Ithaca's Cinemapolis has joined a group of art house cinemas from across New York State to send a clear message to Albany—they’re ready to safely re-open.
Since March, all New York movie theaters have been shuttered in response to the mandate by Gov. Cuomo which closed all non-essential businesses, and set in place a plan to reopen businesses in phases. Theaters were originally slated to be reopen in Phase 4 of the New York Forward re-opening plan but were pulled from the list of approved businesses just days before Phase 4 began.
Other Phase 4 businesses like shopping malls, bowling alleys, gyms and casinos have since received state-approved safety guidelines for resuming operations. In interviews, Cuomo has stated that movie theaters are “less essential” and pose a “higher risk” than other businesses. Art house cinema operators have offered a counterpoint.
“We are prepared to re-open in a manner that mitigates risk and promotes a safe movie-going experience for staff and patrons alike,” says Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis. "For hundreds of thousands of devoted patrons, New York’s community-based, mission-driven movie theaters are absolutely essential to their mental health and well-being."
This group of New York art-house operators has signed on to a letter (full text of the letter below) to Gov. Cuomo calling for the approval of health and safety guidelines for movie theaters within the state.
“We need the roadmap that will allow us to appropriately prepare our community spaces for safe operations in a post-COVID world,” Cinemapolis executive director Brett Bossard said. “New York is one of the last states in the union with no published guidelines for safely reopening cinemas. We’ve created safety protocols to assist in the crafting of standards that fit our unique subset of the film exhibition sector.”
The cinemas have agreed to follow the CinemaSafe protocols recently released by the National Association of Theater Owners (www.CinemaSafe.org) and have added additional measures such as the temporary elimination of concession sales in regions where indoor dining is currently prohibited.
These independent cinemas are predominantly non-profit organizations, and all of them are tightly integrated into the communities they serve. Each provides an immense multiplier of economic impact and will be a crucial component to the economic recovery of downtowns across the state, said The Downtown Ithaca Alliance.
Now six months into a forced closure, many independent theaters are losing hope that they’ll be able to open again. Art house cinemas say they urgently need reconsideration and fairness in opening guidelines.
Throughout the pandemic, Cinemapolis has been offering virtual screenings of its films, available through its website. And last week, the cinema house teamed up with Serendipity Catering and Bar to screen films in the caterer's new Backlot area. Bossard said he was excited about being able to offer films to his audience in-person once again, but suggested that the theater's second pivot of the year, once to virtual and then again to outdoor screenings, doesn't replace the experience of seeing a film inside a theater.
The summer has seen a spike in drive-in/outdoor movie venues, but as the winter months approach, some of their fates seem a bit uncertain, especially, Movies in the Backlot, which will be offered, at least, for the next several weeks.
“We’re not looking for special treatment for cinemas, just accommodations equivalent to those that have already been afforded to other sectors of the state’s economy," Bossard said.
LETTER PETITIONING APPROVAL OF SAFETY GUIDELINES:
Dear Governor Cuomo,
We write to you today as representatives of a vital business sector in New York State’s pandemic-stricken economy: independent art house cinemas. The prudent steps you’ve taken to bring our economy back on-line safely have saved thousands of lives and have been a model for other states entering their own phased recovery. Independent movie theaters across the state have been closed since mid-March in response to the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York, and now we’re eager to join the New York Forward movement. But we need your help.
We need the roadmap that will allow us to appropriately prepare our community spaces for safe operations in a post-COVID world. New York is one of the last states in the union with no published guidelines for safely reopening cinemas, and we’re prepared to assist in the crafting of standards that fit our unique subset of the film exhibition sector.
As you know, the National Association of Theater Owners has launched its CinemaSafe campaign and prepared a rigorous set of movie theater safety protocols with the assistance of an epidemiologist. These include limiting seating capacity, providing adequate spacing between parties inside the auditorium, mandatory mask wearing for all staff and patrons, and enhanced sanitizing protocols for all shared spaces.
