At the Malverne Cinema and Art Center, owners Anne and Henry Stampfel make a habit of asking customers whether they feel safe sitting in the theater. All have said yes, according to Anne, but business has yet to pick up. Some movies have played to crowds of just two people.
"We used to talk about being slow and busy," Stampfel says. "Now we’ve gone to slow and not as slow."
With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing (Regal Cinemas temporarily closed its theaters on Thursday) and a dearth of new movies to play, theaters are facing an uphill battle to attract customers. One idea the industry is pushing: private auditorium rentals.
Ordinarily a source of supplemental income from children’s birthday parties and anniversary celebrations, private rentals are now being touted as an ideal way to watch a current movie — or even an old favorite — with a group of trusted friends or family members. AMC Theatres now lists private rentals prominently on its website; the Showcase Cinemas chain is offering discounted concessions to sweeten its rental deals.
Whether private rentals will generate significant business for movie theaters remains to be seen. The Malverne has booked at least two rentals so far — one for a couple celebrating an anniversary, the other for a birthday party with a screening of "The Croods: A New Age," an animated comedy due Nov. 25. At the Bellmore Movies and Showcase, which the Stampfels also own, a dance company has booked the theater to screen videos of its rehearsals.
"We’re still trying to figure it out, just like everybody," Stampfel says.
Here are some of the theaters offering private rentals on Long Island:
The country’s largest cinema chain, which has several locations on Long Island, reportedly launched its private rental program in earnest this month after a test trial proved popular. The company could use the revenue; AMC recently reported a $905.8 million quarterly loss.
According to the chain’s website, you can rent an auditorium for a maximum of 20 people. Current releases such as "Tenet" and the new slasher comedy "Freaky" start at $149. A cheaper option: Pick a movie from AMC’s back catalog of "Fan Faves," which start at $99. Those included the raunchy comedy "Girls Trip," Disney’s "Toy Story," the Marvel blockbuster "Guardians of the Galaxy," and the first and third "John Wick" movies.
Yes, there will be trailers before your movie. No, you can’t bring your own food or drink. If you’re planning a birthday party or other celebration, tables cannot be set up in auditoriums due to COVID-19 restrictions. And if you’re an AMC Stubs member, you can earn points from your private rental.
The Showcase chain, which began its private rental program in August, has three locations on Long Island: the Cinema de Lux in Farmingdale, the Island 16 de Lux in Holtsville and the Cinema de Lux Broadway in Hicksville. All offer private rentals for a maximum of 20 guests.
You can rent a theater for current releases for a somewhat steep $199. Older films (Showcase calls them "Bring Backs") start at a more affordable $99. There are more than 30 Bring Backs available, including "Jaws," "Pulp Fiction" and "Crazy Rich Asians." There are also family films such as "Sing" and "The Lego Movie."
One advantage of private rentals at Showcase: You can knock anywhere from $1.50 to $5 off concessions like popcorn, sodas and pizzas. One caveat: To get the discounts, you must order concessions when you book your rental.
Malverne Cinema and Art Center and Bellmore Movies and Showplace
Before COVID-19, the Stampfels rented the 350-seat Bellmore for about $375. These days, the Stampfels say, they’re open to a starting rate of $100 to $150 for a two-hour rental. (The Malverne theater rents its auditoriums for about the same price.) That figure can vary: A slow Monday could cost less than a busier Saturday, for instance. You might also pay a higher fee if your rental requires extra staffing costs.
With rental rates so low, "This is really a great time for independent filmmakers to get their film on the big screen," Henry Stampfel suggests. "They can rent from us."
Phil Solomon, the owner of this seven-screen theater in Port Jefferson Station, says he’s gotten a number of requests to rent auditoriums since the theater reopened Oct. 30. The hitch: Most people want to watch older films, but they aren't always readily available.
In the future, Solomon hopes to rent auditoriums for birthday parties. For now, he says, "We are considering each request individually and seeing what we can do."
INFO 631-928-3456, mypjcinemas.com