Cinemas are betting on 'magical' experiences to rebuild after crisis

Does cinema still have a place in the era of coronavirus and will audiences want to come back?

As omens go, there could be few less reassuring than a no-show James Bond. 

For many in the cinema industry, the severity of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on their business began to sink in when the producers of the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, pushed back its release by seven months from April to November. A Bond release is usually a huge production and a draw for cinemagoers – the franchise has grossed more than $7bn worldwide – so the decision to postpone did not bode well for the sector’s future. 

"That was the time when people looked each other in the eye and said: 'This is serious,'" Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, recalls.

No Time to Die was the first major film to delay its release because of coronavirus, but others soon followed, from Warner Bros’ Tenet to Disney’s Mulan. In mid-March, as the outbreak intensified, chains including Cineworld, Odeon and Vue began shutting down venues, and within days the government had ordered all cinemas to officially close. Across the UK, glittering movie screens went dark. 

Months later, there are now green shoots of recovery. The government announced that cinemas were allowed to reopen from 4 July, with safety measures in place – although many are holding off until the end of the month. Film productions are slowly resuming and the government has also offered support to the cinema sector. 

But bigger questions for the industry remain: does cinema still have a place in this new Covid world and will audiences want to come back? 

A golden age

Many people may not realise that before the pandemic, cinema was experiencing a boom. With the rise of streaming platforms, from Netflix to more recent players such as Disney+, it might have been easy to assume that the appetite for cinema-going was waning. 

On the contrary: 2018 and 2019 saw the highest number of UK cinema admissions in 50 years. Recent releases, such as South Korean film Parasite and First World War drama 1917, were unexpected hits, with the former becoming the UK’s highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time and the latter bringing in more than £40m – a massive sum for an independent film. In the first quarter of 2020, admissions were up by 20% year on year. 

Cinema’s recent prosperity was down to a few factors. The quality of the content was strong and there had been more investment in film marketing campaigns and cinema infrastructure. The experience itself was also improving for audiences – the growth of chains such as Everyman, which has upmarket features including armchair seating and higher-quality food, is an example of that. 

On a more basic level, though, cinemas continued to offer one thing that streaming services could not. "In an increasingly connected world, there’s a sense that the cinema is one of the few places where you can go and genuinely switch off," Clapp says. 

Iain Jacob, chair of Cinema First, the cross-industry body working to promote UK cinema attendance, points out that streaming and cinema have been amicable bedfellows. "The streaming experience is valuable but it’s interrupted," he explains. "The research is clear that if you’re a Netflix subscriber, you're more likely to be a heavy cinemagoer, because you’re into film and that sort of content. It’s not one or the other."

Success interrupted

Then came coronavirus, and people had little choice but to stay at home and turn to other forms of entertainment. Streaming surged during the height of the crisis, with nearly five million British households signing up to subscription video-on-demand services over the lockdown period. Netflix’s new global subscriber numbers were more than double its forecast in the first quarter of the year. Disney+, which launched in the UK on 24 March – a day after the public was ordered to stay at home – attracted an estimated 1.6 million UK subscribers in its first month. 

As people’s habits change during the pandemic, it might be difficult to draw them back out to social places, where the risk of infection will be higher. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that 67% of UK respondents were concerned about public gatherings, even with lockdown easing. So will people want to leave the convenience and safety of their homes for a cinema? 

The industry itself has also been bruised. UK cinema admissions for 2020 will more than halve compared with 2019 – the weakest performance since 1987, according to an Enders Analysis report. The majority of cinema jobs are customer-facing and nearly 95% of its workforce were furloughed during lockdown, Clapp says. 

Even as venues gradually reopen, it will be challenging for some to survive with social-distancing measures in place. The previous government guideline of keeping people two metres apart would have meant that many cinemas could only operate at 25% capacity. Now that the rule has been lowered to "one-metre-plus", that increases the average capacity to closer to 50%, but that still won’t be economically viable for some businesses such as independent cinemas, which tend to have smaller auditoriums. 

"Smaller venues are under more threat," Clapp admits. One recent survey by the Independent Cinema Office found that 41% of independent cinema chains would be unable to reopen at all under the new measures. 

Somewhat promisingly, however, this month the government created a £1.57bn package of support for the arts industry that is set to benefit arts and culture venues including independent cinemas and theatres. Organisations can apply for emergency grants and loans if they explain how they contribute to wider economic growth.