Compared to the large commercial chains like Regal and AMC, our art house cinemas operate under a dramatically different business model. We can go even further to ensure the safety of patrons and staff alike. Some additional steps include installation of MERV 13 filtration in all HVAC systems, significant spacing of screening times to avoid cross-traffic between audiences, and—most importantly—the elimination of concession sales in regions where indoor dining is prohibited, thereby providing a fully masked environment for the duration of a film.
In recent interviews, you’ve stated that movie theaters are less essential and present a higher risk than places like bowling alleys, health clubs, restaurants, and even casinos. The art house cinemas of New York State have hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters and patrons that would argue otherwise. To them, a visit to their favorite art house offers immeasurable benefits to their mental health and well-being.
Our community-based, mission-driven cinemas are predominantly non-profit organizations, and all of us are tightly integrated into the communities we serve. More than just movie theaters, New York’s art houses are cultural institutions where the art of film is used to enrich people’s lives, grapple with and illuminate contemporary issues, and, of course, to entertain. In our programmatic partnerships with other non-profit organizations, art houses offer a reliable and safe community space for important conversations. And, as a consistent, nightly entertainment option, art house cinemas provide an immense multiplier of economic impact to the localities they serve. Attractions like ours will be a crucial component to the economic recovery of downtowns across the state, and re-opening now will be essential in our efforts to re-connect with the supporters that help our non-profits thrive.
While it's true that cinemas are a congregant space, small art houses like ours present no more of a risk than religious gatherings, which are now allowed at 33% capacity, or museums, which can operate at 25% capacity. Given that in many regions of the state, large restaurants are able to seat at 50% capacity, they're also presenting a much higher risk than our small auditoriums at 50% capacity, with masked patrons. If those other sectors are deemed a low enough risk, there's simply no way that an art house cinema presents even a portion of the risk that they present.
The continued closure of New York’s movie theaters presents a cascading effect that damages other New York-based businesses as well, namely independent film production and distribution. Without the ability to release films in the all-important New York market, these businesses have stalled. A proper platform release for indie film distributors requires an opening in New York and Los Angeles. Without access to New York theaters, New York distributors like Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, Kino Lorber, and Oscilloscope Laboratories will continue to struggle.
Around the world, cinemas are already providing a safe and entertaining experience for patrons. In the regions and countries where they have been allowed to re-open, there have been no documented cases of transmission of the coronavirus traced back to movie theaters. The art house cinemas of New York are prepared to join in that success story and re-open in a manner that mitigates risk and promotes a safe movie-going experience for staff and patrons alike. We’re not looking for special treatment for cinemas, just accommodations equivalent to those that have already been afforded to other sectors of the state’s economy.
We thank you and your staff again for the Herculean effort to keep New Yorkers safe, and we look forward to joining the fight to help the state recover from the pandemic.
Michael Hoagland, Executive Director, Bedford Playhouse - Bedford, NY
Gina Duncan, VP of Film, The Brooklyn Academy of Music - Brooklyn
Krissy Smith, Owner, The Callicoon Theater - Callicoon
Peter Finn, Chairman, Catskill Mountain Foundation - Hunter
Dylan Skolnick, Co-Director, Cinema Arts Centre - Huntington
Brett Bossard, Executive Director, Cinemapolis - Ithaca
Karen Cooper, Director, Film Forum - Manhattan
Sean Nevison - Historic & Independent Hamilton Movie Theater - Hamilton
John Vanco, SVP/General Manager, IFC Center - Manhattan
Brian Ackerman, Programming Director, Jacob Burns Film Center - Pleasantville
Derek Reis, General Manager, Little Theatre - Rochester
Carol Sadlon, President, Program Director, The Moviehouse - Millerton
Laura deBuys, President & Executive Director, The Picture House - Pelham
Pamela Kray, Co-chairman, Programming Committee, Rosendale Theatre - Rosendale
Susan Monagan, Executive Director, The Smith Center for the Arts - Geneva
Steve Leiber, co-dir, Upstate Films - Rhinebeck & Woodstock