Joe Masher remembers going to work to check on his movie theaters in early 2020. The only thing missing from those theaters were blockbusters on the big screens and people watching them. The only one there was him.  

Masher, who is the COO of Bow Tie Cinemas, the President of the National Association of Theater Owners of New York State, and the Vice President of the Connecticut Association of Theater Owners, remembers the early pandemic shutdown quite well. In fact, it’s something he’s not likely to forget.  

“I thankfully remained employed and one of my jobs then was to check on our empty theaters in Connecticut,” he recalls. “When I would put the lights on in the lobby, people would try to open the door. Movie theaters were definitely missed.”  

In Connecticut and in most of the country, movie theaters were one of the last businesses to get the go-ahead to reopen. In fact, they were last. Restaurants, arcades, museums, gyms, and even strip clubs were all able to open before a theater box office. It wasn’t until mid-June of 2020 when Governor Ned Lamont gave movie theaters the green light. One of the problems the movie industry faced now was a lack of content.  

Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and other streaming services had, in the case of some newly released films, exclusive rights. Production companies that still wanted to make some coin chose streaming services over your local movie theater, opting for more of a sure thing as opposed to the hope of theater-goers feeling safe to re-enter a theater.  

“New York City and LA still weren’t open and they’re the two biggest movie-going markets,” Masher says. “Some movies got pushed back to 2022, 2023, and beyond. Warner Bros. Paramount took its entire 2021 slate and put it on day-and-date, in theaters and streaming. Pre-pandemic movies got a run of 74-88 days, now it’s 45.”  

On a more local level in Norwalk, Masher began to slowly open Bow Tie Cinemas again starting with the Ultimate Royale 6 on Westport Avenue. The challenge was that there weren’t many if any, movies to screen, and people’s comfort levels were still shaky. It was then that Bow Tie locations started to screen the classics such as JawsLord of the RingsBack to the FutureRaiders of the Lost ArkHarry Potter, and Saturday Night Fever, to name a few.  Still, audiences were limited.  

The reduced business was one of the reasons the Ultimate Regent 8 in South Norwalk became, for a limited time, something else entirely. One of Masher’s friends connected him with the Norwalk Health Department who wanted to run a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in the theater’s lobby.  

“All we did after the connection was open the doors and the auditoriums,” Masher says. “They found it helpful to do it there. We actually wanted to put on a cartoon reel for entertainment while people were waiting 15 minutes after the shot. I put together reels of Popeye, Looney Tunes, and Merry Melodies! We ended up not doing it because the health department felt  people would want to stay!”  

Eventually, after the vaccine clinic days, a few films did make their way to theaters. Some, unfortunately, underperformed. “Solstice Studios hedged their bet by putting out the Russel Crowe vehicle, Unhinged, exclusively in theaters, but it didn’t do well,” Masher says of the movie which had a $33 million budget, only to gross $44 million.  

Following Unhinged was James Cameron’s anticipated science-fiction action flick, Tenet, which was released on September 3, 2020, without the NYC and LA markets open. In fact—and likely a future Jeopardy question—the only theater that screened Tenet in the Greater NYC area was Bow Tie’s Ultimate Majestic 6 in Downtown Stamford.  

“I opened it myself as the theater manager,” Masher says. “We brought back limited staff, and I had to learn digital projection because the last time I did that job, everything was on film! We were the only ones playing Tenet and it did well. People took the train in from the city and lots of them supported concessions and local restaurants as a result.”  

Today, with those big movie markets back in action and more major films being released, the theater business is improving. Spider-Man: No Way Home has become Sony Pictures’ highest-grossing film, the highest-grossing film of 2021, and the eighth highest-grossing film of all time with $1.5 billion worldwide.  

“If theaters have exclusive content that’s not streaming, people will go to theaters,” Masher says. “We did a record business with Spider-Man. Part of it is because we operate safely. No one has said they felt unsafe or wouldn’t come back. There have been zero cases of COVID spread linked to movie theaters. The only demographic we’ve been missing are seniors and we saw that with West Side Story. It was well-reviewed but underperformed largely due to a major audience demographic that was missing.” 

Masher went on to note that with the Omicron variant present, the box office has declined slightly. He’s hopeful that the industry won’t be subject to any government mandates—with the exception of masks—like capacity limits, food and beverage restrictions, or shutdowns. Norwalk’s Bow Tie Cinemas underwent a massive renovation in 2019, adding large lounge chair seating, food service, and a bar. The spacious reserved seating format is now even more popular with theater-goers, allowing for safe, comfortable, personal space.  

What Masher is also hopeful for is a bigger 2022. “We’re poised to have a wonderful year and are budgeting to our 2019 models.”  

As long as infection rates decline, there are 10 reasons the film industry is excited.  

The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, Avatar 2, Thor: Love and Thunder, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Top Gun: Maverick, and Mission: Impossible 7 are all slated to be released in 2022.  

Bow Tie Ultimate Royale 6 – 542 Westport Ave, Norwalk, CT

Bow Tie Ultimate Regent 8 – 64 N Main St, Norwalk, CT