Well, the fact that there’s anything at all at the movies, that’s big news in New York City, where the cinemas have been dark, along with most other out-of-the-apartment entertainment options, since COVID-19 tightened its grip last March.
But with the multiplexes (and the few remaining single screens) finally allowed to reopen this weekend, there’s another question that might as well be plastered on the big marquee:
Are moviegoers ready to go again?
All this needs to be hedged, of course. Not all the theaters are back. A couple of shaky independents didn’t survive the virus. Some chains are still playing wait-and-see. And no theaters will be packed this weekend. As the doors swing open, you’re guaranteed to have plenty of room to rest your bathtub-sized buttery popcorn on the seat beside you. Capacity is strictly limited to 25% — and never more than 50 people per screen.
It’s been a long year for Paul Dergarabedian, but he said he’s finally seeing good reason for hope, and New York is a big part of it. As senior media analyst for the media measurement and analytics company Comscore
Dergarabedian follows the movie industry like a hawk, poring over marketing budgets, per-screen performances and box-office reports, and looking for trends in all of them.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “We could be in a much worse position if New York were not reopening. The biggest movie markets have to reopen before the industry can get back on track.”
There are two key pieces to a post-COVID recovery, according to the analyst. “The movie industry needs the availability of theaters, and the top studios need to be emboldened and confident enough to put brand new, big, expensive movies in them. But with the second-biggest movie market — second only to Los Angeles — opening now, that’s a big deal. We may not see an overnight return to glory. But it’s a very important step.”
After a year of falling in fresh love with video streaming, the studios do seem to be putting their toes back into the theaters. There’s a big Disney
film, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” opening in theaters this weekend. “I’ll be looking closely at those numbers,” Dergarabedian said. And the animated reboot of cat-and-mouse favorite “Tom and Jerry” hit theaters in Chicago, Phoenix, Houston and elsewhere a week ago and did far better than anyone had predicted, even though it was also available on streaming.
“Now, we’ll have the horsepower of New York City,” Dergarabedian said.
Clearly, the studios aren’t all in yet.
“Coming 2 America,” Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall’s sequel to their 1988 immigrant blockbuster, was originally supposed to be released in theaters by Paramount Pictures. But because of the lockdowns, Paramount sold distribution rights to Amazon
Studios, whose marketing executives orchestrated a massive digital release on Thursday.
The film is getting middling reviews. So who knows what kind of business it might have done in a theater-only release. But it’s a beloved comedy franchise that fans have gone without for 34 years, and (New York alert) it’s partly set in Queens. File that under “missed opportunity.”
But some kind of corner is seemingly being turned. The percentage of American theaters that are open jumped from 38 two weeks to 42 a week ago, according to Comscore’s count. With New York included, it could be 45, edging toward 50, after this weekend. The 63 theaters in the five boroughs account for only 3% of the screens in America. But the larger New York metro market pushes that to 7.4%, and New York has an even more important role: As a media center, a culture magnet and a finance hub, it is irreplaceable as a creator of movie buzz.
“The ability to sit on the couch and push a button is really appealing,” Dergarabedian said, “but it is not the only experience we want to have in terms of entertainment. It’s all freedom of choice. Even when movies are available at home and simultaneously in theaters, people are still going to the theaters in bigger numbers than we thought they might.”
Theaters, he said, won’t be killed by home streaming any more than restaurants will perish because of Seamless, Chow Now, Uber
Eats and the other food-delivery apps. Eating at home isn’t the same as going out to dinner any more than Netflix
is the same as Saturday night at the movies.
“That movie theater is a carefully curated, special experience,” Dergarabedian said. “There is nothing else like it. Part of what makes a movie theater so cool — that it’s communal, that it’s immersive — doesn’t work in a pandemic.” But as the pandemic passes, “movie theater will return to glory and learn to live with the streaming options. It’s a different world now. But movies theaters will still be part of it.”’
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.