personal Protection Program) money was going. It went to theaters like AMC and Regal, whereas people like me didn't get it. I don't think independent theaters have that many outlets and resources like these big-name theaters," Stuart said.
"The good thing about Stuart Cinema and Cafe is we started serving, and that's what saved us. I opened up an office space at the theater for people to work. I had to look at different alternatives for us to stay afloat. For all the other institutions we are on our own, and I'm not sure if everyone can recover," Stuart explained.
Serwitz had a bright outlook on the entertainment sector's revival despite the many challenges still ahead.
"I'm still optimistic about the movie theaters rebounding. I've spent a big chunk of my career knowing about commercial movie theater operators, and I know it well," Serwitz said. "Regal and AMC theaters operate these gigantic multiplexes around the country. It has a lot of people playing commercial content to the masses which is great. But, how will the consumers react now? The independent niche and segment are unique because it is filled with people that are truly committed to film and like to be challenged."
Although Nicolaou said it will take some time for the patrons to come back at a pre-pandemic level, the answer in bringing the audience back to their establishments is ensuring them proper safety measures to provide a COVID-19 safe environment.
"We will recover slowly. It's going to take time for the people to recover since they are used to these streaming services at home. But, the business will come back and sooner than people think. We have cinema safe protocols, we're retraining our staff with hands-on supervision, and we have installed touchless systems. We just want to make the theater experience immaculate for our guests and make them feel safe," Nicolaou said.
During these trying times, community support is one of the corner stones to keeping small businesses alive. The owners know that every ticket purchase and stop at concessions is a show of support from their neighbors, support that keeps the local indie film industry humming.
"The community that I'm in has been really supportive. We've had no issues with people coming in. Our safety protocols have kept people, the guests, protected," Stuart said.'
Serwitz, meanwhile, said that they were prepared for a slow return from audiences but so far guests are excited to be back.
"The foot traffic and attendance are slow. But, we were prepared for that. The guests that come to Quad Cinemas are extremely excited, and I think in nature it should be "Get Out and Do!" Serwitz said.
These independent independent theaters offer a unique environment, and provides a setting for memorable outings.
"Yes, I have received support from the community. This is where friends and family can come together and be one. You are creating memories that you can share for a lifetime and I love the people," Nicolaou said.