Coronavirus-impacted movie theater owners group chief blames Gov. Cuomo for 'No Time to Die' delay, financial trouble

New York theaters are among the only in the country still completely closed

The head of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is placing blame for the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the industry squarely on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shoulders.

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Since the onset of the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, movie theaters have remained closed in New York, effectively crippling one of the most essential exhibition markets in the entertainment industry. Months later, with no clear end to the pandemic in sight and the long-term financial strain becoming more and more evident, John Fithian is calling on Cuomo to relax restrictions in order to give theater owners a fighting chance.

Fithian spoke to Variety when he discussed the recent decision by the studio to delay the upcoming James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” to 2021 in light of key markets like New York being closed and box office success being that much more unobtainable.

“The Bond franchise is very important to exhibition, so we were disappointed with the move. The failure of Gov. Cuomo to allow movie theaters to reopen anywhere in his state was a principal, if not exclusive, cause of the Bond move,” Fithian explained. “If New York remains closed to theater operations, other movies scheduled for 2020 will move as well. And I just don’t understand it.”

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Fithian made sure to note that he believes the governor is doing a fine job at combatting the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, but he simply can’t wrap his head around the decision to keep movie theaters closed given the impact it’s having on the industry and the success other countries have found in reopening.

'No Time to Die' was delayed to 2021. (Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

“But restaurants in New York are open, gyms are open, churches are open, indoor dining is being offered,” he added. “Our recommendation, our urgent plea, is for Gov. Cuomo to allow movie theaters to reopen in the portions of the state that aren’t having spikes in the virus. There are now only two states that are entirely closed to moviegoing — New York and New Mexico.”

Fithian noted that the importance of New York is not just the massive box office numbers it can bring in thanks to high population centers like New York City. It also plays a huge role in shaping the culture surrounding a release that trickles out into the rest of the country.

“Many important analysts are in New York. Many important journalists are in New York. Many important film critics are in New York. With New York closed, those important opinion-makers don’t have the opportunity to go to the cinema,” he explained.

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NATO has been working with the governor’s office to try to develop a plan to reopen safely in New York. However, Fithian insists that the only hurdle now is getting Cuomo to take action, calling the lack of a timeline given by his officer “mind-boggling.”

In a statement to Fox Business on Monday, Richard Azzopardi, Senior Advisor to Governor Cuomo, said: "We're moving heaven and earth trying to stop a second wave and people need to acknowledge that we're still in a pandemic and start to act like it. ‎We understand some people are unhappy but you know what? Better unhappy than sick or worse."

It seems the organization is closely monitoring the situation and feels that governmental assistance is the only way to help theater chains stay in business until a sense of normalcy is reached amid the pandemic. Last week, a collection of filmmakers joined NATO, along with the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and the Motion Picture Association (MPA), to send a letter to key members of Congress asking for assistance.

People visiting the Regal Cinema in New York City. It is a UK-based cinema chain. (iStock)

The move to push “Not Time to Die” back to 2021 is simply the latest in a long string of studios moving their release dates in the hopes that key markets like New York will eventually reopen and give their films a chance at pre-pandemic box office numbers. Comic book tentpoles “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Black Widow” have pushed their releases to Dec. 25, 2020, and May 2021, respectively, leaving almost nothing for exhibitors to market around between now and the end of the year.

The delay on “No Time to Die” played a large part in convincing Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas in the United States, to temporarily cease operations due to waning ticket sales, a move that Fithian speculates would not have happened had New York theaters been open.

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“If we don’t have any movies until we’re fully vaccinated as a world, a lot of the theater companies are going to be gone and the theaters themselves won’t be there,” he concluded. “So, your infrastructure to play your movies and get grosses will not be the same. This idea of waiting out the pandemic to make your movies more profitable doesn’t make sense to me. There won’t be as much of an industry left to play your movies in if you do that.”