Brooklyn Movie Theater Hangs in LimboCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | With no city guidance on when or how to reopen, Cobble Hill Cinemas eats through its savings to hang on. Published: February 16, 2021
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Going to the movies is up there on my top 10 list of Things I Miss. My office is (was?) right across from The Angelika, the first theater I ever went to in New York, where I saw Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and spotted Michael Moore in the concession line and thought, This city really is magical.
Like so many bastions of culture and community in NYC, movie theaters are, for now, in hibernation. This week, I spoke with Andrew Elgart of Cobble Hill Cinemas, the neighborhood institution that his father, Harvey, launched in the ‘80s. Known for family-friendly films and a curated selection of art house and commercial hits, the theater has been closed to the public for 11 months, save for a very adorable setup with the local elementary school since September (more on that below). Keep reading for my conversation with Andrew.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you see the writing on the wall before the city shut down in March?
We closed a few days before. It wasn't worth it. People weren't really coming, and our staff was questioning it and we were questioning it. We were just like, "It's a wrap. Let's shut it down.”
How long did you think you’d be closed for?
A little bit, as in maybe a month or two. Then it became summer and all the film [releases] got pushed back. At one point, we thought maybe by the end of the summer we'd get up and running, because [New York] started opening gyms and all this other stuff. As soon as they pulled us off the list, we figured we'd be closed for the year.
So movie theaters were on a list to reopen?
Yeah, we were on the same [list] as the gyms, the worst of the worst. Then all of a sudden, somehow gyms stayed on and movie theaters got pulled off. New York State allowed movie theaters to open, but not in New York City.
Has the city forecasted when you’ll be able to reopen or given any benchmarks for you to track?
No, they've told us absolutely nothing. The only information we have is the guidelines they've made for gyms and restaurants [about] MERV 13 [filters], spacing, and all the usual stuff. NATO, the North American Theater Organization, came out with CinemaSafe, a whole stack of guidances that they passed on to the government, to say, "Hey, we can do this safely. Here's our pitch. Keep us in the conversation." We’ve made a lot of game plans while we’ve been closed, like setting up reserved seating that people can book online and buffering [empty seats] around people. We’re working on our POS system and getting the website upgraded. We have plans, but we have no idea when we can open.
Have you made any structural changes to the space?
No, besides putting in sanitizer everywhere and spacing it out a little bit, we don’t need to do much. The theater has high ceilings, which are helpful, and there's only one air conditioning and heating unit per theater, so there's no shared air between different theaters. Our [conditioning] units are up to date. The only things we had to put in were the MERV 13 filters that I pre-ordered months ago, thinking that we might open. I pre-ordered lots of stuff so that we'd be ready when time came.
How are you paying rent without any income coming in?
We had some savings, and we’ve been using that to keep the theater alive. We’ve had many really good local customers buy gift cards to support us, which is amazing. People sending us emails saying, "What can I do?" We're thankful that people have gone out of their way to help us.
Now we're waiting on the Save Our Stages grant that was just passed in December. They're still figuring out how they're going to give everybody money. The application isn’t even available yet. We're just on hold until we can apply, so then hopefully they accept it and send us money.
Do you have any idea how much money will be available to you?
I don't, but I know that it could be up to 40 or 50 percent of what we made last year, which would help pay for a lot of the bills that we're still paying. We're running out of funds completely. We need the help now.
We're running out of funds completely. We need the help now.
Did you get the PPP?
Yeah, we got a few thousand dollars. That covered a couple of bills, because we don't really have staff, we couldn't open. It wasn't much, so it went fast. It's a very expensive business to not be making money. It's a big location, a lot of square footage — everything costs a lot of money.
Have you considered doing virtual screenings?
We thought about it at one point, but with all the virtual stuff [that’s already out there], I don't know how many people would really want it. The amount of money coming in for that would be minimal. We’ll leave that to the big guys.
Did you launch a GoFundMe?
No. Being a private, for-profit movie theater, we’re trying to stay away from that until we really need it. There are so many places that need GoFundMe; it didn’t feel right [to do]. We're holding on, hoping we won't need to. We're getting to that point that we might need to, but not yet.
Have you been in the theater since it shut down?
Oh yeah. I go almost weekly.
What does it feel like?
It's weird. But we have PS 58 [an elementary school in Cobble Hill] Monday to Friday. They're having school in the theater.
What's that about?
They rent the theater. They have a really strong PTA that was reaching out to businesses and we came up with a pretty quick solution. They're using two of the screens and they have 30-something kids almost every day coming to school. The days that they don't go to physical school, they come to the movie theater. The school [has two groups], A and B. When A is in school, B is at the movie theater. It makes a lot of sense, because it's a big space. The kids all wear masks. It's a controlled environment. They’re set up with their computers and tables and headphones. When they don’t have class, they play inside with puzzles and games. It's like a camp.
That is awesome. Do you serve them popcorn?
No, that popcorn machine has not been turned on since we shut the place down. They're just doing school, there's no movies being shown. There was an idea of that happening at one point, but it was becoming a little more involved and I said, "Let's just do the school. There's just not enough money flying around to turn things on." It's more of a charity: They give us money, but it's really just paying the bills for the extra usage of electric and water and heat. For us, it's [about] doing something nice for the neighborhood.
I know it's impossible to say for sure, but when do you imagine you'll reopen?
I'm hoping for the summer. I would love to say May, but I really don't know anymore, because New York City is in this unknown world. New York State's different, but New York City … We don't know. Even New York City government doesn't know. They make things up whenever they want. We're trying to anticipate, but it's impossible after the past few months and the way things are going.
Do you worry about not surviving this?
I do … But I don't. I feel we can hang on for another few months, and then we'll worry about that. Like I said, we were holding money in the background, and now we're just spending all of it. It is what it is. We're stuck.
Once the city reopens theaters, do you think your community will be chomping at the bit to return?
Because it’s going to be limited seating, I have a feeling that people are going to enjoy coming back. But it’s going to take a while for people to get comfortable to come back in large gatherings.
How will you manage limited seating from a financial perspective?
Until we open and figure out what things cost and how we make [limited seating] make sense, we won't really know. For a theater that holds 200 seats, will we be able to have 50 people in there? 20? 100? We don't know how much spacing we're going to need between people, and how many people are going to feel comfortable sitting together. There's definitely lots of people who are ready to come back, I just don't know if they're ready to come back to a full house. Full houses really do help us, but busy [versus full] is just as good as long as it's consistent. Time will tell. I'm positive.
How to help:
Until next time,