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“I Think This Will Become The New Normal”: NYC Cinema Programmers Talk About Adapting To COVID

In mid-March, New York City movie theaters went dark. The coronavirus pandemic exploded in America, hitting the city harder than anywhere else in the country. While some indoor institutions have partially reopened, including museums and bowling alleys, with indoor dining en route, there still remains, as of this writing, no such plan for places that show films — one of the richest and most diverse aspects of the city’s cultural life. The major multiplex chains are hurting, but so are NYC’s many smaller art house and repertory theaters, who’ve been forced to think way outside of the box to survive, and to do so without much guidance from the local and state leaders.

So how are some of these places holding up? And what is the road to a return of moviegoing in one of the best movie towns in the world? At the IFP Week 2020 panel “Hold My Seat: The Future of Cinemas in New York City,” four programmers from the city’s biggest small venues weighed in on the many unexpected changes they’ve had to endure. One solution was to go online. At BAM, Brooklyn’s preeminent arts institution, film programming quickly pivoted to virtual, showing a mix of first-run features and reissues. “That’s been good,” said programmer Gina Duncan, “but obviously it’s not the same as if we were open. And it doesn’t give us the same range of programming options and flexibility.”

Duncan says she was jealous of learning about the plan hatched over at Metrograph, the two-screen venue (with bar and restaurant) nestled in the Lower East Side. A few months into the quarantine they emerged with a rotating schedule filled with one-off events that included intros and Q&As. (Though if you miss the screening, you still have a few days to watch the films, albeit minus the extra stuff.) “That was our kneejerk way of trying to create that corollary of the in-person experience where you still have a showtime, you still feel this sense of community, that you’re all tuning in at the same time as other people to watch something,” said head programmer Aliza Ma. “But I think now that that ritual has to be redefined to the virtual context. That will probably evolve as we keep going at this. This is the first iteration of that for us.”

This wasn’t a new development. Ma said it’d been on the “back burner,” an idea they’d been toying with for a year. “We always had way too much going on at any given time to focus on that project,” Ma explained. “The one silver lining, if you can call it that, of the lockdown is that we had no choice but to shift our focus to it and get it off the ground.” And it wasn’t easy to learn a new thing while everything in the industry was changing. “It was such a pivot to try and to try and license things for online because we kind of put all our eggs into the basket of in-person filmgoing. I find I’m still learning every day. It seems to be this Wild Wild West.”

Still, online screenings have encouraged thinking outside the box. “I find it really liberating not to only stick to feature-length runtimes,” Ma said. “Obviously we’re still finding our sea legs in all the virtual exhibitions. But just being able to even have an event centered around discussions or a short film, or to have something more experimental show and not have to worry about all the nuts and bolts of in-person exhibition, that’s been really liberating.”

Caryn Coleman, director of special programming and special projects at Nitehawk Cinema (who also served as moderator), doesn’t think online screenings will go away when COVID does the same. “I think this will become the new normal,” she said. “You get so stuck in things, like, ‘Do the screening, do the Q&A afterward.’ I like this element of creativity.” Though Nitehawk hasn’t gone online, her other gig — the Future of Film is Female initiative, which she founded — has. Of course, it’s not the same. “That’s the thing I love the most: seeing a movie with people in the cinema and then talking to the filmmaker afterwards, hearing what people think, and then drinks at a bar after. This is the best replication of that. It’s cool to have someone from Chicago or L.A. or London be a part of that. Having those kinds of talks and panels opened up is a benefit I hope to see continued. That could someone in another city watch [a film] virtually as we watch it in person in New York.”

The Museum of the Moving Image has also been providing programming on their site, including live conversations and virtual cinema releases. They’ve also come up with an in-person alternative: Since early August they, along with Rooftop Films and the New York Hall of Science, have been showing movies at a drive-in theater set up in Corona Park in Queens. They wondered if people in a city that has historically been allergic to cars would show up to a mix of old blockbusters and festival fare. “We wanted to see if there was a there there. And it became quickly apparent that there was a there there,” said Eric Hynes, MoMI’s curator of film. That also meant bringing back laid-off employees. “It was amazing to go back and re-employ people we had to let go in March. It definitely changes my sense of what we’re all doing and why. We like to talk about community, we like to talk about looking out for one another and gathering in a space to watch things. But then you realize there’s a real measurable consequence of not being able to do that.”

