New York

Can NYC's Independent Movie Theaters Survive a Pandemic?

The Big Apple has always been a mecca of art-house cinema. Then COVID-19 hit.

“How am I coping? Horribly!” So says Caroline Golum, a filmmaker, programmer, critic, and raconteur who is such a movie buff that someone made a short film about her ubiquitous presence in NYC’s independent arthouse scene. “My raison d’être is to be where the social and creative life in the city interact,” she sighs, longing for a return trip to the pictures.

Golum isn’t alone. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the independent theaters that have long been a part of NYC’s cultural legacy (the city once considered “the gateway to the film art market” in the ‘50s), have been shuttered. We who suffer high rents, cramped housing, and seasonal scents of questionable origin can at least boast a robust indie filmgoing culture, providing a cinematic escape from the city’s realities and an outlet beyond typical Hollywood fare at megaplexes. Head out on any random weeknight and you might get to view a rarely screened 35mm print at the Upper West Side’s Film at Lincoln Center, Harlem’s Maysles Documentary Center, Midtown’s Museum of Modern Art, the Lower East Side’s Anthology Film Archives, or Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinemas.

We’re leaving a lot of places out (and we haven’t even gotten to Brooklyn yet) but these oases boldly feature first-run foreign language films, American independents, and archival films programmed by theme, even as mainstream viewers mass-dose on streaming. People, or at least New Yorkers, still want to go to the movies.Of course, 2020 has changed all this. Few places are worse for coronavirus spread than a movie theater. It stands to reason that going to the movies will be among the last steps in a return to “normal” life. So the question many have is: What’s going to happen to New York’s indie theaters, all of which have been closed since mid-March?

Peter Aaron / OTTO
Peter Aaron / OTTO
Peter Aaron / OTTO

The State of Independent Theatres Now and Virtual Experimentation 

Put bluntly, the situation is not good. There is no clear date for a reopen. The Landmark at 57 West, the sleek, three-year-old art-house in Midtown that catered to the older, opera-going demographic announced it is closing for good. Institutions that are non-profit or affiliated with larger cultural institutions have bigger shock absorbers, but everyone’s had to furlough some staff.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” says Aliza Ma, head of programming at the stylish (and not not-for-profit) relative newcomer Metrograph. “It’s a really social space, everyone is friends with everyone, everyone is happy to see each other and now it’s, well, we’ve all had to make sacrifices,” she says about the Ludlow Street hotspot known for its stylish bar, restaurant, elegantly attired ticket sellers, and two screens showing a mix of rep titles, docs, and new indies.

Many independent cinemas joined-in with a “Virtual Cinemas” experiment that kicked off in April. The program enables first run films from smaller distribution companies like Kino Lorber, NEON, and Music Box Films to get into homes via paid video-on-demand, but end users can choose to watch it “through” the theater or arts institution of their choice. It’s prevented a total bottleneck of releases for when theaters might reopen, but it certainly means that some movies (like, say, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow or Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) didn’t quite lead the cinephile conversation like they should have.
Karen Cooper, director of the West Village’s Film Forum since 1972, is proud her non-profit hybrid rep house/indie premiere theater did better than anyone else in an early virtual play of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (which was in the middle of its run when they had to shut down in mid-March) “but even still, we’re only talking, what, 10 or 15 thousand dollars? Virtual cinemas will never make the same amount of money as people going back to the movies,” she tells us.And despite an initial esprit de coeur, not all titles have been available to all theaters equally.Eric Hynes, programmer of film at Queens’s Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), which houses interactive galleries as well as maintaining numerous screening series, says the virtual cinema band aid is “not nothing,” but adds diplomatically, “I’m not super into how the virtual space has come to mimic the physical space of ‘exclusives.’ The virtual space does not have walls, but we’ve found a way of constructing new ones.”

Thanassig Karageourgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
Thanassig Karageourgiou / Museum of the Moving Image
Thanassig Karageourgiou / Museum of the Moving Image

If, and When, They Reopen, Will It Be Safe?

