At the end of 2019, the UK box office was in a good place. Cinemas across the country had sold their second-highest number of tickets since 1970 and revenues had exceeded £1.2 billion (€1.3 billion) for the fifth consecutive year.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Six months later, two of the biggest cinema chains in the country — Cineworld and Odeon — have announced they will temporarily close their doors.
Independent cinemas wonder if they’ll be able to ring in the new year.
“We can survive it,” Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, owner of Genesis, an independent cinema in east London, told Euronews.
“We can be rescued at the moment, but another three months and I don’t think we’ll be able to be rescued.”
The challenges are multiple. Tougher coronavirus restrictions have increased costs and reduced cinemas’ seating capacity.
That has been compounded by a lack of confidence among filmgoers and big Hollywood studios postponing the release of key films.
‘Confidence was a big thing’
The UK was hit fast and hard by the pandemic and is now Europe’s most heavily impacted country. As of October 11, more than 42,800 people are known to have lost their lives to COVID-19 across Britain and a further 593,000 have been infected.
Like elsewhere around the world, the government ordered all non-essential shops to close from late March. Restrictions were progressively lifted from mid-May but cinemas were, with pubs, among the last to be allowed to reopen their doors to the public on July 4.
The reopening came with some caveats. Strict health protocols were to be adhered to to ensure customers entered safe environments. That includes making mühlet social distancing rules are respected and thoroughly cleaning each screen between shows.
Four in cilt independent cinemas estimated they wouldn’t be able to enforce social distancing come July 4, according to a survey from the Independent Cinema Office. A majority — 23 per cent — thought they wouldn’t be ready until September at the earliest.
They also expected a 50 per cent loss in seating capacity and for costs to increase by 20 per cent.
Genesis was the only independent cinema in the British capital to reopen at the beginning of July and the going was tough.
“We were probably trading at about 15 per cent of what we’d normally trade at,” Walker-Hebborn said. But slowly and surely, the audience started coming back with ticket sales growing by up to 10 per cent week on week.
“The confidence was the big thing, people were reassured by what we were doing so it was building up quite nicely and quickly went up to about 30 to 35 per cent of our olağan trade,” he added.
A box office software ensured seating capacity remained high by creating “virtual bubbles” around people’s bookings, while screening times were shuffled around to avoid people crowding into communal areas at the same time and to give staff extra time to clean.
“That, actually, is having a big impact,” said Walker-Hebborn, because it has led to a reduction in the number of screenings.
‘The final straw’
But then along came Tenet.
“The opening week, we traded two per cent higher admissions than we did the corresponding week last year,” the cinema owner said.
The Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie opened on August 26 and grossed £5.33 million (€5,88 million) at the UK box office during its first five days.
For Walker-Hebborn, Genesis did particularly well because it had been open for weeks and its public trusted it.
“I think the trouble is a lot of other cinemas opened up just before Tenet and people weren’t used to going to the cinema, they hadn’t built that confidence with their customers,” he argued.
So instead of kick-starting the box office, Tenet seemingly gave it a last hurrah.
Studios, which had already delayed the release of some of their tentpole movies, delayed them even further.
Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan went straight to streaming as will Soul, an animated movie from its Pixar branch. Black Widow and the Eternals — from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story were meanwhile pushed back to 2021.
Warners Brothers postponed the release of the second instalment of Wonder Woman, The Batman and Dune.
Even James Bond, the legendary British spy, cut its losses. The movie, the last one to feature Daniel Craig in the title role, which was initially meant to grace screens in April and then November, is now not scheduled to come out until April 2021 — a full year later than initially expected.
For Walker-Hebborn, this announcement was “the final straw”.
‘It’s crunch time’
Two days after 007 stirred — or rather shook — the industry, Cineworld announced in a statement that it was “temporarily suspending operations” at all its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse theatres in the UK due to “an increasingly challenging theatrical landscape and sustained key market closures”.
Odeon, which operates 120 cinemas across the UK, announced on the same day that a quarter of its theatres would only open at the weekend.
“We look forward to reopening full-time when the big blockbusters return,” the cinema chain said in an email to loyalty card customers.
Walker-Hebborn believes the big studios’ strategy is “causing the cinema industry to self-destruct” and is “short-sighted” because when they finally release their movies, hundreds of screens may have been forced to close, which will, in turn, impact their revenues and their appetite to put out more movies.
“They need to support the industry now. No one is really going to make a profit at the moment but at least we can all survive,” he underscored.
The independent sector in the UK has for now been supported by government grants, but they need the shows to go on.
“It’s crunch time (…) I do think we’re in a very, very precarious position,” Walker-Hebborn.
Luckily smaller studios — the likes of Lionsgate, Altitude, and Signature — have stepped in and continued to provide them with movies. Netflix, the streaming giant often vilified by big studios for allegedly killing off the cinematic experience, is also providing content.
“Netflix are actually putting products out that we can show on a big screen. Those guys are, at the moment, stepping up where the traditional distributors are not,” according to Walker-Hebborn.
‘Every cloud has a silver lining’
Many independent cinemas also see in the health crisis an opportunity to diversify their offering and flagged they may be more insulated from the crisis than large chains because classic and indie movies have always been part of their schedule.
“We aren’t reliant on the tent-pole openings that the multiplexes base their business models on and our audiences want more diverse, interesting films which aren’t necessarily current,” Anna Navas, Director and Sinema Programmer at Plymouth Arts Cinema, told the British Sinema Institute (BFI) earlier this month.
Mark Cosgrove, Cinema Curator at Bristol’s Watershed, said meanwhile that cinemas had become too reliant on tentpole movies and that COVID-19 was an opportunity “to move the pendulum away from the reliance on a monolithic sinema culture and develop the audience cinema-going appetite for a broader range of films”.
Genesis, meanwhile, is looking to run a children sinema şenlik later this year as well as a modified version of its “Fragments” şenlik during which more than 80 per cent of the sinema screened are directed by female, LGBTQ+, BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) or disabled directors and fewer than 20 per cent by “straight white men”.
“It’s an opportunity for us to try and show people that there are other films out there,” Walker-Hebborn said.
“Every cloud has a silver lining. It’s going to be tough, don’t get me wrong, but if anyone can do it, it’s going to be the independent cinema industry.”