After a long year of uncertainty across the entertainment industry, New York City movie theaters were finally given the green light to reopen on March 5 (with restrictions), and local North Brooklyn haunts have been following suit to welcome cinephiles back into their (distanced) seats once again.
Williamsburg Cinemas (on the corner of Grand St. and Driggs Ave.) reopened its doors on March 12. Weekend screenings of both current releases and a special flashback film series, complete with necessary seating reservations and COVID-compliant guidelines, have earned a great turnout according to manager Noah Elgart.
“People who aren’t ready to watch film, but live in the neighborhood and were loyal cinema guests have come in just to say ‘hi’ and catch a whiff of popcorn,” Elgart said. “We have done well, but we’re at extremely limited capacity, so you can’t compare it to the business that we’ve had before. But what is similar is that last weekend a young kid saw his first movie; the memories that we remember the cinema for are still here.”
But that same support hasn’t necessarily been felt across all North Brooklyn theaters. Film Noir Cinema (122 Meserole Ave.) owner Will Malitek acknowledges that seeing a profit throughout the pandemic has been a struggle, and with capacity restrictions limiting his theater to only fourteen guests, Film Noir has been relying on the store and a GoFundMe (which has raised $14,965 since May 2020) to get by.
“It sucks,” Malitek admitted. “[The theater] is just lunch money … I stay open so people know I’m alive.”
On top of its scheduled film screenings (including upcoming showings of acclaimed films like Minari and First Cow), Film Noir is also available for event rentals, ranging from private screenings to weddings, though Malitek isn’t picky about offering up the space to whoever may be interested and willing to pay.
“Many times, it’s people who made their own films and they invite their crew and cast as a thank you or to see how it looks on the big screen. A lot of times people gather a group of friends together to see a specific film. There are birthday parties, once there was even a wedding … Sometimes, I don’t even know who they are!” Malitek explained.
Film Noir isn’t the only theater that’s had to pivot its operations to stay afloat — for Stuart Cinema and Cafe (79 West St.), which is set to reopen its theater this Friday, April 2, the road to restarting in-person screenings has also been a long one, complete with keeping their business running by providing other essential services in the community.
“We shifted to being an ‘essential business’ by providing much-needed services; we provided free DVDs so people who couldn’t afford cable or subscriptions could still watch movies at home,” Stuart Cinema and Cafe owner Emelyn Stuart said. “We added some tables to the theater and provided laptops that people could use to file unemployment, find information, or look for work. We lowered our food prices to make it more affordable for local artists. We partnered with programs like Too Good To Go so we could give away our end-of-day food at the lowest price possible. We also allowed many residents to have memorial services with their immediate family in the theater; most services consisted of families watching videos of their loved ones and sharing stories.”
While the space has been CinemaSafe certified — which includes installing hand sanitizers, a disinfecting fogger machine, a mask mandate, social distancing regulations, and contract tracing protocol — since May 2020, Stuart echoes Elgart’s comments about accommodating those not yet comfortable with the in-theater movie experience.
“We recognize that some of our customers may not return to our movie theater because of general concerns about COVID and we also understand that some individuals have become accustomed to watching movies at home,” Stuart said. “Therefore, we are also launching Stuart Cinema On Demand to allow our customers to watch movies in the comfort of their home without a subscription. What is even more exciting is that 10% of the money raised by SCOD will be used for hosting free movie screenings and programs for our community.”
Similarly, Nitehawk Cinema (136 Metropolitan Ave.) has adopted a free-of-charge credit system for any patron who feels unwell on the day of their scheduled movie screening, allowing them to redeem their ticket for a later date.
This sentiment of projected uncertainty and an uphill journey to come is shared among all managers and owners as they look to expand public screenings. But the fact remains that community support and a love of cinema is what keeps North Brooklyn’s neighborhood theaters going.
“The riches that we’ve built here are in the sky. The way that people experience life — they leave happy, they leave sad, they experience all these emotions. So to have people in here experiencing that, talking to each other about movies again, this is gold,” Elgart noted.