EXCLUSIVE: With New York City gradually emerging from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, one film-biz sign of life is a series of Oscar-nominated movies hitting the city’s big screens.
Megaplexes and arthouses alike have been in reopening mode over the past month. In-person screenings for Zoomed-out Academy members and press are now possible for the first time since February 2020. With the April 20 deadline for Oscar ballots looming, bookings are on the rise, even at one newer spot in the awards-season mix: the Queens Drive-In.
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“Anything that reminds people of the communal experience, we’re all for it,” one Oscar consultant told Deadline. “We have all been stuck inside, so now even if we have to get creative and deal with safety restrictions, it’s totally worth it to try to break through and make a connection.”
The Paris Theatre on 58th Street, which was rescued by Netflix just before Covid-19 struck, had a soft opening last month with a novel series of paired screenings. In support of Mank, the company has shown the film along with Citizen Kane. Due to The Trial of the Chicago 7 director Aaron Sorkin’s esteem for Dog Day Afternoon, it screened his film alongside the Sidney Lumet classic.
Searchlight’s Nomadland, nominated for six Oscars including Cinematography, Director and Best Picture, will light up the Imax auditorium at the AMC Kips Bay 15 on Monday. Safety protocols will cap attendance at just 15 people. Distanced thought they will be, those handfuls of viewers are apt to have takeaways that are different from those from taking in the film on Hulu or other streaming means.
The Queens Drive-In, which hit many cinephiles’ radar last fall as a screening hub during the New York Film Festival, has attracted interest from numerous distributors. With a capacity of 200 cars, the space is programmed by Rooftop Films and the Museum of the Moving Image, with support from the New York Hall of Science, on whose land the drive-in sits.
Tonight, the drive-in will screen a program of Oscar-nominated Animated Short Films, paired with a screening of Your Name. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, contenders Minari, Sound of Metal and My Octopus Teacher will play. Last year, premieres and special screenings featured Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Freaky, One Night in Miami, Mangrove, Dick Johnson is Dead and The 40 Year Old Version, among other titles.
More bookings in the coming days are pending, and the venue has received a lot of interest for Emmy screenings as the early phase of those nominations kicks into gear.
LA, during its more recent theater reawakening, has also started to host select Oscar screenings. And it created drive-in spaces like the one at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena where Nomadland had a replacement for its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, which was scrapped due to Covid.
New York, by comparison with LA and other cities where drive-ins have seen a comeback, is not known for such venues. As such, the Queens site was built from scratch in 2020. It is situated on a patch of New York ground that is history-rich, if not in the film-centric ways as Manhattan film haunts. Next door is the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, home of the annual U.S. Open, in a corner of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Two World’s Fairs have taken place at the park, including a 1964 edition that featured iconic structures designed by famed architect Philip Johnson. The medium of television had its first public demonstration by RCA at the 1939-40 World’s Fair. Netflix viewers may also recognize the neighboring Queens Museum as a recurring location in the Martin Scorsese-Fran Lebowitz series Pretend It’s a City.
Regardless of its heritage, and despite the steady thrum of traffic from the Grand Central Parkway, the main draw is that it’s a large, open space with a 62-foot screen.
“The biggest thing about creating that theatrical experience that’s a big part of awards season is that movies are meant to be seen on a big screen. But they’re also meant to be seen with people,” Rooftop Films president Dan Nuxoll told Deadline in an interview. “There’s a difference between sitting in a theater with 500 people next to each other and sitting in a theater with 500 people spread out amongst their cars. But I think we’ve gotten as close as you possibly can given the circumstances.”
Instead of laughter or sniffles, the emotion generated by the screenings is usually manifest by the honking of cars, Nuxoll acknowledges. Still, he says, “I think there’s more of a communal experience probably sitting with 500 people in cars than there is with sitting with 24 people in a small movie theater.”
Museum of the Moving Image film curator Eric Hynes said he and Nuxoll “recognized that was missing this year” and began talking a few months into the pandemic about potential solutions.
Traditional cinema standards have been necessarily eased during the pandemic, as a tradeoff for having films continue to get out into the world. The drive-in uses projection equipment brought over from the museum in nearby Astoria, which can render images in 4K. The sound, though, is stereo and not surround. Nuxoll and Hynes concede it is the “single biggest difference” between outdoor and indoor screenings.
Weather is another variable. There have also been a few cancellations, and high winds and thunderstorms are always threats. And the venue’s spring opener on March 5 with Amazon Prime Video’s Coming 2 America saw temperatures plunge into the 20s. “We’ve been lucky that the worst weather hasn’t hit our biggest screenings,” Nuxoll said.
Pete Hammond contributed to this report.