How cinemas will survive beyond the lockdown roadmap - with Bond and drive-ins coming to the rescue

Marianka Swain
·5-min read
The trailer for No Time Die being shown at Piccadilly Circus in London, December 2019 - Reuters
The trailer for No Time Die being shown at Piccadilly Circus in London, December 2019 - Reuters

The big question for cinema operators and audiences alike since the pandemic began is: when will the Bond film actually come out? Well, it looks like it's finally time for No Time To Die, with the roadmap making its October release date “much more of a certainty, which is really exciting,” says Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association. “A Bond film is a big film in any year, but it has so much symbolism for our industry in the current climate, and it looks like it’ll be one of the first major studio releases in 2021.”

Clapp says the roadmap, under which cinemas can potentially reopen with social distancing on May 17, and in full on June 21, gives the industry hope. “It’s great to have some dates to aim for, and we’re keen to get more information on the safety measures that cinemas will need to continue to adopt until that broader unlock in June.”

Those measures do make a big difference to financial viability, he points out, particularly social distancing and capacity limits. “We represent a broad range of cinemas, from Odeon and Vue to the smaller venues. The ability of the latter to deliver social distancing and manage the flow of customers in a small building is more limited.”

However, he points out that cinemas developed a good strategy of Covid-safe measures last year, including enhanced cleaning, restrictions around food and drink, and face masks. “Coming out of lockdown in May, some of those might still be a medium-term requirement, like face coverings. But it’s all about striking that balance so we’re keeping people safe, but the requirements aren’t so onerous that it’s not economically viable to reopen.”

It has been a frustration, he notes, that studios have mainly decided not to release films “on the basis of global sales, being led by cinemas on the East Coast and West Coast of America and so on. But we’ve just heard that the governor of New York plans to reopen cinemas there in the middle of March. There’s a gradual unlock taking place worldwide, which adds to the industry's confidence. We should see the return of that supply line of major studio titles, and then people are back into the cinema-going habit. We can see the prize now - it’s just about getting from here to there.”

Another possible boost to cinemas is the upcoming slew of awards shows. “We’ve lived through a very strange and challenging period, where a lot of the films being considered for awards haven’t appeared on the big screen,” points out Clapp. “We hope to give people the opportunity to see them in cinemas.”

There’s also a salient lesson, he notes, in over-relying on those big US blockbuster films. “If you look at European territories like Spain, Italy and Denmark, the impact on their box office has been perhaps 10 per cent less than ours, because they’ve been able to draw more on domestic content. So the challenge is having that range of films. In the absence of not just those big US titles, but their marketing muscle, it’s been great to see distributors like StudioCanal step up and put films into cinemas that wouldn’t have previously had that breathing space.”

Clapp thinks that our lockdown viewing habits might also have altered our tastes. “People at home have probably developed a broader diet of films, watching on streamers. We should be able to draw on that and get a more diverse film slate playing in cinemas.”

Is there a danger of losing those audiences to the streamers? Clapp says not. “Every sign we’ve seen suggests that the public is eager to get back out and see films on a big screen. When we talk about Covid and health, it’s usually physical health, but after the year we’ve gone through, mental health is a big factor too - and there’s where going to see a great film can help. It’s a shared experience like no other.”

Which movie is he keen to see in a cinema? “Nomadland, which has a lot of awards buzz, is an incredibly moving film. And Rocks, which just won the British Independent Film Award [for Best Film], didn’t get the public exposure it deserved first time round - that needs an encore.”

The new normal: a drive-in cinema in Milan, Italy - Getty
The new normal: a drive-in cinema in Milan, Italy - Getty

However, he’s not keen on the notion of vaccine passports. “For our sector, I believe it’s unworkable and would create a huge amount of additional challenges.”

Instead, he wants to see continued business support in the Budget. “Even if cinemas are able to open in May, the early weeks and even months will be difficult, so we need a furlough extension. Also a continued business rates holiday. And there was a VAT discount on tickets to entertainment venues, from 20 per cent to five per cent, announced last year, but we’ve mainly been closed, so haven’t felt the benefit. That should be extended. Perhaps even made permanent, as it is in many European territories.”

Another possible long-term change is the rise in popularity of drive-in cinemas, which are allowed to open in mid April under the roadmap rules. “I’ve been in the job 14 years, and before the pandemic, we really only had a small number of them - probably because of the UK’s climate,” says Clapp. “But then we saw 10 or 12 companies springing up last summer. That might be part of the landscape going forwards. Some people may prefer to be outdoors, or feel safer in their car. If it’s another viable option for the industry, that’s good news.”

How can cinemas survive beyond the lockdown roadmap? Tell us in the comments section below