A worrying surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.K. has threatened to unravel much of the progress made across the film and TV industry in recent months, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest round of restrictions won’t impact the production and exhibitor sectors in any major way just yet.
With coronavirus cases projected to reach 49,000 a day by mid-October unless action is taken, the government on Tuesday enforced a 10pm curfew for bars, restaurants and pubs in England and a renewed work from home directive for office workers — measures that will be in place for six months. Meanwhile, COVID-safe protocols are now legally binding in the workplace, with negligence punishable by fines up to £10,000 ($12,700) or closure. Under the new rules, cinema screenings and theater performances can run past the 10pm deadline, although films and shows can’t be scheduled, nor alcohol served, after that time.
For many in the industry who’ve been on tenterhooks in anticipation of stricter measures, there’s palpable relief that the rules aren’t shutting business down — in fact, far from it, for now — but concerns remain among some exhibitors that the confused messaging will impact the public’s willingness to get back to cinemas, while unions worry that a soon-terminated furlough scheme will be catastrophic for workers.
Tim Richards, CEO of European cinema giant Vue, tells Variety that the new rules will have minimal repercussions for multiplexes, which will only lose a few late shows during the week. “The bigger concern is the impact it has on our customers in general, in terms of leaving their homes,” warned the executive.
“There has to be some level of impact when they’re constantly being told, ‘There’s a problem, there’s a problem,’” said Richards, whose chain is generating around 30-50% of its three-year run rate with few new films in the pipeline for fall. “We’re basically operating at a small loss but breaking even. That’s with studio support in releasing library films, which have been well-received. But we need to get back into business [with new films].”
There’s concern, however, that studios could see the worsening COVID-19 figures in the U.K. and other European countries such as Spain, consider the dismal situation for movie theaters in U.S. cities such as New York, and delay major fall releases like “Black Widow,” set to debut Oct. 28 in the U.K., and James Bond film “No Time to Die,” slated for Nov. 12.
On the production side, the U.K.’s latest rules mercifully have no major impact on filming, which can continue as long as workplaces adhere to COVID-secure guidelines, which are now legally enforceable. “It’s business as usual for film and high-end TV production in all four U.K. nations who are operating within appropriate industry guidelines in COVID-secure settings,” said Adrian Wootton, CEO of the British Film Commission and Film London.
Wootton, who helped compile the production guidelines in the spring as part of the BFI Screen Sector Taskforce, said the measures were “designed to be rigorous, with thorough, comprehensive recommendations around social distancing and personal hygiene.”
“We know U.K. productions have been following [the guidelines] when restarting production. Studios and streamers also have their own extremely rigorous protocols, which sit alongside BFC guidance, as well as production-specific risk assessments,” said Wootton.
U.K. productions haven’t been free of COVID-19 shutdowns, but have managed to resume smoothly under the guidelines. “The Batman” grabbed international headlines when filming was halted Sept. 3 after star Robert Pattinson was stricken with COVID-19, but production restarted after just two weeks. Similarly, ITV’s “Coronation Street” also briefly paused after a positive COVID-19 test, and Sky’s “Brassic” is the latest to halt filming. But for shows and films of a certain scale that can withstand the financial hit, getting cameras rolling again is, crucially, achievable.
John McVay, head of producers’ trade body Pact, notes that there’s nothing in the new regulations that will have “a detrimental impact on production.” For McVay, a key engineer of the U.K.’s £500 million ($648.5 million) film and TV production restart program, the timing is essential, particularly as the fund will help a wider range of productions get back on track.
The program, which is designed to help U.K. productions secure insurance, will soon be opening applications. Earlier this week, Pact hosted a call with 400 production companies going over the fund criteria. “My plea to everyone is to get back into production,” said McVay, who notes the fines attached to enforcing COVID-secure guidelines is an “escalation” that won’t be taken lightly across all facets of production.
McVay allows, however, that Johnson’s promise of more “firepower” if these measures aren’t enough, and the country plunges into another national lockdown, will be “complete disaster for the whole economy.”
For the beleaguered theater and live events sector, although the new rules exempt shows from finishing at 10pm on the dot — a challenging scenario for most live performances — the prospect of six more months of socially distanced performances means theaters may not be able to reopen fully until well into 2021.
Philippa Childs, head of entertainment union Bectu, said the six-month period “could be the final nail in the coffin for many institutions unless the government takes further properly targeted action.”
Childs highlights that without an extension to the government’s Job Retention Scheme, which is set to end on Oct. 31, “so many workers face imminent redundancy, and even those not at immediate risk will be wondering whether it is worth staying the course.”
“The government has to provide further sector specific support such as subsidized tickets, extending the furlough scheme and government-backed insurance for live events and theatre performances,” advised Childs. “If the government does not take immediate steps in this area we may not have a functioning theater and events sector to return to when this is finally over.”
Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.