While Metrograph notably, and bravely, opened its doors for bathroom breaks, phone charges, and to act as a general sanctuary to the community during the first days of the George Floyd protests, Ma is very concerned about the health of both patrons and staff when it comes to the prospect of reopening.Karen Cooper is more confident. “We’ve installed MERV13 filters, the same filters used in hospitals. If you don’t like the movie, we can have our staff perform open heart surgery,” she jokes.According to Cooper, Film Forum is ready to open and has set up elaborate protocols to do so. She boasts “high caliber” cleaning and disinfection sprayers, glass separations at the box office, multiple hand-sanitizing stations, and the lobby’s easels with large review print-outs have been removed. The seats in all four auditoriums have been roped-off to allow six feet of distancing in each direction, and no concessions will be sold. Additionally, anyone who enters without a mask will be provided with one.She doubts ushers will need to do any patrolling to ensure guests keep their masks on, suggesting “when people go to the movies, they’re quiet anyway! At a museum, you are chatting, not at the movies.” When asked if some people, even the avid moviegoer who patronizes Film Forum, might remove their masks in the dark, she tells us: “When you cross the street, you never know if you’re going to get hit by a truck. We’re going to do everything we can to make the facility safe.”The theater’s marquee currently features a quote from FDR: “The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself.”

“The governor hasn’t given us the parameters for determining when we can open,” she says, but feels confident they can do so. “Other states are surging, but New York has done remarkably well. Assuming the best, I’m hoping we can open.”Astoria’s MoMI has a double-consideration. In addition to offering some of the best film programming in the city inside a dazzling, state-of-the-art theatre, their interactive exhibitions based off of popular franchises — such as Jim Henson’s Muppets or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — are a constant draw for school groups and tourists.Eric Hynes notes they’re looking at many permutations for an eventual reopen for the museum side, which may involve only some exhibits, perhaps with touchpoints removed. (No date has been announced, considering the need to build-out new safety equipment and set new staffing requirements, but they “hope to have an announcement soon.”)To check back with New York’s quintessential rep rat Caroline Golum, is she ready to go back to the movies?””My gut instinct says no fucking way,” she says. Then, after a pause, adds, “And yet, you know, little by little, you see people adjusting to this new set of circumstances, and even on a subconscious level it acclimates you. It really depends.”

For Golum, she has the following checklist to consider: will it be comfortable to watch a movie with a mask? How much space will there be between filled seats? Will people she trusts vouch for the safety of the employees at the theater? “This is a labor issue, too,” she says. “Everything is a moral dilemma.”

