The Spectacle Theater in New York (image courtesy Spectacle)

It is impossible to talk about New York City movie theaters reopening without also talking about their closure one year ago. In the initial COVID-19 maelstrom of March 2020, lacking anything resembling official guidance (beyond de Blasio tweeting that people should go watch Marco Belocchio’s The Traitor), many asked why they were still open. After they shut down, the question became: How can a theater operate — indeed, what does it do — when its physical doors are closed? Speaking with programmers and theater workers across the city, one thing is crystal clear: The initiatives that began last year as stopgap measures to keep their brands alive have already rescaled the industry of repertory film programming, for both better and worse. (I personally work as a programmer at Spectacle, an all-volunteer microcinema in Williamsburg, and work in the film ticketing department at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Not a few frail infrastructures were laid bare by the pandemic. Some venues resorted to measures which can only be called desperate, like a $100 hoodie advertising Williamsburg Cinemas. Others, like Metrograph, seized the opportunity to host a wider array of films and programs than might have been possible before. For most, the only choice was to move programs online — even if, as Light Industry’s Ed Halter and Thomas Beard pointed out over the phone, the ticketing equivalent of sharing a Vimeo link is “deeply unexciting.” Another complicating factor is the high cost of building a custom platform; no cinema is going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to create something so temporary. 

Everything stems from the obvious but nonetheless crucial fact that the 2020 shutdown was an event without precedent in the cultural history of the city. Jed Rapfogel, head programmer at Anthology Film Archives, described the exasperation of assembling a career-spanning, on-film Michael Snow retrospective (with the 92-year-old artist scheduled to appear) for April 2020, only to have to cancel it. Beard was developing an ambitious King Vidor program for Film at Lincoln Center with Dan Sullivan, an undertaking involving coordination with multiple archives. Spectacle was assembling a massive “greatest hits” series to commemorate ten years of operation. This is the kind of programming that cannot simply be dragged and dropped onto a streaming site. (We did get a certain perverse thrill on Spectacle’s official 10th birthday, as Claude Faraldo’s working-class caveman epic Themroc got the theater’s account temporarily banned from Twitch with just 10 minutes of the movie remaining.) Another sore point is distributors’ disinterest in opening their vaults without a minimum buy-in. One colleague, speaking off the record, said a major studio was unwilling to lease a single archival title for less than $50,000. What if this kind of thing augurs worse for the future of repertory programming than a year of theaters being closed?

The empty lobby of Anthology Film Archives (image courtesy Anthology Film Archives)

That said, there are silver linings (Halter called them “death blow cushions”) for filmmakers and distributors. Online releases have democratized buzz, lessening the power of professional film critics at in-person festivals, who often file their desperate-to-be-first dispatches within minutes of a film’s end credits, putting a thumb on the scales of “the discourse” months before a regular person gets a chance to see it for themselves. Films have more chances to play “at” different cinematheques, getting a wider signal boost than what was offered by the old model of investing in a circuit of IRL theaters. For a distributor like Criterion, streaming has invigorated the need for programming, and its specialty platform now hosts a dizzying array of movies not connected to their parent company Janus Films. They’re expanding the definition of what a film programmer actually does in the 21st century. 

Many programmers essentially shrugged off the March 5 green light to reopen from Cuomo, citing still-high infection rates in NYC, the still-in-progress vaccination effort, and/or wary moviegoers. “Every programmer I know was totally surprised by the March 5 announcement,” Beard told me. As of the time of writing, Anthology, BAM, MoMA, Spectacle, and Metrograph all have no announced dates or plans for reopening. And whenever theaters do reopen, it will not be business as usual. 

Some industry flacks pushed the narrative that COVID came to finish off theatrical moviegoing once and for all. Instead, IRL screenings must now appetize audiences (and indeed, justify their very existence) on the promise that there’s still some quality to cinema which can’t be screen-captured and uploaded to the cloud. For the studio conglomerates, that used to mean first dibs on whatever tentpole release was slated to open exclusively in theaters (at least for the weekend before camrips inevitably materialized on the web). But given Warner Bros.’ move to release their 2021 blockbuster slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, even this idea appears a pre-pandemic artifact. Compare and contrast Christopher Nolan’s crying-in-his-beer response to the announcement with that of Judas and the Black Messiah filmmaker Shaka King, who essentially said he was glad people had a chance to see his movie on a popular (if imperfect) platform.

