Covid regulations challenge small cinemas as megaplexes reopen

There’s good news and bad news for mid-Hudson cinema buffs. The good news is that Governor Andrew Cuomo has partially lifted an executive order of movie theaters in counties where the Covid-19 infection rate remains below two percent, on a 14-day rolling average. Ulster and Dutchess both qualify at present (an outbreak reported Sunday at the Woodland Pond nursing home in New Paltz will temporarily skew the Ulster percentage upward). Under the new rules, theaters may operate at 25 percent capacity, with a maximum of 50 patrons in front of one screen.

The bad news is that, effectively, only megaplexes are going to be able to open in the near future/ That’s because operational restrictions were placed on cinemas in order to protect public health in close quarters. Besides enhanced “CinemaSafe” cleaning protocols, these include assigned seating, touchless payment or pay-ahead options. It’s also recommended that theater staff be available to accompany patrons to their seats, in order to ensure that ample distancing between groups arriving together is maintained. These rules bring increased costs that small community cinemas and art houses are typically not in a financial position to bear.

Regal Poughkeepsie Galleria had announced that it would operate during its normal hours, from 11 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but close at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Concessions are open, with orders placed on Regal’s mobile app. 

Advertisement

“Regal will be initiating several safety procedures including mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing throughout the concourse,” said the press release. ”Two empty seats will be placed between each party on either side within theaters. Electrostatic fogging will be used and individual seats will be thoroughly cleaned between shows. Regal encourages guests to reserve and prepay for their tickets using the mobile app, and to use credit cards at the box-office window to reduce touchpoints.”

The NCG Kingston Cinema at the Hudson Valley Mall has also shortened its hours. It’s now operating from 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 1 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday. These national-chain multiplexes currently have nine new releases and two Halloween classics on the screens, but the pickings are slim in terms of distribution. All the “tentpole” blockbusters that had been planned for summer 2020 release have been held back, along with most of the mid-market titles. Many independent distributors, and even some of the big studios such as Disney, have been releasing direct to cable channels or on-demand streaming services.

Smaller houses face increased investment

A smaller, regionally based partnership owns the Lyceum Cinemas in Red Hook, the Roosevelt Cinemas in Hyde Park and the New Paltz Cinemas. All these also reopened last Friday, offering two to four films per location to start. According to Matt Heuer, general manager for the three mid-Hudson theaters, some venues in Bennington and St. Johnsbury, Vermont, owned by some of the same partners, have been open since June. “We learned a lot from them,” Heuer said. “We have a film booker who makes recommendations on what to pick. The War with Grandpa and Honest Thief were popular at theaters in Vermont.”

Heuer said that the regional chain had implemented online reservation and seating technology “just before the shutdown, so that’s coming in handy.” As of opening day, about 150 tickets had already been sold for show times through Tuesday at the Lyceum alone, and about 50 at the New Paltz location. Although tickets can still be purchased at the theaters, he recommended ordering them online, noting, “At 25 percent capacity, if it’s a popular movie, it’s possible that it will be sold out.”

These three theaters had also already invested in MERV-13 air filtration systems conforming to New York State health guidelines. “It’s capable of filtering out bacteria and viruses. We run the fans constantly, and we’re keeping the economizers open, which lets in 10 to 20 percent outside air,” said Heuer. Cleaning protocols include the use of a portable fogger unit that “sprays a fine mist of EPA-approved virucide that sanitizes the seats between shows.” To reduce physical contact, refills of drinks will no longer be offered, but popcorn sales will include an “extra baggie.” Common-touch equipment such as water fountains and arcade games have been taken out of service for the present.

Diversification is key

Smaller theater operations, many of which still rely on in-person paper ticket sales, are having a tougher time with the stringent new guidelines. Upstate Films’ two locations in Rhinebeck and Woodstock are still “closed for the foreseeable future,” although tickets are still being sold online for Virtual Cinema streaming, with 15 titles currently available. 

On New York State reopening day, Upstate sent out an announcement that read, in part, “In the interest of the health of our staff and clientele we are bringing our ‘moving pictures’ private outdoor screening model inside before opening widely. Beginning Friday, November 6, our large (160-seat) theater in Rhinebeck will be available for private bookings of up to 35 people.” The package fee is $675, including concessions, and patrons opting for a private screening are asked to specify two or three preferred film titles.

Another local art house, the single-screen, mostly volunteer-run Rosendale Theatre, is also holding off on reopening – at least until late November. The downtime is being used to do renovations and to clear out the backstage area to be more useful for future live stage productions. “We’ve gutted the lobby, making it more open for social distancing,” reported executive director Ann Citron. “We put down a new floor, and we’re painting.”

Rosendale implemented a touchless, cashless ticket-sales system a couple of years prior to the pandemic, but other new technology needed for the transition has yet to be installed. “The main thing we’re dealing with now is air filtration. It has to be a separate unit from the heat exchanger, and that takes up space,” Citron said. “It’s mandatory to have MERV filters.” Luckily, as the Theatre is a not-for-profit organization, it qualified for some economic stimulus grants that can be used for the purchase and installation of air filtration technology.

Citron and the Rosendale Theatre board are also looking ahead to a world in which more content will be available for streaming, and new incentives will need to be devised to entice audiences out of their home-based viewing cocoons. Versatility is key. They’re considering making some of the seating modular, for instance, so that the space can be used for dancing or yoga classes. “We’re open for two hours most days. It’s an underutilized, big, beautiful building that can be used for so many things: afterschool programs, live music, more live theater,” noted Citron. “We’re applying for a wine and beer license. Diversifying what you offer is really where it’s at.”

In Saugerties, the Orpheum Theater is still in the hands of the Thornton family, which has owned it for more than a century. Though its single screen was expanded to three in the early 2000s, it’s still very much an old-fashioned movie palace – one of the last in the region that still has a box office with a window that opens to the street. While it already has the modern ventilation technology needed for compliance with the state Covid standards, other requirements have stymied its reopening for the near term, according to manager Peter Lawrence.

“The problem is that the mandates are basically designed for megaplexes,” Lawrence said. “You need to have electronic ticketing. That’s very expensive, and the accounting is a nightmare. It’s overkill for a small theater – like hiring a chauffeur and a footman to drive your Volkswagen Beetle. You have to have touchless payments, which means that 60 percent goes to the company.” The extra employees who would be necessary to escort ticketholders to their seats would also be a budget-buster for a theater the size of the Orpheum, said Lawrence.

Another concern is the dearth of product currently in distribution, which is unlikely to change much until the big-market venues in cities like New York and Los Angeles are allowed to reopen, in Lawrence’s opinion. And that makes it tough to fill seats – even 25 percent of them. 

“What they’re releasing now are basically small pictures. There isn’t an independent theater in Jersey that’s open, and they opened long before New York State …. Lots of people are still apprehensive about going to theaters,” he said. “Look at the airline industry. The planes are 95 percent empty. People don’t want to sit in an enclosed environment with other people.”

He nevertheless anticipates that audiences will want to go back to seeing films in movie houses. Once a vaccine has been developed, restrictions can be dropped and appealing product will be available again. “A home sound system is still not the same quality as a theater,” Lawrence noted.

Until then, the Orpheum will remain dark. “They’d have to eliminate touchless payment, electronic ticketing, reserved seating, extra employees. They’re just not feasible for small theaters,” Lawrence said. “It’s going to be a slow process.”