As cinemas reopen across New York City, examining if the pandemic has irrevocably altered the movie-going experience

Hand sanitiser dispensers and temperature checks make abundantly clear the pandemic is far from over. Yet, when the lights dimmed and cellphones were ritually silenced, the theatre-goers escaped, at least briefly, into engrossing entertainment, free of distraction or concern.

The New York Times March 09, 2021 16:03:49 IST
As cinemas reopen across New York City, examining if the pandemic has irrevocably altered the movie-going experience

Outside the Regal Cinemas in Times Square in New York, March 5, 2021. For the first time in almost a year, New Yorkers are allowed in front of the big screen again. (Nathan Bajar/The New York Times)

Around 9:45 a.m. Friday morning, the creaky metal awning, that for almost a year had walled off moviegoers from the Angelika Film Center on Houston Street, rolled up with a lurch. There was the gleaming glass box office with a smiling attendant. Behind him sprawled the theatre, its retro light bulbs aglow again.

Marilyn Evans, 73, who said she lived nearby, climbed the short flight of stairs and paused before walking inside.

“At last!” she exclaimed. “I have five tickets over the next four days. That’s how much I’ve missed this.”

On Friday and over the weekend movie lovers like Evans returned to reclining seats, surround-sound environments and concession stands wafting the smell of buttered popcorn to enjoy movies on the big screen around New York City for the first time in almost a year.

They wore masks and sat rows apart. Many, like Evans, had been vaccinated. And there were reminders of the pandemic everywhere: Tubs of disinfecting wipes near the door, new on-screen announcements about safe viewing, rope lines blocking access to eerily empty lobbies.

But when the lights dimmed and cellphones were ritually silenced, they escaped, at least briefly, into engrossing entertainment, free of distraction or concern.

“There’s something very special about seeing a movie in a theatre that you don’t get at home,” said Kristina Davis, of Brooklyn, who had come to the IFC Center in Greenwich Village to see a favourite — the 2009 British political satire In the Loop.

“It’s not like you can multitask when you’re in a theatre. You actually have to pay attention to what’s being presented. And that’s really a pleasure that isn’t often granted in modern life,” Davis said. A school teacher who has been vaccinated, said that while she has a projector and surround-sound system at home, her cats, text messages and emails cause constant distractions.

She said sharing the film in the theatre brought her joy, even though there was only one other person in the audience.

“You’re laughing and you hear someone else laugh, and it’s not someone you know,” she said. “It’s an experience that you’re having with a random stranger.”

Still, as the standing hand sanitiser dispensers and temperature checks make abundantly clear, the pandemic is far from over. While movie theatres in parts of the state have been operating within limits since late October, New York City, which is one of the biggest — and densest — movie markets in the country, did not get that green light. Infections in New York state have been rising at one of the highest rates in the country — roughly 37 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week. And New York City is adding cases at a per capita rate that is even higher.

Late last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cleared the way for movie theatres in New York City to open this past weekend with limited capacity and other restrictions, bringing cinemas in the five boroughs in line with those in the rest of the state. Though some city theatre owners ran the math and decided it would be best to stay dark, the movie theatre industry has been pummeled by the pandemic, and several struggling companies seized the opportunity to sell tickets again.

Concerns have not entirely dissipated. Some movie house patrons said Friday they had intentionally chosen early features in the hope they would be sparsely attended to allow significant social distancing. Several said that they found going to the movies no less dangerous than riding the subway or eating indoors at a restaurant.

“When we’ve gone, it always really safe — safer than Upper West Side grocery stores,” said Steven Brinberg, an actor from that neighbourhood who said he had travelled to New Jersey, Connecticut and other parts of New York state to see movies in recent months.

“It’s total relaxation, and it’s the art form that is still the most affordable,” said Brinberg, who had walked to the IFC Center to buy a ticket for a Sunday showing of “My Salinger Year.” “Movies are the people’s entertainment.”

Indeed, the weekend represented a miniature milestone in what is expected to be a long and uneven recovery. The reopening of a neighbourhood movie theatre was, to some, a baby step toward the day the city can open up safely and in full.

“It felt good to be back,” said Nelly Zambrano, 68, of the Bronx, who brought two of her friend’s daughters to see Raya and the Last Dragon at the AMC Lincoln Square 13. “I’ve been looking forward to this because it gives me hope that things are coming back, a little bit, to normal.”

Even without major foot traffic, however, there were subtle signs across the city that the movie theaters had reawakened from their enforced slumber.

Shane Singh, a 23-year-old film student, was eager to watch Tenet on something other than his laptop, so he visited the AMC Empire 25 in Midtown on Friday. “Maybe I’ll notice something I didn’t before,” he said.

As he swung the door to the theatre open a gust of icy wind from 42nd Street blew in. An usher called out to Singh as he entered — and her voice carried back through the door, audible to anyone wandering past in the heart of the city: “Welcome back!”

Matt Stevens and Sean Piccoli c.2021 The New York Times Company

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