As cinemas darkened across England on Thursday for a month-long lockdown to fight the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, those in the exhibition sector are gamely playing ball, despite knowing full well that the latest enforced closure could mean that some cinemas may not reopen at all.
“The biggest loss will be to our audiences,” Dan Ellis, managing director of the independent Jam Jar cinema in the northeastern seaside town of Whitley Bay, tells Variety. “[These are] the local people who have gradually built confidence to return to U.K. cinemas, who over the last few months have seen a diverse slate of, frankly, quite brilliant films which have had more screen time than normal, and an opportunity to shine in the absence of tentpole releases.”
Phil Clapp, chief executive of exhibitors org U.K. Cinema Association, underlines that the restrictions are especially hard to stomach considering the dearth of COVID-19 cases traced back to cinemas. “We understand that the U.K. government needs to take a wider view on the steps necessary to manage the COVID-19 outbreak in England, but remain disappointed that cinemas are again being required to close when not one case of the virus has been traced back to a U.K. cinema site, and all venues have worked hard successfully to deliver a safe and enjoyable big screen experience.”
The country’s exhibition sector has been hit with a series of seemingly interminable body blows throughout the pandemic. Cinemas shut in March during the first wave of the crisis and began reopening only in July, with some independent sites not reopening at all. At its peak, over the summer, 74% of cinemas across the U.K. and Ireland had reopened, according to Rob Mitchell, director of theatrical insights at Gower Street Analytics.
However, bar Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Russell Crowe starrer “Unhinged,” the territory saw precious few high-profile titles as studios chose to save their top films for saner, safer times, or, as in the case of Disney’s “Mulan,” go straight to streaming. When MGM, Universal and producers Eon decided to postpone keenly anticipated James Bond title “No Time To Die” to Easter 2021, cinema giant Cineworld Group temporarily shuttered all their screens, and several Odeon and Vue properties began operating on weekends only. The number of cinemas open fell to 58%, says Mitchell.
“I definitely think there is a likelihood, once closed, that more U.K. cinemas will choose not to return until a robust slate is able to come through,” he adds.
Any chance of Christmas cheer took a further hit on Thursday with Disney pulling top titles “Free Guy” and “Death on the Nile” from its December schedule.
The absence of big-ticket films has been an opportunity for smaller, independent titles to get more screen time. Though Oliver Meek, executive director of London’s historic Rio Cinema, says the 111-year-old movie theater managed to turn a small profit in October, the November closure will hurt.
“Ultimately, public safety comes first, but the cost for independents like us will be high,” Meek tells Variety. “November is traditionally one of our most successful months and we’ve had to cancel several sold-out events. Our income has been limited by social distancing, but November was looking to be our busiest month since re-opening.”
Should cinemas be allowed to reopen in December, it’s not just a question of hoping that audiences will return; there’s also a complex PR strategy at play behind the scenes.
“With so much up in the air at the moment, planning a PR strategy comes with a huge set of challenges. But if there is a release date set — or as set as it can be right now — then getting your press activity set up and banked is still as crucial as ever,” Caragh Cook, managing director of communications firm Organic, tells Variety.
“Being strategic and setting up broadcast and online publicity where you can pre-record or print, where you aren’t necessarily locked into a run date, is still very achievable and means that once your release date is set, you have a campaign there ready to go,” says the executive.
But Cook warns that PR for the films can only do so much. “The audience needs to know that they aren’t putting themselves or their families in any danger by going to see a film at a cinema, so that’s something that needs to be addressed by the industry collectively,” she says.
Indeed, consumer confidence has been slow to return, admits Mitchell, who adds that the market as a whole has been unable to achieve even a base level of previous-year business, meaning no week this year has achieved a box office result even equivalent to the lowest-grossing week of the past two years, which came during the soccer World Cup in 2018 when the England team was performing well.
A vital cash injection from the government has helped to prop up the exhibition sector in the meantime. The British Film Institute (BFI) manages the U.K. Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s £30 million ($38.6 million) Culture Recovery Fund, from which some £650,000 ($838,000) was disbursed to 42 independent cinemas across England. All told, independent cinemas account for 40% of all cinemas in England. The funds were mainly used to make the cinemas COVID-safe, but they also have a sustainability component that independent cinemas can apply for.
BFI chief executive Ben Roberts describes the fund as “a vital source of support” for the independent sector. “The majority of independent cinemas across the country that are eligible for support have applied to the fund, which closed Oct. 30, and we are now working at pace to process those applications,” Roberts tells Variety. “Awards have been made on a rolling weekly basis and all final awards will be announced in due course.”
The fund has proved to be a lifeline for these movie theaters, some of which have remained shut since the first lockdown in March and will reopen in December thanks to the fund. The Sherborne Cinema in Gloucester, for example, used the fund to lay in extra ventilation, purchase PPE and install an online booking system.
The cinema’s managing director Mark Cunningham says that, unless the government instructs otherwise, they will re-open in December due largely to a safety grant from the BFI/DCMS. Part of the fund’s policy is also an agreement to re-open.
Other independent cinemas have permanently altered their business model. The Northern Light cinema in Wirksworth decided to remodel with a reduced capacity and change the venue to a stylish, high-end offering.
“We’re [under] no illusions as to the difficulty we’ll face over the next few months, but we’re confident that our approach will be well received by our audience,” cinema owner Paul Carr tells Variety. “By offering a smaller, more intimate experience, we’ll be able to offer a great night out and keep it safe and in style.”