Article: Why we need to talk about Black audiences returning to cinemas

With Black, Asian and other ethnic groups being more likely to die from Covid-19, We Are Parable ask: where are the additional measures and guidelines we need to ensure our audiences are protected and safeguarded when they go to the cinema?

The global pandemic of coronavirus has completely changed our way of life, leading to thirteen weeks of being confined to our homes and seeing entire industries that were previously thought of as having strong foundations, slowly decimating in front of our eyes. Those working in the entertainment sector have been some of the hardest hit, with bars, theatres, event venues and cinemas being closed during lockdown.

Many films have been pushed back, some until next year, and for an organisation like ours that thrive on live experiences in cinematic venues, these are truly troubling times for the film exhibition industry. Independent cinema venues, in particular, have had to find new ways to engage their audiences whilst they remain closed during the pandemic.

There seems to be some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel however, as industry figures have been liaising with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and, at the time of writing, have provisionally agreed to a reopening of cinemas on the 4th July. With the highly anticipated Tenet by Christopher Nolan set to be released a few weeks later (one of the few blockbusters that hasn’t changed its release strategy due to Covid-19), it could be the shot in the arm the sector needs.

From the outside looking in, a company like We Are Parable should be pleased about this announcement as the lockdown eases, and we begin to re-enter into some type of normality. The reality, however, is a lot more complicated. As an organisation that provides UK audiences opportunities to experience Black Cinema in culturally relevant, innovative and memorable ways, invariably, our audience is made up of Black people.

I don’t think I’ll be attending cinemas or any social gatherings for a while. I don’t think this government are handling the crisis well and appear more concerned about the economy than health.

                                                                                  We Are Parable Audience member

In fact, a quick analysis of our events over the last two years shows that Black people made up 85% of our audience. Couple this with the utterly depressing statistic that Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups are more likely to die from coronavirus, and the challenge that we, as Black film exhibitors, have in making sure we have guidelines that protect our audiences, starts to become clear.

Will audiences feel safe?

Despite some of the new measures that are being introduced by cinema venues, such as less screenings, no cash on site, fewer seats available and temperature checks, the issue of Black cinema goers being more susceptible to the virus isn’t being discussed as much as it could be. Our audiences are, and have always been the most important element of our events, and the experiences they have mean the world to us, so we are committed in ensuring they are given the knowledge they need to feel safe.

A government report that would have provided essential information on just why ethnic minorities are disproportionately more likely to die from Covid-19 was due to be published at the end of May. The report was eventually released in early June, which only sought to confirm what a lot of us already knew –  ethnic minorities are indeed at a significant disadvantage when attempting to fight coronavirus.

However, the inevitable disappointment of not hearing from the government about additional steps which need to be taken to protect these communities has been all too painful to bear. If we are more likely to die (not only contract, but actually die) from this thing, then where is our extra protection?

Until we have recommendations from the government on what our community can do to specifically safeguard themselves, what confidence can they have in everyday life, post lockdown? We simply don’t know enough about this new virus, so when it comes to cinemas and their ability to keep Black customers safe, how do we know they’re doing enough?

Quite simply – we don’t. Over the last thirteen weeks, we’ve been on countless Zoom calls with industry experts and professionals offering their views on what the future holds for cinema with the changes brought about by coronavirus. One thing, in our opinion, that has been sorely missing from the conversation, is whether further measures are needed to protect Black and other ethnic audiences, not to mention cinema staff.

In response, we decided to directly ask a section of our audience how they felt about returning to cinemas from July onwards.

From a lack of faith in the government to an unwillingness to believe that the infection and death rates are decreasing despite the official government statements, here are their responses:

  • “I don’t think I’ll be attending cinemas or any social gatherings for a while. I don’t think this government are handling the crisis well and appear more concerned about the economy than health.”
  • “[I’m] not sending my kids back to school till at least September, so it would be a bit hypocritical [for me] to go to public gatherings.”
  • “I fear a second wave of the pandemic.”
  • “I won’t be going back to the cinema anytime soon and definitely not in July. I don’t have any faith in the current government and have massive concerns that is it way too early to open up. I’d need to [be] sure of safety and [I have no] confidence with the weekly statistics.”
  • “What I will do is support local businesses and filmmakers and even well-known filmmakers if they have found a way to transition their content online and I’d happily pay for that.”
  • “I won’t be coming out of lockdown until mid-July to be honest as I do not think it’s time to reopen London–especially wary for our black community.”
  • “I have been dealing with the impact of Covid on my lungs for the past 11 weeks now. It has been really difficult at times and I’m still in recovery.”
  • “If cinemas are to reopen I would want to see plans on how they are prioritising the health, wellbeing and safety of their black employees and customers.”
  • “With proper strict hygiene practise I honestly think everything will be ok. I’m totally confident I have no health issues and I think it’s time. We can’t let fear control us, follow the safety guidelines, enjoy the entertainment and smile.”

Impact for cinemas

We also asked an independent cinema venue, The Lexi, on some of the measures they were introducing to help keep audiences safe. Based in Brent, one of the boroughs in the UK most affected by Coronavirus, we wanted to hear their thoughts:

“We’re monitoring the situation very closely and will only reopen when we are confident that we can provide a safe and relaxed environment for everyone,” says Rosie Greatorex, Cinema and Programme Director of The Lexi. 

“Our BAME community [in Brent] has been hit especially hard, [so] we do expect to open with some additional safety measures in place, but we won’t be in the first wave of early summer​ re-openings.  I hope this won’t take too long. We’re also anticipating a phased return for our staff and volunteer team.”

We understand that there are huge financial implications for cinemas, especially for the smaller independent venues, to open at the beginning of July. However, we are calling for more urgency from the government and the film exhibition industry to address what more can be done to protect Black, Asian and other ethnic minority audiences on their return to the cinema. Research published by the BFI* earlier this year has shown that  the average number of cinema visits by Black, Asian and Ethnic minority audiences is 27% higher than the UK average, so a nonchalant attitude to protecting people who are at a higher potential risk simply isn’t going to cut it here.

As a company who have strong relationship with our audience, we need to feel confident that, when we come back to cinemas to create culturally relevant experiences, we are all equipped with the right information to make sure we, our audiences and cinema staff are adequately protected and safeguarded.

It’s not a “nice-to-have” bit of work. It’s an essential piece of work. And we won’t stop lobbying for it until it’s done.

UPDATE: We Are Parable have also been commissioned to undertake research that look further into the confidence levels of Black, Asian and Ethnic audiences as they return to cinemas.

The survey is now available

*Engaging Black and Ethnic Minority Audiences, BFI, 2020



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