Brits Won’t Rush Back to Cinemas, But Will Return If Reassured, Survey Finds

Leo Barraclough

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Only one in five British people say they are willing to go to movie theaters when they first reopen in July, according to new research. However, three out of four say they would want to go back to cinemas eventually, but only after social distancing and rigorous cleaning is apparent.

U.K. cinema owners are pinning their hopes on blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Niki Caro’s “Mulan” to kick-start business, with one exhibitor referring to Nolan as “the savior of cinema,” during a webinar on Wednesday about the practicalities of reopening cinemas, organized by Comscore.

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More than 1,200 movie theaters are now open worldwide, up 500% on the low point of about 200 theaters on April 25, Lucy Jones, executive director of Comscore Movies, said. This month and July will see many more territories opening their venues. Whereas theaters in England are expected to open on July 4, it is unclear when the rest of the U.K. will open their cinemas, although it is likely to be later in July. In the Republic of Ireland cinemas will open on Aug. 10.

In new market research carried out in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, commissioned by the Film Distributors’ Assn. and presented by Sharon Reid, director of marketing and partnerships at Cinema First, it was reported that only 19% of respondents would be happy to return to cinemas as soon as they open, while this response was higher among teenagers, parents of young children, and people of color, while the over 35s were more hesitant.

Seventy-five percent of cinemagoers in the survey said they would want to go back to cinemas, but not straightaway, and only after social distancing and rigorous cleaning is apparent. The majority, 55%, said they would return to their pre-COVID-19 levels of cinemagoing. Some 28% of the respondents said they would attend less regularly than pre-lockdown, although reassurance on health, social distancing and cleanliness may help drive increased attendance.

The report found a 65% increase in streaming during the lockdown and found indications this will be a long-term change as it is seen as cheap and convenient. Family content, such as “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Trolls World Tour,” has been particularly popular among transactional video-on-demand titles, although this TVOD business is likely to drop off once the lockdown ends.

Cinema comes third in the list of activities people miss most during lockdown, with 52% citing it, after visiting friends and family (67%), and restaurants (58%), but beating shopping (43%), and pubs (39%).

A survey of independent cinema operators, presented by Catharine Des Forges, director of the Independent Cinema Office, found that only 13% would open in July, with a further 15% planning to open in August and 23% looking at a September opening. Fourteen percent said they would not open until next year, with another 13% undecided.

There was widespread anxiety among independent cinema owners about being able to enforce social distancing and therefore protecting their customers, who tend to be older, and staff. Many also said that the cost of the social distancing measures and health precautions would make the venues financially unviable, and are therefore looking for financial support from the government via the British Film Institute.

Venues expect a 20% rise in costs due to measures to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. In addition venues are expecting to face 50% cuts on capacity, number of screenings, food and drink sales, and advertising revenue.

Phil Clapp, chief executive of U.K. Cinema Assn., reported on discussions held with the U.K. government and the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about safeguarding guidelines.

“While we don’t underestimate the challenges presented by the cinema environment, we are confident that we can deliver an experience that is both safe and enjoyable when cinemas are allowed to re-open, and offer cinema-goers the reassurance they so clearly want,” Clapp said.

The main focus of the guidance will be around around social distancing, with the exhibitors arguing that the U.K.’s insistence on 2 meters distance is out of step with other countries, which have opted for 1.5 meters or 1 meter. “Even reducing that from 2 meters to 1.5 meters would have an exponential effect in terms of the economic viability of many sites,” he added.

The draft guidelines state that if staff did not require Personal Protective Equipment before the lockdown they wouldn’t need it after, with the exception being those in the ticket office, and serving food and beverages over a counter, where Perspex screens are recommended. Masks have a minimal effect, the government said, and therefore are not required.

Allocated seating to maintain social distancing, hand sanitizing stations, and enhanced cleaning regimes between screenings are recommended.

The U.K. Cinema Assn. is looking to support exhibitors around risk assessments, through the joint procurement of PPE, hand sanitizing stations and Perspex screens, and staff training.

In Ireland, masks are being recommended, said Paul John Anderson, director of Omniplex Cinemas.

Kam Dosanjh, group director of operational standards and performance at Vue Entertainment, said that in some countries (Italy, Netherland, Poland, and some states in Germany), the governments had ruled that air conditioning and heating systems should not recirculate air, only bringing in fresh air, which adds to costs.

Debbie Bell, building and environmental manager at HOME in Manchester, said they were looking at taking out seating to create an extra aisle to minimize the movement of customers past each other to get to seats.

Keith Pullinger, deputy chairman and founder of The Light Cinemas, said that the staff and management will have to assess the risks on a case-by-case basis as each cinema is likely to have particular issues to tackle. Furloughed staff were being given training for the “new world.”

“Everyone has got to be comfortable as an individual first and then help in setting up the right changes within the cinema and then collectively bringing that training through,” he said.

“As best as we can we are ready to go. But you don’t really know until you reopen just how things are going to work, and how the customers are going to react. A lot of this will be testing and reacting to what is going on, and retraining and adapting as we go through. We are keen to open before the big films, probably only a week, to give us a little bit of breathing space to bed in the right operational procedures.”

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