At press time, at least some moviegoers have returned to local cinemas—hopefully not to see the insane battling of Godzilla vs. Kong. The reopening of moviehouses is great for local cinema and its patrons alike. But while WNY moviegoing did not exactly thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic, it stayed alive thanks to wise moves from local businesses and organizations, and the passion of dedicated film buffs:
1) Dipson Theatres embraced virtual cinema, private rentals, and popcorn to-go.
After New York State cinemas closed in March 2020, locally owned Dipson Theatres was approached by several film studios offering their movies for streaming. Dipson President Mike Clement says it “was not a huge revenue generator, but it helped Dipson stay in communications with our valued customers.” Another way to do that was selling popcorn to-go, which was a huge hit in the Schobert household.
“When we decided to sell curbside popcorn, we were overwhelmed by the community’s interest,” Clement says. “I believe it brought back some semblance of normalcy, if only for a short time.”
In addition, private theater rentals became popular. When Amherst Theatre, Eastern Hills Mall Cinema, Lakewood Cinema 8, and Flix Stadium 10 opened doors in April, Clement says moviegoers “were ecstatic to be back. Even new customers are reaching out.”
2) Nick Muldoon shared his love of the Oscars on the big screen.
Buffalonian Nick Muldoon is critic for Cinecism Film podcast and a passionate lover of cinema, especially the Academy Awards. When a friend chose to have her birthday party at the Amherst Dipson in early 2021, he developed a novel idea: why not rent the theater and share the Oscar experience with friends? And even better, screen the year’s Best Picture nominees?
“For me, the Oscars have always been a big deal,” he says. “While they can be frustrating, at times problematic, and often seem to get things wrong, it’s a tradition that means a lot.”
As an adult, Muldoon hosted yearly Oscar parties with friends. While that idea was off-limits in early 2021, he embraced a new way to “bring the movies to my friends, since the nominees were harder to find this year.”
While it certainly was not “normal,” the experience did feel like a step toward a more hopeful future. And it reminded Muldoon what makes the moviegoing experience so vitally important: “There’s something special about the moment where those lights go down and you’re fully immersed in the world of the film—be it in a room of friends or a room of strangers—and hear each other laugh or cry as you experience the film together.”
3) The North Park Theatre offered plentiful virtual cinema options.
“None of us knew exactly how long theaters would stay shuttered,” says North Park Theatre Program Director Ray Barker. “Thankfully, the film world is filled with creative people who, in a moment of crisis, sought to find creative solutions. Distributors like Kino Lorber suggested that arthouses curate films that could be viewed at home. The transition to virtual cinema allowed us to take action, to offer our customers quality films, and to stay engaged with them while we were shuttered.”
The North Park finally reopened on April 22 with the smash theatrical run of the Japanese anime film Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train and the Oscar-nominated Promising Young Woman.
“In our first week back, we did more business than in 2014 when we reopened after nine months of restoration,” Barker says. “Our customers have returned with great enthusiasm, bolstered by the success of the vaccination program. Movie fans are tired of being cooped up, and, even though there are plenty of viewing options at home, there is nothing like the theatrical experience.”
4) The Transit Drive-In stayed open all summer long.
Lockport’s Transit Drive-In stayed open throughout summer 2020, offering a uniquely normal moviegoing experience for Western New Yorkers. As owner Rick Cohen told WBFO in May 2020, “You can go out, enjoy a movie together with your family, with your friends, and have a social distancing-friendly safe and enjoyable experience.” The Drive-In even served as a vaccination clinic in 2021.
5) The Palace Theatre in Hamburg offered free or affordable movies.
In the fall, the Palace Theatre in the Village of Hamburg showed a diverse lineup of free films, including classics like Detour and Some Like It Hot. In January, the theater began to charge affordable prices for more classics, eventually hosting a Hitchcock series.
6) The Dark Alley Drive-In popped up in an old Kmart parking lot and became an offbeat cinema spot.
The pop-up cinema known as Dark Alley Drive-In turned the former Kmart parking lot at 1001 Hertel Avenue into a unique viewing spot. The brainchild of North Park Theatre Marketing Director Chris Dearing, the lineup was delightfully, well, dark. (A Brandon and David Cronenberg doublebill? Yes, please.)
7) Artpark screened movies that rock.
The 2020 concert season was shaping up to be one of Artpark’s greatest summers ever, but then, well, you know. So, the venue smartly decided to present music films, drive-in style. Yes, there was Grease and Dirty Dancing. But there was also Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and Shine a Light.
8) The Aurora Theatre went viral, deservedly.
The pandemic was devastating for local cinemas, and the Aurora Theatre was no exception. The EA jewel offered virtual cinema options, fantastic popcorn, and even went viral with a marquee reading, “NOW SHOWING NOTHING STARRING NOBODY.” A marquee contest followed. The winner? “SHOWING THIS WEEK: NO CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF ANY KIND.”
9)The Screening Room stayed active.
Amherst’s Screening Room kept in touch throughout the pandemic with frequent emails, and, as soon as it was safe to do so, offered its usual lineup of gems and cult classics in a socially distanced format.
10) Buffalo Film Seminars offered its usual pleasures, at home.
As Spree shared in its March issue, “the beloved, long-running Buffalo Film Seminars carried on. Instead of a packed screening room at the Amherst Dipson, the Tuesday evening series hosted by UB professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian can be enjoyed from home. Western New York is lucky to have the Buffalo Film Seminars in person, or at home.”
11) Film festivals pivoted — and succeeded.
The Buffalo International Film Festival, Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival, and Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival modified plans and still found ways to engage with fans, whether virtually or safely in-person.
Now that we are halfway into 2021, things should continue to improve. If you have not been back to the movies yet—and you are vaccinated—it’s time.