Starting the drive-in, which is scheduled to stretch into October, was a boon for a venue that still remains shuttered, even the museum part of the museum. “The drive-in has bought us a bit of time. It’s allowed us to focus there for a couple months, for as long as we can be open. We can put that to the side, knowing we have an immediate focus on showing films,” Hynes said. In the meantime, like Metrograph, MoMI has been able to focus on projects that have long been on the back burner. They’re redoing their website, which should be done by year’s end, and they’re planning to do more with Reverse Shot, the online journal with which they’ve been associated for years. “That’s been an incredible asset all this time, but to we want to actually spend some time, dedicate resources to it, which has always been deserved and necessary.”

But there’s still great uncertainty. None of these venues were given any leadership from state and local officials, who didn’t even order them to shut down when COVID blew up. “The reason we closed is because we decided to close. Nobody said anything to us,” said Ma. She remembers the weekend before Metrograph shuttered, the first spring weekend of the year, when people were out and about and they had multiple sell-outs. “That Saturday we thought, ‘This isn’t right. We need to cancel all of the screenings for the next couple weeks and just see what happens.” Officials haven’t gotten better. “There’s been no top-down information, absolutely no coherent messaging. And now that we’re going into the colder months and we may or may not be anticipating a second wave, everything is going to move indoors. Who knows what’s in store for this airborne, highly, highly contagious disease?” She adds, “We have to look a few steps ahead because the institutions that are in place to supposedly protect us aren’t really doing their jobs right now.”

There’s currently no plan to reopen Metrograph. “What could be more devastating, even after what we’ve already gone through, than to reopen and then have to close again,” Ma asked. “Everyone’s on their last lifelines already. To shut down again would be the final nail in the coffin. We don’t want to do that, and we don’t want to endanger anybody coming to the theater or working for the theater.”

Duncan added that they have to think about their theater staff, who at BAM are an average of 25. “I don’t want them to have to tell people to keep masks on, etc.,” Duncan said. “Also, how do you create a collective culture of everyone holding each other accountable and people holding themselves accountable, to say we’re all going to come into this space together. We want to make it as safe as possible for each of us.” She also knows that if they tell their staff to come back and they don’t feel safe, they’ll make their lives worse. “The rules of unemployment are that if you’re turning down work, you’re no longer eligible. There are so many factors we have to consider before we can bring folks back in a safe way, both financially and health-wise.”

Still, at least online screenings and drive-ins have provided an answer to one burning question: Will people still want movies when this is over? “Audiences are there,” Coleman said. “This idea of cinema being dead, which is such a beaten-to-death idea, is completely untrue. People will get into a car and go see movies.” And there’s so much to choose from. ‘Think of all the films that premiered at Sundance or South by and then what now?” said Ma.

“There’s no shortage of films that came out in 2020 that have not had the audience they deserve. As soon as we can give them any kind of audience, that’s a big part of our mission,” Hynes said. Hynes also doesn’t think that audiences beleaguered by various real world anxieties and tragedies will only want to see old faves. “Sure, people want to see E.T. and Jurassic Park and The Wizard of Oz. Even though they could see it online, they do want to come out to the drive-in for that.” But newer, more challenging fare have also been big drive-in hits. “People will show up to the comfort food, but that does not mean people don’t also want to engage with new films and be in their community to talk about it.”

Duncan points out that people contain multitudes and want to watch all manner of films. “It depends on the mood. I can feel a bit overwhelmed by everything coming at me and I wish I could escape to a cinema and just turn my phone off and be in some place in which I don’t have to know what’s happening in the world till I come out,” she said. “The thing I have no doubt about is that what I do and what we all do will continue to be desired when we come out on the other side of this. And I think people will come back in droves. It would be nice to have something that is big that gets everyone out, but I think quality programming will be enough.”

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