In recent days, marquees around New York have been adorned with messages begging and pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow cinemas to welcome back customers.
“48 states have reopened theatres safely. Why not New York, Gov. Cuomo?” read the sign outside a Regal Cinemas in Times Square. The Aurora Theatre, a movie palace near Buffalo that dates back to 1925, was pithier. “Now showing nothing. Starring nobody,” its sign said.
Cinema owners are fed up over the lack of direction they say they’ve received from officials in the Empire State about how they can reopen their businesses after being closed for nearly seven months due to the coronavirus.
“To say I’m frustrated would be an understatement,” said Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis, a five-screen non-profit theater in Ithaca. “They’ve shared no guidelines or benchmarks and that’s left us without any way to properly prepare. We’re operating in the dark.”
There’s a growing sense of desperation across New York, and it’s a fear that is radiating all the way to Hollywood, which is trying to figure out a way to profitably release blockbusters when one of its key markets is closed indefinitely. “Tenet,” the entertainment industry’s first major effort to debut a film in the midst of a public heath crisis, faltered, in large part because theaters in Los Angeles and New York City were still dark.
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The situation became critical last week, after “No Time to Die” was postponed to April and Cineworld shuttered its theaters in the U.K. and North America. Now, the fate of the global film industry may rest with Cuomo, and with a handful of Albany lobbyists whose job is to persuade him that it’s safe to go back to the movies.
“If New York is not open, the movie companies aren’t releasing the movies,” says Douglas Clark, co-managing partner at the Albany government affairs firm of Shenker Russo & Clark. “It is now is being hammered home to the governor’s office the primary nature of New York within the industry.”
Clark and his partner, Richard Lauricella, lobby on behalf of the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York. For the last two months, they’ve been calling the governor’s advisers and arguing that theaters will not cause a spike in infections.
“It’s been a constant battle of trying to make the case,” Lauricella says. “Without New York and L.A. being open, you’re hurting the industry not just here in this country, but internationally.”
Cuomo has enjoyed soaring popularity during the pandemic, and has been willing to absorb criticism in the name of stopping the spread of the virus.
Cinema operators who support the governor’s efforts nevertheless bristle at the way that theaters have been made to wait at the back of the line. In recent weeks, Cuomo has allowed other businesses to reopen, including bowling alleys, malls, gyms, restaurants with indoor dining and casinos.
“Gov. Cuomo did a lot right when it came to getting the virus under control, but he’s giving movie theaters a raw deal,” says Andrew Elgart, owner of the Cobble Hill Cinemas.
Instead of being grouped with other forms of shopping or entertainment, theaters have found themselves lumped in with larger performance venues, like Broadway theaters and arenas, that depend on larger crowds to break even. New York officials have considered the movie business to be both “high risk” and “non-essential.”
“To their way of thinking, there is a way to get entertainment without going to a movie theater,” Clark says.
The lobbyists have been trying to articulate the distinction between movie theaters and performance venues, arguing that theaters can survive and even profit with reduced capacity, while Broadway shows cannot.
They also took health officials on a tour of a Bow Tie theater in Schenectady, making the point that theaters have staggered start times and can control where people sit to ensure adequate spacing. They sought to allay the officials’ concerns about bottlenecks after shows let out.
“They seemed to be satisfied and said they would go report up the chain,” says Joe Masher, chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas and the president of NATO of New York.
The governor’s office has put some emphasis on air filtration systems with high MERV ratings. The lobbyists have sought to explain why the standards that apply in hospital operating rooms may not be needed in theaters.
“It’s been a struggle,” Clark says. “From the very beginning their focus has been, and continues to be, public health and safety. That’s the thing that’s driving everything they’re doing.”
Over the last week, NATO’s lobbyists have also enlisted “outside validators” to help make the case. The Motion Picture Association — which represents Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, Paramount and Netflix — wrote to Cuomo on Oct. 7 pushing for a regional reopening. The note flatters the governor for his “extraordinary success in dramatically decreasing the virus positivity rate in New York based on your leadership.” But it also highlights the safety precautions that cinemas across the country have taken and notes that “we are not aware of any virus outbreak that can be traced back to any theatre in the U.S., or globally, that has reopened.”
Cinema owners are also hoping to enlist major New York-based movie business figures such as Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal to press their case directly to the governor. It’s unclear where these outreach efforts stand.
“Ultimately, the governor and his immediate staff drive decision-making,” says one Albany insider. “It needs to be a consensus. It can’t just be someone in the governor’s office with influence. If you want to take an action, it needs to be a consensus among the health professionals, the agencies, the elected officials of the state, and the governor’s office.”
Complicating the latest push to reopen theaters is the fact that it has coincided with the emergence of coronavirus hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens, which prompted new closure orders last week. The clampdown prompted protests in the ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park, and led to lawsuits from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, which represents Orthodox synagogues. That issue has monopolized Cuomo’s time in recent days.
“They may be hesitant to open anything at the moment,” Clark says.
But cinema owners say that’s unfair. They note that other parts of the state’s reopening have taken place on a regional basis.
“If there are spikes in Queens and Brooklyn, why should the Capital District or parts of Upstate, which are doing well in terms of COVID, suffer?” says Masher. “Allow us to prove that we can reopen thoughtfully and safely.”
As it escalates the pressure on Cuomo, the industry will highlight the effect both on the global industry and on mom-and-pop businesses in small towns across the state.
“Movie theaters are essential,” says Lynn Kinsella, owner of the Aurora Theatre. “They allow us to get away from the day-to-day for an hour or two. They let us escape to another place and maybe laugh a little. People need that.”