Peter Aaron / OTTO
Peter Aaron / OTTO
Peter Aaron / OTTO

What You Can Do to Help

Metrograph’s Aliza Ma has a very direct answer: Become a member of Metrograph Digital to join Metrograph Live screenings.The theater, which decided not to join in with the industry’s larger “Virtual Cinemas” endeavor, just launched their own new program which was in the works prior to COVID. It costs $5/month (or $50/year) and isn’t so much a streaming service but an invitation to get as much of the fashion-forward Metrograph experience at home as possible. Using, in Ma’s words, “a bespoke video player,” programmed evening “event” screenings unavailable elsewhere will come with pre-show material, including live introductions from filmmakers and the programming team.Pre-show viewers will get quite familiar with Ma and Metrograph’s artistic director Jake Perlin, as well as the theater’s head of publicity Michael Lieberman as an occasional guest. The first round of films included work by Claire Denis, Laurie Anderson, James Gray, and Djibril Diop Mambéty. Photographer Nan Goldin presented short films (and will be back in this month), and filmmaker Noah Baumbach will guide members through a retrospective of French filmmaker and critic Éric Rohmer’s work in September. Many of the films remain available for 48 hours after-the-fact, but you need to be there “live” for the intros, the thrill of ephemerality adding to the appeal.”Metrograph is a physical space where people chose to go see movies, and a lot of thought went into it. It took us a long time to think about the digital iteration of that space.”The fact that Film Forum is a non-profit with individual donors and public funding affords it some room that a chain like AMC doesn’t have. They are not reliant on popcorn sales, and opening to a drastically reduced auditorium for social distancing’s sake still makes sense. “Even when we’re sold out we’re a money-loser,” says Karen Cooper of the theater’s elaborate retrospective series that often involves shipping prints from Europe or Asia. “Our mission is to show great films; the bottom line be damned at this point.”As far as how New York’s movie buffs can help Film Forum, Cooper says “write letters to the Governor! I know he has a lot on his plate, but he needs to know this kind of filmgoing is important to the community.”MoMI’s permanent home, the old Astoria Studios (part of the larger, and still functional Kaufman Astoria Studios campus), is a city-owned building. (And has been acting as a community meal distribution center during the pandemic.) As with Film Forum, the organization is facing, well, perhaps not an easier time during this downturn in revenue, but certainly a different set of goals than the for-profit Metrograph, which also relies on their restaurant and bar for income.But they still crave your membership, and have some digital irons in the fire. “We don’t just want to patch holes with online programming, but make it a bit part of who we are,” says Hynes.This will mean an extension of virtual tours, giving more resources to their in-house publication Reverse Shot, updating their celebrated  Living Room Candidate series which details the latticework of filmmaking, advertising and political campaigns, and reaching into the archive of recorded audio and video from special events.Additionally, the MoMI has successfully collaborated with the Queens-based New York Hall of Science and Rooftop Films, forming Queens Drive-In in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where a portion of the ticket proceeds go to local charities. The opening weekend’s screening of Mad Max: Fury Road (programmed with a terrific short film called Judas Collar) went smoothly, with no projection or parking problems, and made all the more better being in the shadow of the Hall of Science’s rocket garden. Later weeks have included vendors from the Queens Night Market serving Chinese baos and Italian pastries, ordered via an app. Rooftop Films also hosts their own drive-in in Brooklyn.”We rely on charitable donations for most of what we do,” says Hynes, adding that “members have been incredibly supportive,” including one who went above and beyond, raising thousands of matched dollars as a “pure gift.” In addition, they received many donations when Frank Oz, the director and actor behind legendary voices like Yoda and Miss Piggy, took part in some of their online programming in April.

Engaging with these theaters as much as possible is, one could say, a form of self-serving charity. If they can make it over the hump, eventually, eventually, they are going to come back. Thinking about that day, the normally loquacious Caroline Golum puts it rather succinctly. “It’s gonna’ be nice. It’s gonna be reeeal nice.”

Jeremy Liebman / Metrograph
Jeremy Liebman / Metrograph
Jeremy Liebman / Metrograph

Ways to Support

Angelika Film Center: Stream current lineup
Anthology Film Archives: Donate or become a member
BAM Film: Donate
IFC Center: Stream IFC Films Unlimited
Film at Lincoln Center: Virtual Cinema
Film Forum: Donate or Virtual Cinema
Maysles Documentary Center: Donate or become a member
Metrograph: Become a member
Museum of Modern Art: Become a member
Museum of Moving Image: Become a member
Spectacle: DonateSign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.

Jordan Hoffman is a Thrillist contributor.

New York

Scavenge for Peeps Cookies and More Fun Treats in NYC This Easter

The best Easter desserts in NYC this spring include Easter Bunny Churros and Carrot Cake Macarons.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

As spring makes its way through New York City, not only do we get to enjoy beautiful weather, stunning cherry blossoms, and cool activities priced at $Free.99, but it’s also the perfect time for some limited-edition desserts.

