It’s safe to say, though, it has never been through a pandemic.
On Thursday night, just hours after Disneyland and Broadway announced their closures due to the spreading novel coronavirus, the Village East was ready and open for business, if of the extremely jittery kind.
Several college students gathered in the lobby, hashing out imaginary podcast ideas. An elderly couple stood at the ticket window, involving in their purchase a loyalty program of some bureaucratic complexity. Downstairs, by the main bank of theaters, traffic was sparse, composed of hardy souls only.
“I’m not going to let a virus stop me. I’m in the ‘high-risk’ group, but what can I do?” said Rick Dane, 69. “I want to keep going out and enjoying life.” A longtime optician, Dane had come with his wife and son to see “Human Nature,” a new documentary about the gene-editing technique CRISPR and man’s powerful ability to master nature. He seemed mildly amused by the irony.
The Village East offered a glimpse of what lies ahead as Americans begin the trek through the desert of coronavirus uncertainty. With a country shutting down its large-scale entertainment machinery, movie theaters remain among the sole holdouts, the place people can still escape to share a common experience, or at least remind themselves that humans exist outside of Twitter.
AMC and Regal, the country’s two largest chains, remain open, at least in many states, if with reduced capacity to accommodate government requirements. Also selling tickets are smaller outfits like Reading International, the loose consortium of regional theaters to which the Village East belongs. The industry’s trade group, the National Association of Theatre Owners, has said its members intend to comply with all local and state mandates, but many will remain open. A spokesman declined to comment Sunday.
People did turn out to movies this weekend, but in dramatically reduced numbers. The overall box office is expected to come in at just around $55 million, less than half of the same weekend a year ago. The Pixar animated film “Onward,” about two elf brothers seeking to spend a last day with their father, won the box office with a paltry $10.5 million, down 73 percent compared to last weekend. Most similar releases have historically dropped between 45 and 60 percent.
Theater owners are counting on the continued attendance of the “Onward” audiences, or others like Rick Dane. But he may prove more exception than rule. Past collective traumas (in New York, the days after 9/11 come to mind) saw an encouragement to take to the streets, to dine, to moviego, to shop, to “go on with your lives.” The guidance here, in prelude to disaster instead of in aftermath, is the opposite. Stay in, quarantine, buy canned food, turn on CNN.
That reality was evident at the Village East. In one screening room, trailers played ahead of “Saint Frances.” The movie is an independent film about a rambling 34-year-old who finds shards of humanity in an unlikely nanny job. Apart from the loyalty-program couple, none felt persuaded by the premise to turn up.
Right before the main attraction began, a man of about 75 walked in, holding a large shopping bag. As escapism, “Saint Frances” seemed an odd choice; as demographic reflection, it was incongruous. Why had he come?
“Oh, I just chose this because it was the latest time,” said the man, who gave his name as Frederick. He hadn’t really been in the mood to see a movie at all. “But they canceled the opera I had tickets to,” he said, “and these guys were open.”
Open, however, doesn’t always equal inviting. Normally a place of much old-world appeal, the Village East had become an inadvertent house of horrors. To watch a movie there was to self-pose a series of nervous interrogatives. The elderly couple coughed; do they have coronavirus? A feeling of a cough welling up in one’s own chest; can the elderly couple be given coronavirus? The questions put a morbid twist on the old window-aisle airplane dichotomy — would you rather be inconvenienced or inconvenience others?
On a number of theater seats, meanwhile, sat large white powder splotches, a cleaning dose meant to reassure. “I think it’s bleach?” a worker explained, unreassuringly.
In another theater, a British dramedy played, as a solo patron laughed loudly. Dystopia could look like this — not Brad Pitt fending off zombie attacks on apartment rooftops but one bleached, near-empty movie theater at a time.
Box office, that un-lying arbiter of the collective desire to leave the house, may tell the tale. This weekend already reached a 22-year low — lower, even, than the first weekend after 9/11. “With the worldwide coronavirus epidemic … all titles have seen larger than expected drops,” Disney said in a statement Sunday morning as it put out the sagging numbers.
They could fall further as studios pull their releases. “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Mulan,” the two most anticipated movies of March, are off the calendar, with landing destinations unknown. At the current rate of studio pullback, theaters could be reduced to a roster of diminishing talent, a kind of cinematic New York Jets. Theater owners may say they’re open for business, but it’s not clear consumers want to give them theirs.
On the sidewalk outside the Village East, a digital kiosk flashed a message of hope, a powerful testament to New York and the human ability to overcome, originally offered by Frida Kahlo. “It is hard to believe the city was built by humans, it appears like magic,” it said, crediting the Mexican artist.
Then the kiosk flashed through to the next message.
“Coronavirus Prevention Tip: If the train is too crowded, wait for the next one."
There was, perhaps, hope online? Movies and television could be watched in a kind of sad solitude, but they could at least be comfortably watched.
A close confidante suggested “The Crown.” But doesn’t that feature war and death? Lara Chwat, a lawyer from Woodmere, N.Y., texted a timely choice courtesy of her husband, Jeremy — “Terriers,” a crime-drama circa 2010. In it, the main characters, a recovering alcoholic and a criminal, are confronted with grisly realities while barely holding their lives together.
Maybe something more cheery was called for.
Some hopeful souls on Twitter were here to help. “TV/movies that’ll help put existential dread at bay!” read a list compiled by Cailin Lowry, a former music-video producer. The perfect antidote, it seemed, with so many light and optimism-filled movies to choose from.
Lowry’s list contained a reassuring 143 selections, from “10 Things I Hate About You” to “You’ve Got Mail.” After all, who better than Tom Hanks, American comfort food in human form, to distract from the darkness. Except doesn’t he have coronavirus?