The Maya Deren Theater at Anthology Film Archives (image courtesy Anthology Film Archives)

These conversations reveal the paradox facing the future of repertory programming as well. Drawing audiences back to the arthouse could entail a rare print, an exclusive in-person appearance, or the promise of a mystery movie — which in addition to building palpable excitement in a theater often allows programmers to buck restrictions from filmmakers and distributors. The good news, at least in New York City, is that many cinemas were doing that work already. If the theater in question had a community in place before the shutdown, it’s fair to assume those communities will continue to support them. Moving online has forced programmers to think creatively, both in terms of diversifying offerings and reaching audiences that were previously not part of the equation. The imperative at Spectacle — to create a punk in-person event that cannot be replicated — inverted itself overnight. Suddenly the aim was to go as global as possible, sharing lost and forgotten films well beyond the confines of New York.

And what’s true for a shoestring operation like Spectacle is just as true for an institution like Anthology or Film Forum. Even if streaming has kept the brand alive and visible, that barely translates into dollars and cents. Karen Cooper, executive director of Film Forum, estimated their streaming revenue over the past year at about $350,000, versus the normal $1-2 million in ticket sales per fiscal year, citing the generosity of donors in keeping the nonprofit alive. “We’re like a ship in drydock,” she told me. “Streaming has been a great way to stay active and creative, but it’s a financial pittance.” The same day we spoke, Film Forum announced it would resume theatrical operations on April 2, making it the earliest NYC repertory venue to reopen after the Quad. Film at Lincoln Center has also announced that they will reopen April 16.

The Film Forum marquee advertising the theater’s imminent planned reopening (image courtesy Film Forum)

FLC has been (rightly) praised for coming up with a hybrid solution to the crisis, putting together a New York Film Festival which took place online and at drive-ins, with world-class premieres of important films. But it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the theater’s successful effort to unionize this past summer was a direct consequence of the swift furloughs and layoffs instituted by Lincoln Center leadership in March 2020. (Maxwell Paparella has detailed unionization efforts at museums in NYC and other places in response to pandemic austerity for Art Papers.) In a similar act of solidarity, in the first weeks of shutdown — before payroll protection plans, stimulus checks, and unemployment had been reconfigured for the unprecedented upheaval — the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, organized by Beard and Halter alongside programmer Nellie Killian (formerly of BAM) and filmmaker Sierra Pettengill, raised over $75,000 to support theater workers, and not just the ones at beloved highbrow rep houses.

Citing less-than-transparent messaging from above, and in some cases a perceived indifference to the virus before the city shut down, several cinema workers spoke to me off the record. (This was not just for fear of reprisal, but also because many are excited to see familiar faces again.) A Quad employee described the theater’s pre-shutdown safety measures as “a joke” and scoffed at the theater’s “radio silence” before they were contacted ahead of the soft reopen. A Film Forum employee conceded that they were excited to go back to work, but had “no real idea what to expect” yet. For these workers, it’s hard to separate the bitter from the sweet in Cuomo’s announcement. The thrill of being able to see movies on the big screen is electric, but the announcement arrived a solid six months earlier than many programmers and theater managers had been preparing for. Said Beard: “We’re so close. Why not wait until everybody is vaccinated? Who wants to go see a movie at 25% capacity?” 

The answer may well be the inveterate New York cinephile, a cantankerous sort who liked having space to themselves long before social distancing. Leaving aside the financial and technological headaches of running an online cinematheque, Cooper is definitely on to something: “people do not get the same adrenaline rush from seeing the roar of the MGM lion when they’re sitting at home on their couches.” The essential value of IRL moviegoing is probably the act of devotion, when someone voluntarily chooses to concentrate on a film in the stillness of a darkened theater instead of streaming movies as wallpaper while they play with their phone.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The White Review, Filmmaker Magazine, and the Brooklyn...