Treading cautiously

When the government announced that cinemas could reopen on 4 July, some decided to wait longer due to many major releases – such as Mulan and Tenet, both of which have been pushed back four times so far – being further delayed. Cineworld, the UK's largest cinema chain, postponed the reopening of its venues by three weeks until 31 July. 

The sector is facing a chicken-and-egg situation: cinemas are wary of reopening until the film slate is robust enough to draw audiences, while filmmakers don’t want to release their work until the audiences are there to view it. "This really is a case of ‘Who will blink first’ and, until one side commits, delays will continue," the Enders Analysis report noted. 

"The first studio releases bold enough to go out earlier will need cinema support. They are effectively taking one for the team," Andy Leyshon, chief executive of the UK Film Distributors’ Association, says. 

Lockdown propelled some studios to bypass cinemas altogether and release films straight to video-on-demand platforms – Disney’s Artemis Fowl and Universal Pictures’ Trolls World Tour being two prominent examples. The latter became the biggest-ever debut of a digital release in its opening weekend, according to Universal, and went on to surpass the revenue of the first Trolls film. 

Such successes – and the continued uncertainty of the pandemic – indicate that direct-to-streaming releases will play a larger role alongside theatrical releases in film distribution going forward, Enders Analysis reported. Yet cinema has historically been the most lucrative part of film-distribution strategies, with studios receiving a significant share of box-office revenues. Cinema is also "a key driver of subsequent revenue streams", Clapp notes. 

This crisis is forcing the two sides – cinema operators and film distributors – to work together more closely than ever before, Leyshon says: "There has been great unity across the two houses, which is not always the case. As a sector, we feel more united than we’ve ever been."

Cinema First has been meeting weekly throughout lockdown to plan for sector recovery and it plans to launch a campaign later this summer to attract cinemagoers. Its first priority has been equipping operators with resources to communicate and implement new safety measures, which could include staggered showing times, distanced seating, face masks and temperature checks. 

As they come to grips with this new normal, industry leaders have been buoyed by Cinema First’s recent research that shows the appetite for cinema-going remains strong. One survey revealed that cinema was the third-most-missed activity during lockdown, behind seeing friends and family, and eating at restaurants, while about 70% of respondents said they wanted to return to cinemas within the first few weeks of them reopening. This desire tended to be higher among young people, while older audiences were more cautious. 

"There is an appetite there to return, but it’s an appetite we need to meet with reassurance," Clapp says. 

Betting on experience

Safety messages alone will not be enough to entice audiences, however. More than places to watch films, cinemas are "a social and community hub", Clapp points out. Even in the era of social distancing, it is this experience that industry leaders are keen to hold on to as they rebuild. 

"You’re always struck when you go to smaller venues by how much they’re valued and supported by their community," he continues. "Over the past three years, we’ve seen around 20 cinema sites open in the UK each year. In every case, the reception and excitement around building a cinema, and the extent to which they quickly become part of the fabric of the community, is quite striking. The community takes the cinema to its heart."

After a long period of isolation, many people will be missing that kind of social connection. How cinemas cater to communities may change, though. For example, the UK has recently seen an increase in drive-in cinemas, which have the benefit of viewings without crowding into an indoor auditorium. "We’ve seen more drive-in activity in the last two to three months than we’ve seen in the last decade," Clapp says. 

The growth of drive-ins is partly down to lockdown restrictions, but it also "taps into the broader trend within the industry of trying to make cinema-going as much of an experience as possible," he explains, pointing to popular phenomena such as immersive-storytelling company Secret Cinema. In fact, he and other industry leaders expect this emphasis on experience to become even more important despite the economic downturn. 

"People will want to see that they’re getting something more or better for their money. There will continue to be an emphasis on that experience – people getting not just value for money but value for time," Clapp says. 

For this reason, when Cinema First launches its upcoming marketing campaign, it plans to focus on "the magical experience of cinema", Jacob says. 

After all, there has always been an element of cinema that is unpredictable and mysterious. An independent underdog can become a box-office hit. A unique story or performance can come out of nowhere and captivate a nation. It is that serendipitous quality that keeps some audiences coming back.  

"You should never think you know exactly what your audience wants," Leyshon says. "That’s the magic of cinema. It can always surprise you with something."

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