New York Movie Theaters Demand Capacity Rise to 50% by Memorial Weekend

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New York Movie Theaters Demand Capacity Rise to 50% by Memorial Weekend

New York raises capacity to 33%, but it’s not enough and is “doing damage to a global industry,” NATO New York’s Joe Masher says

After months of hammering at the door and demanding that they be allowed to increase their capacity limits, cinemas in New York got news from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that COVID restrictions would be loosened from 25% audience capacity to 33% audience capacity starting April 26. But one of the state’s top theater owners and industry lobbyists says that’s not enough.

“We’re glad that we haven’t been completely ignored and that a step towards progress has been made, but we have made it very clear that theaters need to have the audience limit raised to 50% by Memorial Day weekend to survive financially,” Joe Masher, COO of Bowtie Cinemas and head of the National Association of Theater Owners’ New York division told TheWrap. “What New York is doing to us right now is simply doing damage to a worldwide industry.”

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Prior to Cuomo’s announcement, New York was one of the last two states in the country, along with Pennsylvania, to require 25% capacity limits for all of its counties. While some states enforce such a limit on a county-by-county basis — including California, Colorado and Oregon — major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco raised their limits to 50% earlier this month while states like Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut and even COVID-stricken Michigan have applied the 50% limit statewide.

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Other states controlled by Republican governors have gone even further, with Florida, Georgia and Mississippi among states that have no strict percentage limits and only instruct theaters to “maintain social distancing,” according to NATO’s CinemaSafe website. Four states — Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Alaska — have allowed full capacity without social distancing.

Many of these states loosened capacity limits after the opening weekend of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which earned $48.5 million from an extended 5-day opening at 3,064 theaters. Insiders at Warner Bros. told TheWrap that hundreds of sold-out screenings were reported at theaters with a 25% limit, as cinemas worked around that restriction by screening the blockbuster in most of their auditoriums.

But Masher warns that as more studios wade back into the release calendar with major films, theaters will not be able to replicate that strategy, hence the urgency for New York to increase its capacity to 50% by the end of May to prepare for films like “Spiral,” “Cruella,” and “Peter Rabbit 2” sharing theaters simultaneously.

“When all the major studios start putting films back in theaters, we have to be able to capitalize on them right away,” Masher said. “It’s the only way many are going to be able to stay open. In a standard 200-seat theater, 33% is just 66 tickets being sold per screening. Also, many auditoriums have switched to recliner seats that can reduce the capacity to 80 seats, so that’s less than 30 tickets in those auditoriums. That just not a restriction we can work under for much longer.”

Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian also pointed out that with the exception of the most extremely anticipated blockbusters, most screenings don’t fill up auditoriums beyond 50% of maximum capacity anyway, but screenings that reach between 25-50% are common for major films on opening weekend.

“Ask any theater owner, and they’ll say that if they’re selling screenings above 50%, that’s a great day of business,” he said. “Obviously, the industry wants to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but just lifting to 50% is such an important step because it gives theaters the ability to handle the demand that most blockbusters bring.”

Masher also lamented that Cuomo and state officials have seemed to apply a double standard to theaters compared to other activities like indoor dining that have been deemed high-risk environments for contracting COVID-19. He also points out that his Bowtie Cinemas locations in nearby Connecticut have been able to increase their capacity limit to 50% without any signs that the virus has spread at his businesses.

“There has not been a single case that has been traced back to a movie theater. We have done everything we have been asked and everything we have promised, yet we keep being held to a stricter standard than other places,” he said. “It makes no sense to me that restaurants can have an indoor capacity of 50% in New York City and theaters can’t.”

Jeremy Fuster