TV & Movies

I saw 3 movies in 2 days when New York City theaters reopened. Here’s what happened.

Popcorn pickup, sanitizing stations and posters of Darth Vader demanding you wear a mask – welcome to the future of pandemic-era moviegoing. 

Movie theaters in New York City were allowed to reopen Friday at 25% capacity after almost a full year of being shuttered due to COVID-19. The news was met with a mix of elation and concern from film fans on social media, given that the city is still averaging more than 3,900 new cases per day. Having received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine three weeks ago, I felt relatively comfortable returning to two of my favorite theaters: Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, to see “My Salinger Year;” and IFC Center in Greenwich Village, where I watched “La Llorona.” I also trekked to the perpetual escalator that is AMC Empire 25, because even the most mediocre Jodie Foster movie is worth braving Times Square for. 

If you’re considering going back to theaters, here’s what you should know about some of the new safety protocols in place in New York and at AMC theaters nationwide. 

Assigned seats are (mostly) enforced 

All three theaters I visited required me to choose my seats while buying tickets, which was pretty standard even before COVID. IFC Center enforced social distancing by taping off seats in the auditorium that hadn’t been reserved, while my server at Nitehawk, a dine-in theater, double-checked my ticket to make sure I was in the correct spot.

Although no one at AMC came into my showing of “The Mauritanian” to ensure everyone was seated safely apart, fortunately my small audience of seven had enough common sense to sit in separate rows. There were also posted signs around the auditorium that if you feel uncomfortable with your reserved spot, you are “free to move to a socially distant seat after the feature presentation starts.” 

A patron looks at his smartphone as the previews are screened at the IFC Center Friday. (Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)

Concessions are scaled back, if available at all 

If you’re someone who enjoys drowning your popcorn in butter or making your own concoctions with the touch-screen soda fountain, you’re in for some disappointment: Butter dispensers and soda machines are blocked off from customers at AMC. (Drink refills have also been nixed.) To get concessions, you can either wait in line or schedule an order for pickup using the AMC smartphone app. I opted for the latter, and received my (cold) popcorn and bottled water in a paper bag when I arrived at the pickup table. 

At Nitehawk, you write your orders on small sheets of paper and servers collect them throughout the movie (same as they did pre-pandemic). The only difference now is that there are no physical menus, meaning you need to use a QR code to pull up their food and drink offerings on your phone before the movie starts. IFC Center, meanwhile, has stopped concession sales altogether and doesn’t allow eating or drinking in the auditorium. 

A sign detailing mask requirements at AMC 34th Street theater in Midtown. (Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Mask reminders, sanitizers are everywhere – but temp checks aren’t 

Like most places now, all three theaters were outfitted with multiple dispensers of hand sanitizer, buckets of handwipes or some combination of both. There were also many posters laying out the rules of mask-wearing, which everyone appeared to abide by during my showings. Nitehawk had some fun with these signs, incorporating masked characters such as Spider-Man, Ghostface and Hannibal Lecter. Surprisingly, Nitehawk was the only theater I visited that did temperature checks at the door, using a touchless forehead thermometer. 

Tape on benches and dots on the floor mark the spacing for proper social distancing in a foyer at the IFC Center last Friday. (Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)

The verdict: It’s certainly not the same, but worth going if you safely can

After a year of watching new films exclusively on my laptop and TV, I’d forgotten what a privilege it is just to see something alone in a dark theater, phone off and free from distractions. And theater staff are clearly working very hard to make it a safe and enjoyable experience for moviegoers. (Shoutout to the IFC employee who was bopping to the end credits song of “La Llorona,” saying “Welcome back!” to everyone as we exited.) 

That said, the experience is still a little too weird to fully relax and get immersed in a movie. I found myself constantly fidgeting with my mask to avoid foggy glasses and couldn’t help looking over my shoulder every time I took a bite or sip, trying to avoid having my mask down at the same time as someone else. And with audiences of just five or six other people, theaters were almost completely silent, with none of the laughs or gasps these films might’ve gotten had they been released to more carefree crowds pre-COVID. 

Even with a vaccine, my paranoia from the last 12 months was still there. It will surely take some time – and many more people continuing to get vaccinated – for moviegoing to feel “normal” again, whatever that word even means anymore. But for now, I’m hopeful and happy to support local theaters, which managed to weather a hellish year and still come back dancing. 

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