This is a picture of Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, London.

Guidelines for safe cinema-going – a view from the auditorium

Today, the UK cinema industry published guidelines for the safe operation of indoor screen venues in England from 04 JULY. Here’s our view from the auditorium…


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Cinema-going at a time of crisis.

A little while ago we posted some musings about the likely shape of the cinema-going experience at the time of Covid-19, and some of the things we would like to see (or not…) upon our return to the darkness.

Well, the guidelines for the safe operation of cinemas have now come to light and so it’s time to start thinking about what they mean from the audience perspective.

As we have all come to expect, the main thrust of the guidance is about “keeping as many people as possible socially distant from those they do not live with and are not part of their support bubble” with the ultimate aim of limiting the spread of the virus. The document has been produced by a healthy collaboration of folk including the BFI and the Independent Cinema Office. It is published by the UK Cinema Association, which is the trade body for businesses that project stories on the wall for our pleasure.

Th guidelines define cinemas as “indoor, seated venues where people watch films together” covering mobile venues but not outdoor events and drive-ins, the operation of which is governed by separate guidelines. Todays set of rules are written under the headline assumption that cinema operators will conduct a rigorous Covid-19 risk assessment. Failure to do so could constitute a breach of health and safety law. The guidelines also stress that employers “have a duty to consult their employees on health and safety” (more on that nutty issue in a bit…).

For much of the guidance for cinema employees or volunteers, you’ll know the drill already. Social distancing with appropriate “mitigating actions” for venue staff which includes increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning, reducing the time spent on activities, using barriers between team members, and reducing the need for contact between team members.

Venues are required to assist the national NHS Test & Trace service by “keeping a temporary record of… staff shift patterns, customers and visitors for 21 days”. Given the move to online booking and withdrawal of paper tickets, this sounds like something audiences are already onboard with, but details about how this requirement respects data protection legislation is not yet ready. Given that this has been a widely trailed issue, we’re surprised there isn’t greater reassurance for audiences at this stage.

Before you get to the venue, expect to be advised about the need to comply with the regulations that limit gatherings. You should only be going to the cinema in a group of up to two households (including your support bubble, if you have one…). Your group can be no larger than 30 people by law. And you must remain seated.

You might have to queue outside to help manage the flow of people and will be “encouraged” to use hand sanitiser upon entering the building. Venues will be responsible for minimising the impact of queueing on surrounding businesses, staggering entry times and arranging one-way routes into and around the venue. These routes need to take into account access and other disability requirements. You will be used to stepping over floor markings reminding you to keep your social distance wherever possible, and they are referenced throughout this guidance. Of course, the government reserves the right to close venues or prevent certain events from happening should these measures not be in place or proving effective.

So, what happens when you step into the auditorium (which is why most of us will be there after all…)? Your group should be sat at a safe social distance from other groups. The assumption is that this will be managed by “allocated seating systems” or something else the venue has invented to replace/augment such systems. Overall capacity should be reduced to accommodate social distancing but is not capped at a set figure. The social distance should be “2m or – where 2m is not viable – 1m with risk mitigation.” Mitigations include the those floor markings and sufficient staff to “support customers and ensure social distancing is being observed”.

As with the government’s guidance for pubs, all forms of live performance are banned, as are activities that “encourage audience behaviours increasing transmission risk”. So, don’t expect to sing-along-a any time soon (or dance in the aisles come the closing credits for that matter…). Please also refrain from whooping, cheering or chuckling incessantly like a know-it-all (but we might just be channeling our own frustration with the fanboys on that final one as you won’t find those exact words in the guidelines…).

The ban on live performance would also seem to extend to the inclusion of any kind of live ‘special feature’ or event to accompany the screening such as an extended intro, Q&A or panel discussion. But this isn’t clear… By cutting and pasting the same conditions defining ‘live performance” as “drama, comedy and music” from the pub guidelines, UK Cinemas has missed an opportunity to cover an important part of alternative screen culture – talking about the film we have just seen with the talent that made it. Further guidance covering the “risks of aerosol transmission” from the projected voice are to follow. We hope this gets clarified as there has always been more to the indie screen offering than the film. The industry should champion this for their audiences, indie exhibitors and filmmakers. We hope they do.

Next we come to the always controversial issue of food in the venue. Expect more shielding screens, the removal of pick ‘n’ mix – was this ever safe we wonder? – and the opportunity to pre-order to reduce in-venue contact with staff and other customers. The more advanced venues will be offering you table service via an ordering app or similar. The venue should be cleaner than usual too given the penultimate section of the guidance about keeping the venue safe with intensified cleaning regimes, including those between staggered screenings.

Finally comes the issue that we know will prove the most controversial: “Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against COVID-19 outside clinical settings.” Furthermore “the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small”.

This very issue is being contested by groups of cinema staff across the UK, reflecting similar protests in the States that have caused U-turns from major chains that now require their customers to wear face coverings in the venue. This issue is likely to gather some pace here and it will be interesting to see how audiences feel when sat in the auditorium for an extended period of time. We’re not convinced face coverings are a silver bullet and would rather see venues working with their audiences to ensure social distancing is respected throughout the experience. But we’d love to know your view about feeling safe while seated for the duration of the movie.

> Would wearing a face covering make you feel more safe in your seat?

Whilst these guidelines are the starting point for cinema re-opening, a number of issues regarding the distinct pleasures of indie film exhibition remain unresolved. Perhaps it’s inevitable given the current circumstances, but UK Cinema’s guidelines feel more like the might of the multiplexes waking from their slumbers than the voice of the small indie screens we love, the places with real passion for their audiences and communities as well as projections.

Our main concern remains with how venues manage the social contract – not contact! – with their audiences. Having been in a few temporary “takeaways’ recently, we know how, after a long shift, telling yet more customers to keep their social distance seems like the last thing low-paid workers have the motivation to do. But the safety of the cinema experience depends upon the rigour of these systems as we will be sat in the same space as our fellow audience members for some considerable time.

We think that requires great cinema showmanship, guiding the audience from the front door to the exit and throughout the seated experience. Such an emphasis on showmanship is the way to establish a stronger sense of shared experience amongst big screen audiences, and we worry about crowds being left to self-manage their own behaviour after the lights have gone down.

Taking a room with you, and keeping them with you on a journey that lasts a few hours, is a distinct show business skill and one that requires detailed preparation under any operating conditions. But this is also where indie cinemas can lead the way. By reviving the rituals of cinema showmanship that unite audiences in the darkness, by guaranteeing them much-needed shelter from the storm, and by showing them some amazing stories.

Stay safe & see you in the darkness again soon.

Richard – Barker-In-Chief, RADIANT CIRCUS

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Main featured image: Phoenix Cinema.