Article: COVID-19: Should UK cinemas re-open for business in July?

With the UK government seemingly easing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions for cinemas to re-open in early July and director Christopher Nolan holding tight to the July release date for his action blockbuster Tenet, The Bigger Picture speaks to two industry practitioners about their personal views on the situation.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak triggered the closure of cinemas in March and the frantic rescheduling of blockbusters such as Mulan and No Time To Die, many within the industry have been debating how the exhibition sector can adapt to and weather the closure of cinemas.

While the likes of the BFI FAN COVID-19 Resilience Fund can provide a measure of financial relief, many exhibitors know that safety concerns regarding the virus is going to have an impact for months to come. Maybe years.

Whatever the scenario, it’s clear that cinemas will need all the support they can get. It also looks unlikely that people will be rushing back into cinemas anytime soon.

Or will they?

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been described by some as the spark that will ‘reignite the moviegoing revival‘, but while it might be a saviour for multiplex chains, what about smaller, independent cinemas? More importantly, is opening in time for its July release date realistic and more importantly, can it be done so it’s safe for the movie-going public?

As this is an ever-evolving situation and one full of differing opinions about the right steps to take, The Bigger Picture reached out to two exhibition practitioners to ask about where they stand on this.
What do you think? Please respond via social media @FAN_BiggerPict and/or email us your feedback and we will do our best to publish highlights.

The case to re-open in July: Micaela Tuckwell, Manager of the Ultimate Picture Palace

So, I am going to need to start with a full disclosure here.

The cinema I run, Oxford’s much-loved Ultimate Picture Palace, will find it easier than your high street multiplex to keep staff safe through social distancing. The idea of squeezing more than one person into our original, but tiny external box office or projection room would quite rightly trigger some serious eye-rolls from our staff.

For those of you who don’t know us we are a single-screen cinema with a rich history (think pre-talkie era, wild late night screenings and combative attitude to censorship in the 70s, community hub and squat in the 90s) housed in a purpose-built, Grade II listed, neo-classical building that is, by the by, totally Instagrammable.

Now, I know I am preaching to the converted here when I say that we cannot afford to lose a single other independent cinema through this crisis. This is why I think that it is essential that we re-open the cinemas that can operate safely, like, sharpish.

Since closing our doors UPP staff, like many of you, have been working tirelessly to keep up with the crisis, such as how to save jobs, find short-term funding, and keep in touch with our audiences, some of whom have been coming to the cinema week-in-week-out for their whole lives. We have also had the pleasure of pitching in with our community’s COVID-19 relief efforts with the cinema opening as a distribution base for emergency food parcels (hey, Oxford Mutual Aid!) 

The question of when and how to reopen in a way that is safe for staff, volunteers, and audiences is extremely challenging, but I think made a little easier by acknowledging the one premise that most epidemiologists agree on worldwide.

We are in this for the long-haul.

Just last week Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist from Harvard said in no uncertain terms that, A single round of social distancing… will not be sufficient in the long term.” 

Whilst this is arguably a worst case scenario, we as a sector, especially smaller exhibitors, would be foolish not to plan with this firmly in mind.

For me, this has meant accepting the slightly heart-stopping realisation that if the UPP is going to be able to weather future phases of social-distancing and not grind to a (possibly permanent) halt, we can’t simply rely on the government to offer further relief. We need to be ready and confident that we can deliver a strict socially-distant cinema experience that puts public and staff safety above all else.

We need to radically rethink our business models as I imagine many smaller operators, like the UPP, will only be able to operate at 25% capacity during these periods. Can you revitalise your public hire sales through micro-hire deals for households looking to splash out on a treat? Commission your favourite local artists to design you sweet merchandise? I accept that under normal circumstances swiftly changing business plans, staffing models and income streams to adjust to a seemingly unknown future seems like madness – but the cost of not doing this would be too great.

