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The Movie Industry Holds Its Breath As New York Reopens Theaters

The marquee of the IFC Center in Manhattan welcomes viewers back after being closed nearly one year
The marquee of the IFC Center in Manhattan welcomes viewers back after being closed nearly one year

Movie theaters in Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Philadelphia have been open for months. But attendance remains low, not just because of public safety concerns—but because there isn't much to see. Major studios are delaying their blockbusters, or releasing them straight to streaming.

One big reason? The two biggest movie markets in the country, New York City and Los Angeles, remain closed.

Now, New York City is reopening theaters at reduced capacity. AMC Theatres, the largest chain in the country, opens its doors on March 5. But the second-largest, Regal Entertainment, will stay dark.

"It's entirely because of New York and L.A. being closed that other major markets simply don't have major movies to play," says Patrick Corcoran, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). "Movies opening in New York and L.A. will give studios confidence that their larger titles are going to open well and do well, across the country, and internationally."

The two cities represent 12–14% of the domestic box office, Corcoran says. But the real impact is the marketing boost they provide. "The media focus you get from New York and L.A....studios want those major tastemaking markets open."

The reduced level at which New York is reopening — the lesser amount of 50 persons or 25% capacity — is completely reasonable given safety concerns, says Corcoran. It's not enough, though, to put struggling chains' finances into the black. Nevertheless, some theater owners are impatient to shake off the dust and get their operations moving again.

"We see this as a process," says John Vanco, general manager of the five-screen IFC Center in Manhattan. "This is a way of getting back to normal, even if it's an altered normal."

The IFC Center is going beyond the state-mandated reopening guidelines, and forgoing further revenue by not offering concessions, out of safety concerns. No concessions means no excuse to remove your mask, Vanco says.

The buzz that builds from movies opening in New York is one reason Vanco feels an obligation to audiences, and to the industry, to open as soon as possible. "This is a place where people take their cinema going seriously," he says. "There's a backlog of an awful lot of movies that didn't have a shot at New York audiences. We don't want those movies to disappear."

Theaters reopening at reduced capacity in New York, and eventually Los Angeles as well, may not push studios to suddenly reverse the sea change the past year has brought. Now that customers are more used to streaming first-run movies at home, Hollywood may look for a way to cement that digital future.

Most likely, there will be permanent changes to the "exclusivity window"—the period in which movie theaters enjoyed films exclusively before they were allowed on other platforms. Previously, this was 90 days. Now, Warner Bros. has gotten rid of it entirely, releasing its entire 2021 slate to streaming on the same day the films go to theaters.

But the theater industry remains sanguine about its post-pandemic prospects. It comes back to marketing, says Corcoran.

"Movie theaters act as a curator," he says. "If it's good enough to be in a movie theater, you have to pay attention. Whereas you put on your streaming platform and you spend half-an-hour going through the screen going 'what do I want to watch.' The movies are not there in the culture in the same way when they're just on your TV."

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