New York cinemas reopen after a year on pause – but will film fans return?

Miranda Bryant in New York
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Like all cinemas in New York, the Angelika in Soho has lain dormant for almost an entire year. But just before 10am on Friday, with an unceremonious creak, the shutters raised to welcome its first customers since the city was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: US experts warn new Covid variants and states reopening may lead to fourth wave

Soon, a trickle of customers started arriving and formed a modest line in front of the ticket booth to see films including the Oscars favorites Nomadland, The Father and Minari.

As of Friday, cinemas in the city – where the seven-day average positivity rate is 4% – were allowed to open at 25% capacity with a maximum of 50 people per screen and assigned seating. Other state regulations include compulsory mask wearing (except when eating or drinking), social distancing, and theaters have to have enhanced air filtration systems.

Among the first arrivals at the Angelika were Christopher Moore and Willard Knox, who were looking forward to watching a film without the backdrop of the sound of their dishwasher. The couple, who live on the Upper West Side, were planning to see Nomadland.

“I’ve wanted to go to the cinema since March of 2020,” said Moore, 53, an adjunct writing professor and journalist. While he did have some reservations, he said: “Life is risk, and this theatre needs my support, and I wear my mask, and I’m not taking it off for anything until I’ve left. I’ve thought about this for 12 months.”

Knox, 54, a lawyer and editor, said he was looking forward to the “group energy” of the cinema. “Even though you don’t know these people, there’s something comforting about that.”

As America’s second biggest market for cinemagoing after Los Angeles, where movie theaters are still closed, New York’s reopening marks a significant moment for the industry.

But it remains an unknown in terms of safety, with leaders and experts offering differing views. CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky warned this week that reopening states too fast could threaten “the hard-earned ground we have gained”.

Asked if he would feel comfortable going to the cinema, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said he had a “wait-and-see approach”, adding that it was the state’s decision.

Joe Masher, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners in New York, said he thought at least 60-75% cinemas in the city would reopen Friday. He hopes the capacity will be raised to 50% soon in order to make it more economically viable for cinemas.

At the 25-screen AMC Empire in Manhattan, a red and white banner advertised that the cinema was “Now open!” But opposite, Regal Cinemas remained closed. The chain has said it plans to wait until LA reopens.

Jean Richardson, who works in marketing and lives nearby, said she was considering going to see Judas and the Black Messiah later on. “Everybody is streaming but I’m looking forward to the theatre experience.”

While at times there were significantly more staff than customers in the lobby, there appeared to be a fairly steady stream of cinemagoers. There were discounts on tickets for some movies, but on Friday morning quite a few of the day’s screenings were sold out.

At another AMC location on 34th Street, non-profit worker Chris Calvosa said as a cinema fan he wanted to support the reopening by going to see Wonder Woman 1984, and hoped it might represent “some return to a new normal in the not too distant future”.

Calvosa, 48, added: “Given the gamut of activities that one can do, the cinema feels safer to me than say going to a restaurant.”

Daniel Reinisch, 53, took his daughter Aliyah, 11, to a morning screening of Raya and the Last Dragon, saying: “We’re just starved to see something on a big screen.”

He added: “We’ve been doing things outdoors, so it’s kind of exciting but also a little surreal and a little harried, actually. Can we get here on time? Will it be open?”

Actor Liam Neeson planned to personally greet cinemagoers who went to see his film The Marksman at AMC Lincoln Square.

At the IFC Centre in Greenwich village, which specialises in screening independent films, the sign exclaimed “We’re back!” in black capital letters, but it was not selling concessions so that masks would be mandatory at all times.

At Syndicated, a cinema, restaurant and bar in Bushwick, they have set up a “sidewalk cinema” outside since the pandemic, but as of Friday they are able to house 15 cinemagoers indoors.

Owner Tim Chung said he is excited, but believes “New Yorkers are split”.

He said: “Some can’t wait to go to a movie theatre, as evidenced by the almost 100 tickets we’ve already sold for the month of March, and some moviegoers are happy to wait a bit longer.”

Being closed for so long has caused damage to some cinemas. Nick Nicolaou, who owns Cinema Village, Alpine Theatre and Cinemart Cinemas, estimates he will not be open them until April 2 because of frozen pipe damage and other repairs.

He predicts business will “bounce back slowly” – especially as people get vaccinated and with Hollywood major film releases.

“The reopening announcement is great news. This year has been a horrible horror movie,” he said.