There is a moment in one of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters when he borrows a poem from Dylan Thomas to send shivers down the back of a million cinema seats. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” intones Michael Caine as the heroes of “Interstellar” strap in on a mission to save humanity. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
After six months of fighting for survival, exhibitors globally are beginning to see some light again. It’s far too early to roll the credits yet but, once again, the critics predicting the ultimate demise of cinema exhibition have been proven wrong.
At Vue International, we have re-opened all 226 of our cinemas in eight countries across Europe. Like other exhibitors, our focus was on liquidity and trying to survive; however, we also took the opportunity to make our cinemas even more exciting and welcoming by major refurbishments such as new leather recliner seats and introducing new ticket and retail purchasing technology.
As expected, international audiences, who have been quarantining in their living rooms, are desperate for a return to normality — getting out and enjoying a big-screen experience with a great movie that is shared with others. After months of lock up, they will have no interest in what’s on Netflix.
As an indication of this incredible pent-up demand, in Germany, where we have been open for over a month, we are achieving levels of attendance that are equivalent to almost half of our three-year run rate. This demand is for movies that have already been on PVOD, subscription services and even terrestrial TV. Where we have screened new content in markets like Denmark, where “Little Women” had yet to be released, we have seen attendance reach 80% of normal levels. With huge thanks to Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan, we are also now seeing extremely promising ticket sales for the August 26 release of “Tenet.”
We always knew we would pull through, but there is no doubt that we have been on the edge of our seats for the last six months. We first heard about COVID-19 in January from our operations in Taiwan and, territory by territory, we watched the lights dim across Europe as the pandemic took hold. It took us 17 years to build the 226 cinemas in 9 countries and then, apocalyptically, only three weeks to close every single one.
Fortunately, we lived through the SARS epidemic in Taiwan in 2002-2004, and we were able to work with governments in all of our markets to help shape local legislation based on all of our Taiwanese operating protocols. We had a record 2019 and a record start to 2020, which, together with government support, sensible dialogue with our landlords and huge support from our studio partners, meant we could help look after all 9,500 of our staff and start to welcome back our customers from Warsaw to Rome.
One or two studios chose to move titles like “Trolls” and “Mulan” straight to PVOD and small screens. We believe these changes do not set a new precedent; they simply reflect decisions that were made when no screens were available globally. They had very little choice. Looking ahead for the remainder of 2020 and beyond, we are excited by the huge number of tentpole and other theatrical releases to come: from “The King’s Man” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” to the upcoming James Bond epic “No Time to Die,” and many more in 2021.
In the meantime, our family of European cinemas has made this expat Canadian very proud. Watching our territory managers keeping a brave face while providing daily Zoom updates on COVID-19 infection and death rates was unimaginably difficult, but as case numbers started declining and we started welcoming our first customers back in Germany the sense of the team pulling together is something that I will never forget.
The pandemic has changed many things, but the universal desire to escape and enjoy great entertainment in great surroundings with friends, family and others will never change. If old age “should rave and burn at close of day” as Dylan Thomas rightly advises, this 115-year-old incredible art form has plenty of life in it yet.
Tim Richards is founder and chief executive of Vue International