Can NYC’s Independent Movie Theaters Survive a Pandemic?

The Big Apple has always been a mecca of art-house cinema. Then COVID-19 hit.

The Metrograph NYC

“How am I coping? Horribly!” So says Caroline Golum, a filmmaker, programmer, critic, and raconteur who is such a movie buff that someone made a short film about her ubiquitous presence in NYC’s independent arthouse scene. “My raison d’être is to be where the social and creative life in the city interact,” she sighs, longing for a return trip to the pictures.

Golum isn’t alone. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the independent theaters that have long been a part of NYC’s cultural legacy (the city once considered “the gateway to the film art market” in the ‘50s), have been shuttered. We who suffer high rents, cramped housing, and seasonal scents of questionable origin can at least boast a robust indie filmgoing culture, providing a cinematic escape from the city’s realities and an outlet beyond typical Hollywood fare at megaplexes. Head out on any random weeknight and you might get to view a rarely screened 35mm print at the Upper West Side’s Film at Lincoln Center, Harlem’s Maysles Documentary Center, Midtown’s Museum of Modern Art, the Lower East Side’s Anthology Film Archives, or Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinemas.

We’re leaving a lot of places out (and we haven’t even gotten to Brooklyn yet) but these oases boldly feature first-run foreign language films, American independents, and archival films programmed by theme, even as mainstream viewers mass-dose on streaming. People, or at least New Yorkers, still want to go to the movies.

“My raison d’être is to be where the social and creative life in the city interact,” she sighs, longing for a return trip to the pictures.

Of course, 2020 has changed all this. Few places are worse for coronavirus spread than a movie theater. It stands to reason that going to the movies will be among the last steps in a return to “normal” life. So the question many have is: What’s going to happen to New York’s indie theaters, all of which have been closed since mid-March?

Film Forum exterior in the West Village, NYC
Indie premiere theater Film Forum on W. Houston Sreet | Peter Aaron / OTTO

The State of Independent Theatres Now and Virtual Experimentation 

Put bluntly, the situation is not good. There is no clear date for a reopen. The Landmark at 57 West, the sleek, three-year-old art-house in Midtown that catered to the older, opera-going demographic announced it is closing for good. Institutions that are non-profit or affiliated with larger cultural institutions have bigger shock absorbers, but everyone’s had to furlough some staff.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” says Aliza Ma, head of programming at the stylish (and not not-for-profit) relative newcomer Metrograph. “It's a really social space, everyone is friends with everyone, everyone is happy to see each other and now it’s, well, we’ve all had to make sacrifices,” she says about the Ludlow Street hotspot known for its stylish bar, restaurant, elegantly attired ticket sellers, and two screens showing a mix of rep titles, docs, and new indies.

Many independent cinemas joined-in with a “Virtual Cinemas” experiment that kicked off in April. The program enables first run films from smaller distribution companies like Kino Lorber, NEON, and Music Box Films to get into homes via paid video-on-demand, but end users can choose to watch it “through” the theater or arts institution of their choice. It’s prevented a total bottleneck of releases for when theaters might reopen, but it certainly means that some movies (like, say, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow or Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) didn’t quite lead the cinephile conversation like they should have.

Karen Cooper, director of the West Village’s Film Forum since 1972, is proud her non-profit hybrid rep house/indie premiere theater did better than anyone else in an early virtual play of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (which was in the middle of its run when they had to shut down in mid-March) “but even still, we’re only talking, what, 10 or 15 thousand dollars? Virtual cinemas will never make the same amount of money as people going back to the movies,” she tells us.

“It's a really social space, everyone is friends with everyone, everyone is happy to see each other and now it’s, well, we’ve all had to make sacrifices.”

And despite an initial esprit de coeur, not all titles have been available to all theaters equally.

Eric Hynes, programmer of film at Queens’s Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), which houses interactive galleries as well as maintaining numerous screening series, says the virtual cinema band aid is “not nothing,” but adds diplomatically, “I’m not super into how the virtual space has come to mimic the physical space of ‘exclusives.’ The virtual space does not have walls, but we’ve found a way of constructing new ones.”

Museum of the Moving Image theater in Astoria, Queens
MoMI's Redstone Theater on the opening night of First Look Festival 2019 | Thanassig Karageourgiou / Museum of the Moving Image

If, and When, They Reopen, Will It Be Safe?

While Metrograph notably, and bravely, opened its doors for bathroom breaks, phone charges, and to act as a general sanctuary to the community during the first days of the George Floyd protests, Ma is very concerned about the health of both patrons and staff when it comes to the prospect of reopening.

Karen Cooper is more confident. “We’ve installed MERV13 filters, the same filters used in hospitals. If you don’t like the movie, we can have our staff perform open heart surgery,” she jokes.

According to Cooper, Film Forum is ready to open and has set up elaborate protocols to do so. She boasts “high caliber” cleaning and disinfection sprayers, glass separations at the box office, multiple hand-sanitizing stations, and the lobby’s easels with large review print-outs have been removed. The seats in all four auditoriums have been roped-off to allow six feet of distancing in each direction, and no concessions will be sold. Additionally, anyone who enters without a mask will be provided with one.

She doubts ushers will need to do any patrolling to ensure guests keep their masks on, suggesting “when people go to the movies, they’re quiet anyway! At a museum, you are chatting, not at the movies.” When asked if some people, even the avid moviegoer who patronizes Film Forum, might remove their masks in the dark, she tells us: “When you cross the street, you never know if you’re going to get hit by a truck. We’re going to do everything we can to make the facility safe.”

The theater’s marquee currently features a quote from FDR: “The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself.”

“The governor hasn’t given us the parameters for determining when we can open,” she says, but feels confident they can do so. “Other states are surging, but New York has done remarkably well. Assuming the best, I’m hoping we can open.”