With Easter fast approaching, bakeries are filling their shops with tons of chocolate eggs, carrot cake-flavoured everything and all types of flavours that offer both nostalgia and innovation within the city’s dessert landscape. After you’ve picked up a cake from the city’s best new bakeries, from Easter Bunny Churros to Carrot Cake Macarons, here are 8 Easter desserts to try in NYC right now.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery

Magnolia Bakery

Throughout April
Various locations
There’s great news for devotees of Magnolia Bakery’s Classic Banana Pudding: For Easter, the spot is mixing up the iconic dessert’s vanilla pudding with some carrot cake. The Carrot Cake Pudding is filled with freshly grated carrots, coconuts, pineapples, raisins, and walnuts. And if both bananas and carrots aren’t your thing, they’ll be offering their Classic Vanilla Cupcakes in pastel colours with a Cadbury chocolate egg hidden inside.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

Funny Face Bakery

Through Easter Sunday
NoHo and Seaport
Known for their celebrity face and meme-worthy decorated cookies, fans of Funny Face Bakery know that a new fun design is always just around the corner. For Easter, they’ve created the adorable Hoppy Easter decorated cookie that resembles a classic box of marshmallow Peeps. Along with that, they also have the return of their fan-favourite Caramel Pretzel Chip cookie flavour, plus a set of three mini-decorated cookies perfect for gifting.

The Doughnut Project

Friday, April 7 through Easter Sunday
West Village
With the ever-changing flavours at The Doughnut Project, it’s super easy to miss out on trying out a new debut. But this Easter weekend, there will be two new flavours available. One is of course, a carrot cake doughnut topped with a cream cheese glaze, and the other is known as the Doughnut Nest-a French cruller “nest” with a cream-filled doughnut hole “egg” in the centre.

Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour

The Fragile Flour

Wednesday, April 5 through Easter Sunday
East Village
For stellar vegan desserts this holiday, head to The Fragile Flour, a plant-based bakery and dessert wine bar. They’re known for going all out for each holiday with a variety of new pastry options that you can pair perfectly with a glass of wine. This Easter, they’ll have a whole dessert menu that’s both delicious and gorgeous for posting on IG. The menu includes Stuffed Carrot Cake Cookies, a Lemon Cake (whole or by the slice), some festive cupcakes, and specialty macarons.

Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Through mid April
Midtown
For a luxurious take on Easter chocolates, browse the selections available at Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. You can even pick the Easter Signature Chef’s Selection for a special box curated by award-winning chefs. For something other than chocolate, choose between the Carrot Cake Macarons or the cake flavored Easter Marshmallow Trio, both of which are almost too cute to eat.

La Churreria

Throughout April
Nolita
This churro-centric spot is putting the cutest Easter spin on their crispy cinnamon churros by twisting them up into bunnies and bunny ears. At Churreria, choose from a Bunny Churro Lollipop topped with your choice of chocolate or dulce de leche and sprinkles, or the bunny ear churros in the Ube and Matcha ice cream sundae or the Ube Milkshake, both of which are made with ice cream from il laboratorio del gelato.

Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci

Lafayette

Throughout April
NoHo
You’ve surely seen this croissant tons of times while scrolling through IG or TikTok, whether it’s the Pain au Chocolat one or the latest of the month. Known as Supr√™mes, these filled croissants went viral and continue to live up to the hype each time a new flavour comes out. April’s flavour-sour cherry amaretto with a Luxardo custard and toasted almonds. While you’ll have to be super early and wait in line during one of their three drops of the day to get a taste, we promise you it’ll be worth it.

Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain

Levain

Seasonal
Various locations
We all know the iconic cookies from Levain-they’re gigantic, perfectly crispy and chewy, and well worth the long lines. For spring, the shop is launching a new flavour: Caramel Coconut Chocolate Chip. Filled with gooey caramel chips, fresh shredded coconut, and melty dark chocolate, it’s one you’ve got to try while it’s still around. To further celebrate the new season, all of Levain’s storefronts will be decked out in spring floral displays, serving as the perfect backdrop for pictures.

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Alaina Cintron is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Her work can also be found in Westchester Magazine, Girls’ Life, and Spoon University. When she’s not at her desk typing away, you can find her exploring a local coffee shop or baking a new recipe.

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