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Independent Cinemas Face Challenges as New York City Theaters Reopen - Jack Stone Truitt


New York City’s movie theaters are opening tomorrow for the first time in nearly a year--operating with limited capacity and other covid-protocols in place. The reopening will provide some financial relief to the industry. But as Jack Stone Truitt reports--for the city’s small independent cinemas--it also comes with continuing challenges.

JACK STONE TRUITT, BYLINE: Unlike most movie theaters, Cobble Hill Cinemas in Brooklyn has had a steady stream of guests these past few months. Or—rather—students. the space has been hosting nearby PS58 classes as a way for its students to be together while they learn remotely

ANDREW ELGART: So this is basically one of the classrooms.

TRUITT: Andrew Elgart is standing in the cinema’s main theater. He walks down the aisle towards the space between the screen and the front row. There are folding tables set up there. Yellow tape strung across the maroon seats to enforce distancing. And elementary school remnants fill the room.

ANDREW ELGART: Printers to print out everything, toys, puzzles, board games, laptops.

TRUITT: Elgart helps run the theater along with the Williamsburg and Kew Gardens Cinemas with his family. He’s the one who gave his father Harvey the good news after Governor Cuomo’s announcement last month that theaters would be allowed to re-open. Which Harvey says came as a surprise to theater owners as much as anyone else.

HARVEY ELGART: It was exciting for the first time that oh, we can even think about being back in business after being closed for a year.

TRUITT: But theaters will only be allowed to run at 25% capacity, and with no more than 50 people per room. Andrew says it’s not a sustainable model for independent theaters like theirs. Cobble Hill Cinemas has about 600 seats. That might sound like a lot, but national chain AMC’s Times Square location has four thousand.

ANDREW ELGART: I can be running all day and night, and I’m still gonna run at a loss.

TRUITT: The nearby school pays them a bit which helps cover the bills. But Elgart had to lay off his family’s cinema’s staff and use up savings just to get through the last year. Even before covid the city’s local theaters were feeling the squeeze trying to compete with megaplexes and services like Netflix. So when newer theaters like the Nitehawk in Brooklyn opened up, they offered truffle-butter popcorn and fish tacos along with cocktails--all delivered right to your seat. Here’s owner Mathew VEER-uh.

MATTHEW VIRAGH: As far as we’re concerned, we’re a restaurant.

TRUITT: So last March the Nitehawk did what many restaurants--but few theaters--did and relied on takeout and outdoor dining to keep its business afloat. And since the staff qualify as food workers, they can get vaccinated as they return to work. With the building already open and much of the staff working, VEER-uh only needed to add a projectionist and a few more employees to be ready for tomorrow’s opening, when they will be showing Nomadland and Minari. He says ticket sales, so far, have been good. And the Nitehawk doesn’t need to fill as many seats as other theaters to make the same amount of money when its customers are ordering more expensive food and drink.

VIRAGH: But you know, 25% is not sustainable for us either.

TRUITT: Independent cinemas are also eager for their piece of the $15 billion dollars set aside for some shuttered arts venues in last December’s Covid relief bill. But applications aren’t available yet. The CDC says going to a movie theater is still less safe than outdoor forms of entertainment. But some health experts say that it’s not as risky as something like indoor dining, where people are maskless and chatting. For now, theater operators say the most important part of re-opening is getting audiences comfortable coming back inside the theater, even if that means running at a loss. Back at Cobble Hill Cinemas, the theater isn’t opening until later this month. But operator Andrew Elgart is getting ready. Changing the marquee out front for the first time since last March.

ANDREW ELGART: Almost everybody that walked by was like ‘You’re opening? When are you opening? What are you gonna show?

TRUITT: He doesn’t know yet. So one big letter at a time he spells out, ‘reopening soon.’ Jack Stone Truitt, Columbia Radio News.


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