When Tom Cruise came soaring back into theaters with “Top Gun: Maverick” this May, he seemed to bring the movies back with him. The sequel to his 1986 blockbuster has steadily pushed past the $1 billion worldwide mark to become Cruise’s biggest-ever hit, surpassing even his “Mission: Impossible” releases. You can almost hear the movie industry asking: What pandemic?
Visit your local mom-and-pop cinema, however, and you may find a more tempered mood.
“Although I hear that business is returning to normal for the larger places, it has not returned to normal for us,” said Phil Solomon, owner of the PJ Cinemas in Port Jefferson Station. Business is still down by 50% compared to the pre-pandemic era, he estimated. “We’re still way below where we used to be.”
Across Long Island, independent cinemas are reporting mixed results from the summer season. While the biggest of the blockbusters — and the occasional art-house title — have done well, theater owners have a sense that COVID-cautious moviegoers are still staying home. There’s also a concern that the summer movie pipeline is drying up early, with few major crowd-pleasers left to carry the season. Overall, attitudes about the future range from deep anxiety to cautious optimism.
“I think the mood is definitely positive,” said Rich Daughtridge, president of the Independent Cinema Alliance, an industry trade group. Most small cinemas managed to stay afloat during the pandemic, he said, and overall box office numbers are edging close to pre-pandemic levels. And while inflation is of increasing concern, Daughtridge posits that it could potentially work in cinemas’ favor.
“Going to the movies is a pretty affordable night out,” he said. “When it comes to inflationary times and recessions, we think movie theaters are positioned well in that regard.”
It’s been a long two years since the pandemic shuttered Long Island’s movie theaters in March 2020. Some, like Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre, pivoted to “virtual” programming, offering whatever titles they could online. Theaters reopened in October 2020 but still relied on benevolent landlords to cut deals on rent, and on government funding through the Paycheck Protection Program and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.
At some point, however, Long Island’s local cinemas will have to sustain themselves.
At the Malverne Cinema & Art Center, business is up an estimated 15% over this time last year, according to Anne Stampfel, who co-owns the art-house venue with her husband, Henry. The couple also owns the first-run Bellmore Movies and Showcase. “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” released in April, brought out the family crowd, she said, and “Downton Abbey: A New Era” was also a solid seller. even though that movie’s overall box-office ($88 million) is less than half that of the previous film.
“We’re still not where we were pre-pandemic,” Stampfel said, adding that other venues are likely in the same boat. She said patrons have emailed her, elated to be seeing their first movies in two years. But she also recalled overhearing moviegoers at the Malverne lamenting the emptiness of local theaters. “I’m sure they’re saying it about my theaters, too,” Stampfel said. “At least I’m on an even playing field.”
Jay Levinson, a longtime theater owner on Long Island, said he’s feeling optimistic enough to renovate two of his venues. Still, he has some concerns. “In the movie business,” Levinson said, “it’s never easy.”
Levinson shut down his Elwood Quad in East Northport in October 2020 only to later reconsider. “I remember kissing the building goodbye and saying, ‘Thanks for a great 20 years,’” he said. “And then I thought, I gotta give it once more chance.”
Levinson is also fixing up his South Bay Cinemas in Babylon. As for reopening dates, he said he’s inclined to wait out what looks like a slow end-of-summer and perhaps open in September.
The Elwood, on Jericho Turnpike, faces stiff competition from the “big boy down the road,” Levinson said, referring to the nearby AMC Dine-In multiplex. His plan is to keep prices low and offer weekly bargain days to draw an audience. “They’re going to come in and see everything brand-new,” Levinson said. “I think they’ll be happy to go in for nine dollars — or a six-dollar day — and I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
The not-for-profit Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington is another theater that underwent a renovation during the pandemic. It reopened in May with new seats and carpeting. A dedicated art house, the Cinema found a niche hit in “The Automat,” a nostalgic documentary about the long-gone eateries where patrons once purchased meals from vending machines. The film sold steadily and even racked up a few sold-out screenings, according to Dylan Skolnick, the cinema’s co-director.
Another unlikely seller, he said, has been the Cinema’s long-running silent film series, “Anything But Silent.” A recent screening of Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic, “The Cameraman,” with in-person accompaniment from organist Ben Model, drew an impressive crowd of 100 people.
The take-home lesson, Skolnick said: “If you have a movie they want to see, people will come out for it.”
At the Sag Harbor Cinema, which reopened Memorial Day weekend of 2021 with a state-of-the-art sound system and plush new seats, founding artistic director Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan said audiences have responded well to a mix of first-run movies, art-house titles and special screenings with guest speakers.
A sell-out crowd greeted former senator Al Franken at a recent showing of his 2006 documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” she said, and there were also strong sales for a screening of a 1972 Andy Warhol documentary. D’Agnolo Vallan said she’s expecting a good turnout for a yearlong retrospective of Julia Andrews films, which kicked off with a recent screening of “Victor/Victoria” featuring the star herself in person.
“When we do something special, the audience loves it,” she said. “But they also love to come and see ‘Top Gun’ with one of the best sound systems east of New York City.”
At least one local theater is trying a whole different strategy. The Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, another not-for-profit venue, plans to augment its movie programming with live events. Rick Eberle, a longtime publicist on Long Island and the Cinema's newly hired operations manager, said he’s already begun booking monthly comedy nights and hopes to host open-mic nights as well.
“We’re not going to lose sight of the movies,” said Eberle., noting that the Plaza recently screened the indie hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the offbeat comedy “The Duke” and “The Automat.”
But from now on, he said, the cinema’s overall entertainment program will cover a wider spectrum.
The coming months offer several promising releases, but few obvious megahits. Among the remaining franchise titles are the animated “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and Marvel’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.” There’s buzz over Jordan Peele’s latest, “Nope,” but also some confusion over its obtuse trailers. “Bullet Train,” starring Brad Pitt as an aging hit man, looks likely to bring in “John Wick” fans.
“It’s a slow crawl of out of that barrel,” said Anne Stampfel at the Malverne Cinema. “But at least we’re all looking up at the light.”