“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.”…