Unfortunately the sector has not yet had any official guidance confirmed about how to open an indoor venue safely when socially distant measures are in force (although the UK Cinema Association are doing a sterling job of leading the charge). However, I am quietly confident that a set of sensible guidelines can be identified swiftly and like many people have pointed out cinemas – with a culture and system of assigned-seating, not to mention ushers who may have spent decades preparing for such a challenge – will have a better chance than other leisure and entertainment venues at regulating the density of audiences.

Once guidelines are issued and your cinema can ensure compliance, let’s reopen as soon as possible and prove that we are a resilient, socially-conscious, and vital part of the economy and our communities cultural lives. (Psst… independent cinemas, this is our time to shine.)

Based in Oxford, Micaela is the Manager of the Ultimate Picture Palace and Joint CEO of Ark-T, community arts charity in Cowley. 

The case to remain closed: Tara Judah, Freelance critic and programmer

I’m no mathematician but the equations around cinema are clear: summer 2020 is no time to re-open cinemas. I love movies as much as the next person – sure I’d go see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet – but I adore cinema, so I won’t be going to see it in July.

Cinema is more than movies. It is the physical space, specifically engineered, designed and dedicated to celebrating the communal experience of loving movies. Cinema requires movies and an audience to exist. Audiences are the most valuable commodity in our industry.

Yet, we are living through a pandemic and there is not an approved, widely available vaccine. The virus that causes the disease is being studied, but is still not 100% understood. What we do know is that the rate of infection is extremely high and that the best we can do, until a vaccine rolls out, is to social distance or self-isolate to stop its spread. In cinema shorthand, this is a measure taken to safeguard the audience. In the business of crafting communal experiences, our entire value lies in building, loving and serving our communities.

Therefore, when cinemas do re-open, it is incredibly important that they are able to do so safely. This means doing what cinema-makers do best: thinking about every tiny detail that affects and effects the experience of the staff and customers who constitute an audience.

Safe working conditions for all cinema staff and for customers requires planning, funding and iterative implementation, it might also mean some or more than the following measures;

  • Perspex dividers installed at every POS – box office, café/bar, merchandising
  • Perspex dividers installed between sinks in bathrooms
  • A dedicated staff room (not all cinemas will already have this)
  • For some, new ticketing solutions (scanning technology)
  • Increased cleaning staff and cleaning supplies – similar to the measures in place in Singapore during SARS, e.g. public toilet use one person at a time, immediately followed by a cleaner who disinfects door handles, toilets and sinks.
  • Having an available stock of masks for audience members who forget or cannot afford them
  • Potential infrastructure for temperature taking
From a purely economic perspective, re-opening in July [will be very challenging] as it will mean increasing staffing and staff training when a reduced capacity is almost certain.

Forget reduced, an audience might not even show up (for reasons that include but are not limited to being afraid, recently unemployed, bereaved). Even optimistically, if cinemas were to operate at 25% of their capacity in the first few months, too many would not survive into the autumn.

Summer is the worst financial quarter for some cinemas in the UK. Let’s consider “content” (movies); the summer is already the slightest season content wise, add to that a pandemic and you have yourself an empty slate. What to programme? Rep? Sure, but UK rep figures alone won’t save us. And what will distributors’ expectations be? Will films release with the same terms as before or will there be a significant period of amnesty where MGs are abolished and % lowered to allow cinemas to rebuild in their communities without going bust? I doubt it, but how will we all pay our overheads otherwise?

While the equations for multiplexes and the independent sector differ, re-opening will be no easy feat. Cinemas make a majority of their income on advertising revenue, concessions, special events, café/bar sales and private hire. These revenue streams are compromised at best or cancelled altogether.

But for all the sums we could run, I want to return to the equation at the heart of the thing: no economic argument should eclipse the conversation about public health and saving lives. And for the independent sector, I believe that re-opening too soon could pose a risk of cinemas having to close for a second time (as happened in China) This could impact on our communities losing trust which would not only be harmful, but also utterly economically devastating long-term.

The best way we can serve our community then [if we can afford to do so], is to stay closed a little longer, continue our careful and strategic planning for resourcing what the new normal will look like, and to have the government’s support in continuing to furlough staff until our collective confidence in social activities are at a level that will best serve not only the fit and able, but everyone we welcome as our audience.

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