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Waiting for the Blockbusters ... and the People

It’s been just under one month since movie theaters in New York City reopened. Cineplexes in the Big Apple are still sparsely populated, but there’s reason to expect that to start changing

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s Saturday night in Manhattan and the weather is splendid. An unseasonably warm March afternoon brought out droves of New Yorkers earlier in the day, and now they’re crowded into bistros surrounding the Flatiron District, excitedly dining both outdoors and in. The stretch of Broadway peeling away from Union Square is teeming with sleekly dressed couples and chatty groups of friends. Ignore the masks and awkward sidewalk shuffles to maintain distance, and you might be able to convince yourself that you’ve traveled back to the era of bliss that ended in March 2020.

A few blocks away at the AMC theater on 19th Street, though, all is still relatively quiet. It’s about 8:10 p.m., 20 minutes before the marquee showing of Nobody, the Bob Odenkirk–led revenge thriller that just opened a day earlier. Perched outside the building, I count four people ambling into the lobby in the minutes ahead of the movie. The AMC staff seems extremely dedicated to cleaning the concessions counter. (The chain is apparently very devoted to enforcing its safety precautions.) Or maybe they’re just bored.

Inside, one of the ticket operators tells me that the theater’s been doing well since New York City cinemas reopened on March 5, but concedes that “the movies we have now, it’s not like crazy movies, it’s not the blockbuster movies.” But there is reason to be excited: Godzilla vs. Kong, a textbook Hollywood tentpole, arrives next week. “A lot of people are getting tickets for that,” he says.

In late February, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo gave clearance for the city’s theaters to return with a limited 25 percent capacity, catching the eye of studios that have kept their buzziest 2020 releases on the shelf, patiently waiting for major entertainment hubs to reopen. The reemergence of the New York market means that more films like Godzilla vs. Kong can open exclusively in theaters, or even at all. The transition so far hasn’t been perfect, as some local movie houses have struggled to kick-start their businesses after 51 weeks off and people cautiously reenter a still-not-fully vaccinated society. But even just a portion of the city’s theaters reopening is a huge boon for the industry. Save for Los Angeles, the center of moviemaking and the largest theater market in the country, no city in America dictates trends and marketing power more than New York.

“It’s enormously important. New York is the center of the cultural universe in the United States,” says Phil Contrino, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners. “Combined with L.A., it’s where most people who work in the industry live. If the movie theaters aren’t open there, then something feels substantially off—it’s hard to open a movie when those two cities are closed.” More than Los Angeles’s, though, New York’s reopening has emblematic meaning: It was the first major city in the U.S. to get hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worst-hit area in the country altogether. For a time during the spring of 2020, New York was the epicenter of the virus not only within the U.S., but the entire planet. Its cautious resurgence is a symbol of America’s long, gradual, and still-in-progress recovery—one that could steadily give confidence to theatergoers across the country.

Prior to the reopening of New York’s cinemas on March 5, the designated market area with the top share of the box office was Dallas–Fort Worth; New York instantly leaped to the top spot the weekend of the fifth, taking 6.5 percent of North America’s total theater earnings, according to Comscore. Deadline hailed the five boroughs’ presence, reporting that the overall New York DMA—which includes outlying areas in Long Island, Westchester County, Connecticut, and New Jersey, some of which had already opened theaters—“posted $1.07 million at the box office, a 380 percent jump over last weekend.”

A million dollars isn’t all that much, of course, but those numbers come with some significant caveats. Namely: New York theaters are still permitted to admit only a quarter of their capacity. Furthermore, even in regions where theaters were granted permission to open, not all were in position to. Following Cuomo’s announcement of theater reopenings on February 22, a number of New York–based theater operators complained about being given only 12 days of notice. The timing was either too soon to corral staff or implement safety measures, or it just didn’t make fiscal sense for some theaters to operate at a 75 percent deficit. Even Regal, which competes with AMC as the main multiplex chain in the city, chose to delay its opening until April.

When confronted with the choice whether to open or remain closed, the IFC Center, a popular art-house theater in Greenwich Village, opted for the former, joining a small group of New York cinemas to open that first day on March 5. “We feel lucky, we felt more theaters would be there with us on opening day,” says John Vanco, senior vice president and general manager of the theater. “We had an advantage in that our parent company”—none other than AMC Networks—“was very supportive of our staff throughout last year and we were able to keep staff close to us, on payroll through the end of the year. It was pretty easy to re-form that team.”

Vanco says IFC has been selling out shows with the limited 25 percent capacity, seeing success with programs screening this year’s Academy Award–nominated features as well as the shorts that New Yorkers haven’t been able to see in theaters to date. But “it’s difficult to get the apples to apples comparison with the old days,” he adds. “When we closed we still had Parasite on sale and that movie made $200,000 the opening week. We were the biggest theater in the county during its opening run—we’re not back there yet. Studios that have strong movies like Parasite aren’t releasing them right now.”

That’s where films like Godzilla vs. Kong come into play. There’s now a Catch-22 of sorts: Studios need to be confident that audiences will watch their biggest films in theaters in order to justify releasing them there, while those audiences, still wary of COVID-19, need a good reason to venture out of the house. A movie like Godzilla vs. Kong—or the upcoming Black Widow, or Fast 9, or Top Gun: Maverick, and so on—sits perfectly at that intersection. The reopenings in New York and Los Angeles are just what studios needed to commit to showing these titles in cinemas. Their hope is that audiences will commit, too. With few eye-popping, must-see blockbusters in theaters during the first month of reopening, next week’s results from Godzilla vs. Kong will be crucial in evaluating consumer interest. Early results suggest the demand is there; the monster flick earned $9.6 million on its opening day this past Wednesday, the biggest debut of the pandemic age.

But the New York City market is more than just a resource for inflating box office totals. “With New York and L.A. shut down, the ecosystem of film culture didn’t really work the way it has for the past century,” Vanco says. Studios often use the two cities as bellwethers, particularly for award-oriented films, to plan marketing campaigns and release dates for nationwide rollouts. That part of the system collapsed when theaters shut down on both coasts, which has created an environment in which few people seem to have awareness of what the year’s good movies actually are. “A lot of movies need New York and the other major markets to have their local cultures evaluate them, and then they go off and play across the country. There was this gap, this hole, left by the studios emptying out their release schedules,” Vanco says. “That’s the important part of New York’s reopening—it means that studios can more robustly set their release plans.”

Notably, however, films like Godzilla vs. Kong and the latest Disney-Marvel installment, Black Widow, are releasing simultaneously on streaming services. While analysts expect these blockbusters to boost box office sales regardless—who doesn’t want to see giant monsters or superheroes squaring off on the big screen?—they understand that the totals will be affected by the fact that audiences have the option to never leave their couches. Thus, the true first measurement of the theater industry’s health, in New York and elsewhere, may arrive with the release of A Quiet Place Part II on May 28. “That’s the true stress test because it’s exclusive to theaters,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “It’s a big sequel, and it’s a holiday weekend [Memorial Day], effectively making it the start of summer movie season. It will set the pace. Before that, it’s just a lot of experimentation with bigger titles going day-and-date.”

It will be a long road back for theatergoing, but at least the industry is now moving down it. Thanks to the reopening of theaters in cities in New York—barring a dramatic reversal of the vaccination effort—films like A Quiet Place 2 are in position to keep their release dates, as the studios gradually gain more assurance. “It was a huge relief for the industry to know that the five boroughs were reopening,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at Comscore. “Having New York is a big deal as a business, politics, and entertainment hub. To have the people who live there going, it builds a collective confidence that you can’t put a price on.”