Astoria’s MoMI has a double-consideration. In addition to offering some of the best film programming in the city inside a dazzling, state-of-the-art theatre, their interactive exhibitions based off of popular franchises -- such as Jim Henson's Muppets or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey -- are a constant draw for school groups and tourists.

Eric Hynes notes they’re looking at many permutations for an eventual reopen for the museum side, which may involve only some exhibits, perhaps with touchpoints removed. (No date has been announced, considering the need to build-out new safety equipment and set new staffing requirements, but they “hope to have an announcement soon.”)

To check back with New York’s quintessential rep rat Caroline Golum, is she ready to go back to the movies?”

“My gut instinct says no fucking way,” she says. Then, after a pause, adds, “And yet, you know, little by little, you see people adjusting to this new set of circumstances, and even on a subconscious level it acclimates you. It really depends.”

For Golum, she has the following checklist to consider: will it be comfortable to watch a movie with a mask? How much space will there be between filled seats? Will people she trusts vouch for the safety of the employees at the theater? “This is a labor issue, too,” she says. “Everything is a moral dilemma.”

Film Forum theater
A very recognizable theater at Film Forum | Peter Aaron / OTTO

What You Can Do to Help

Metrograph’s Aliza Ma has a very direct answer: Become a member of Metrograph Digital to join Metrograph Live screenings.

The theater, which decided not to join in with the industry’s larger “Virtual Cinemas” endeavor, just launched their own new program which was in the works prior to COVID. It costs $5/month (or $50/year) and isn’t so much a streaming service but an invitation to get as much of the fashion-forward Metrograph experience at home as possible. Using, in Ma’s words, “a bespoke video player,” programmed evening “event” screenings unavailable elsewhere will come with pre-show material, including live introductions from filmmakers and the programming team.

Pre-show viewers will get quite familiar with Ma and Metrograph’s artistic director Jake Perlin, as well as the theater’s head of publicity Michael Lieberman as an occasional guest. The first round of films included work by Claire Denis, Laurie Anderson, James Gray, and Djibril Diop Mambéty. Photographer Nan Goldin presented short films (and will be back in this month), and filmmaker Noah Baumbach will guide members through a retrospective of French filmmaker and critic Éric Rohmer’s work in September. Many of the films remain available for 48 hours after-the-fact, but you need to be there “live” for the intros, the thrill of ephemerality adding to the appeal.

“Metrograph is a physical space where people chose to go see movies, and a lot of thought went into it. It took us a long time to think about the digital iteration of that space.”

The fact that Film Forum is a non-profit with individual donors and public funding affords it some room that a chain like AMC doesn’t have. They are not reliant on popcorn sales, and opening to a drastically reduced auditorium for social distancing’s sake still makes sense. “Even when we’re sold out we’re a money-loser,” says Karen Cooper of the theater’s elaborate retrospective series that often involves shipping prints from Europe or Asia. “Our mission is to show great films; the bottom line be damned at this point.”

As far as how New York’s movie buffs can help Film Forum, Cooper says “write letters to the Governor! I know he has a lot on his plate, but he needs to know this kind of filmgoing is important to the community.”

MoMI’s permanent home, the old Astoria Studios (part of the larger, and still functional Kaufman Astoria Studios campus), is a city-owned building. (And has been acting as a community meal distribution center during the pandemic.) As with Film Forum, the organization is facing, well, perhaps not an easier time during this downturn in revenue, but certainly a different set of goals than the for-profit Metrograph, which also relies on their restaurant and bar for income.

But they still crave your membership, and have some digital irons in the fire. “We don’t just want to patch holes with online programming, but make it a bit part of who we are,” says Hynes.

This will mean an extension of virtual tours, giving more resources to their in-house publication Reverse Shot, updating their celebrated  Living Room Candidate series which details the latticework of filmmaking, advertising and political campaigns, and reaching into the archive of recorded audio and video from special events.

Additionally, the MoMI has successfully collaborated with the Queens-based New York Hall of Science and Rooftop Films, forming Queens Drive-In in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where a portion of the ticket proceeds go to local charities. The opening weekend’s screening of Mad Max: Fury Road (programmed with a terrific short film called Judas Collar) went smoothly, with no projection or parking problems, and made all the more better being in the shadow of the Hall of Science’s rocket garden. Later weeks have included vendors from the Queens Night Market serving Chinese baos and Italian pastries, ordered via an app. Rooftop Films also hosts their own drive-in in Brooklyn.

“We rely on charitable donations for most of what we do,” says Hynes, adding that “members have been incredibly supportive,” including one who went above and beyond, raising thousands of matched dollars as a “pure gift.” In addition, they received many donations when Frank Oz, the director and actor behind legendary voices like Yoda and Miss Piggy, took part in some of their online programming in April.

Engaging with these theaters as much as possible is, one could say, a form of self-serving charity. If they can make it over the hump, eventually, eventually, they are going to come back. Thinking about that day, the normally loquacious Caroline Golum puts it rather succinctly. “It’s gonna’ be nice. It’s gonna be reeeal nice.”

The Metrograph theater on Ludlow Street
Metrograph's Ludlow Street theater | Jeremy Liebman / Metrograph

Ways to Support

Angelika Film Center: Stream current lineup
Anthology Film Archives: Donate or become a member
BAM Film: Donate
IFC Center: Stream IFC Films Unlimited
Film at Lincoln Center: Virtual Cinema
Film Forum: Donate or Virtual Cinema
Maysles Documentary Center: Donate or become a member
Metrograph: Become a member
Museum of Modern Art: Become a member
Museum of Moving Image: Become a member
Spectacle: Donate

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Jordan Hoffman is a Thrillist contributor.