The beleaguered U.K. exhibition sector, reeling from a COVID-afflicted, calamitous 2020 that has continued into 2021, is finally seeing some green shoots.
Though the country began 2021 under lockdown with cinemas closed — a situation that’s unlikely to ease in the near future — a combination of decreasing case loads and a robust vaccination rollout is raising hopes. Average new daily infections are now 20,000, while average daily deaths are below 1,000, down from the depths of mid-January’s 60,000 new cases and 1,500 deaths per day. The vaccination program is rolling out smoothly, with 10.5 million of the U.K.’s 67 million population having received the first jab of the vaccine already, and all adults above the age of 50 on course to receive a jab by May.
“We are starting to consider reopening dates,” BFI chief executive Ben Roberts told Variety. “In terms of everyone forecasting, May feels reasonable. Could be earlier, could be later.”
“We do know there’s a march forward now,” Roberts added.
The Cineworld group, the region’s largest operator, temporarily shut down in October 2020 in response to the pipeline of studio films drying up. The reopening plans are still to be confirmed and will be dependent on the “breadth of strong commercial films” releasing, as noted in their temporary closure statement. In a liquidity announcement in late 2020, Cineworld had said that they are operating on the assumption that sites will reopen no later than May 2021, and Variety understands that this continues to be the case.
Phil Clapp, chief executive of the U.K. Cinema Association, says that the timing for cinemas reopening remains uncertain. He adds that for all cinema operators, the timing and nature of the reopening decision will be driven by any restrictions that remain in place once re-opening is allowed, including the extent to which social distancing impacts on audience capacity, as well as confidence in a stable supply of major film titles.
“Some of those considerations will be different for different companies and venues, so that even when cinemas are allowed to re-open, it will be some time before the entire sector is back up and operating I suspect,” says Clapp.
“The pent-up demand for out-of-home entertainment is huge, and we have an unprecedented line up of movies that awaits cinema goers later this year with three years’ of movies in the space of 18 months,” a spokesperson from multiplex chain Vue told Variety.
The spokesperson highlights keenly awaited titles including “No Time to Die,” “Black Widow,” “Top Gun: Maverick,”” Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “F9,” as well as anticipated local titles from across Europe, including Patryk Vega’s Polish title “Small World” and Nanni Moretti’s Italian film “Three Floors.”
“We know how much communities and local economies depend on cinema doors being open and we are looking forward to welcoming back our staff and film lovers as soon as we are allowed,” the spokesperson added.
England’s plans to ease lockdown will be announced around Feb. 16, with the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also expected to reveal their plans in that time frame.
Manori Ravindran contributed to this report.