Hollywood Studios Are Cautiously Optimistic as New York City Cinemas Plan to Reopen

AMC Theater at Times Square
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

The AMC Empire 25 in New York City’s Times Square is the country's top-grossing theater.

Beginning March 5, theaters in the area will be allowed to reopen — at much reduced capacity — bringing hope for exhibitors that a summer movie season "may be in the cards."

Think of it as one small step for mankind, but a giant leap for Hollywood film studios and moviegoers. That’s the hope, anyway.

With little fanfare, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said during a routine midday press briefing on Feb. 22 that New York City’s movie theaters will be allowed to reopen March 5, nearly a year after cinemas across the five boroughs were forced to shut off the lights because of the novel coronavirus, along with movie theaters across the country.

Yet film industry insiders note that the celebration won’t be complete until Los Angeles cinemas are up and running. L.A. and New York City are the two top moviegoing markets in the country, and are to key to any movie’s success, whether a tentpole or a smaller Oscar contender.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that California Gavin Newsom, in tandem with local authorities, could give the okay for L.A. cinemas to open within several weeks (an announcement could come as early as this week). Chicago and San Francisco are two other major markets that are trying to get back online.

“Cuomo’s announcement symbolizes the road to recovery and is emblematic of the things that need to happen,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. “This paves the way for other major markets to open, and shows to the rest of the world that U.S. movie theaters are on the road to recovery. An actual summer movie season may be in the cards.”

Certainly there will be plenty of hurdles upon reopening New York cinemas. Initially, Cuomo said that cinemas will have to operate at 25 percent capacity, or 50 people per auditorium, whichever is greater. Masks are also required in movie theaters. Presently, 39 percent of cinemas are open in North America, and they too have imposed a slew of restrictions.

A top theater owner executive says that being allowed 50 percent capacity is key to breaking even. The insider adds that an intense lobbying effort helped persuade Cuomo to reopen cinemas, including input from Sen. Chuck Schumer and top studio chiefs. The National Association of Theatre Owners has briefed officials in every state as to safety protocols, and the fact that not a single outbreak of COVID-19 being traced to movie theaters (38 percent of cinemas in North America are presently operating).

“We’ve been hammering away,” says the insider. “I’m ecstatic,” says Paramount domestic distribution Chris Aronson. “This is great news for the industry as we take our first step, beginning with 25 percent. Adds another distribution chief, “It’s a start.”

AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas have the biggest presence in New York City. Regal and its U.K.-based parent company, Cineworld, have been shut for most of the pandemic. AMC said it will open all 13 of its New York City locations on March 5. As of press time, Regal hadn’t commented.

"Theater owners are pleased with the announcement that New York City movie theaters will be allowed to safely reopen. Stringent voluntary health and safety protocols have made it possible for cinemas across the country to operate safely and responsibly at higher capacity limits for many months without a single outbreak of COVID-19 being traced to movie theaters," the National Association of Theatre Owners said in response to the announcement.

Combined, Los Angeles and New York City contributed 16.4 percent of all box office revenue pre-pandemic, in 2019. They also serve as invaluable media and publicity hubs, and especially New York with its myriad of morning, afternoon, evening and late-night shows.

There are 260 cinemas in the larger New York City region, which includes sites in neighboring areas beyond the five boroughs, according to Comscore. Some of those locations are already reopened.

“This is an important first step,” says another studio executive when asked about Cuomo’s decision. “It gets theaters open and demonstrates they can operate safely, and that will lead us to higher capacity.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.