THE VIEW FROM ROW E: Challenges & opportunities of cinema reopening

In the next of our posts from our favourite seat in the auditorium (virtually of course…), we take a look at the Independent Cinema Office’s report about how indie venues across the UK are responding to the challenges & opportunities of reopening in the times of the virus.

By RADIANT CIRCUS

Twitter @radiantcircus | Instagram @radiantcircus

As mentioned in my last post, the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) – the UK’s national development body for film exhibition – has published a report called Reopening Cinemas: The Independent Way. The report is based on a survey of UK exhibitors including cinemas, film festivals and all sorts of others to assess their readiness for re-opening when given the go-ahead by the government.

The results are startling. 41% of venues do not think they will be able to reopen while social distancing measures are in place. Whilst physical constraints of old, odd and awkward buildings a problem for those who might not be able to open (28%), the dramatic loss of revenue from an anticipated 50% reduction in capacity, screenings, concession sales and other related losses is by far the bigger concern (62%).

The already punishing economies of film exhibition are heightened by an anticipated 20% hike in operating costs required to put social distancing and hygiene controls in place. Based on these forecasts and everything we know now, 23% of venues think they won’t be opening until September (a further combined 34% are considering delaying until even later than that).

The issues of keeping the staff and audiences safe as well as preserving the rituals of the cinema experience – seeing a great film in a crowded auditorium – are cited throughout the report as reasons for not reopening. This caution amplifies emerging tensions between the smaller independent operators given voice in ICO’s report and the wider screen industries including mainstream cinema chains and film distributors. The indies are feeling under pressure “to open when it is not financial viable, practical or even safe to do so”.

Of the 59% of venues that said they could open with social distancing and hygiene controls in place, familiar aesthetics of the outbreak appear: face masks for staff (83%); gloves for staff (80%); perspex screens at box office and concession counters (65%); and, a veritable ocean of hand sanitiser (91%). Some of the traditional cinema experience goes too, with no fresh popcorn, and the retirement of physical tickets. Some venues are anticipating facemasks for customers. If Londoner’s widespread avoidance of PPE on public transport and in supermarkets is indicative of anything, this latter will be a challenge.

When asked about support measures that would help cinemas reopen with reduced capacity, survey responses backed government subsidy for tickets (72%) and grants for PPE (41%). Harking back to tension between industry forces and the economies of running an indie venue, another popular request was reduced distributor terms (making it more affordable for venues to exhibit a film). An extension of the government’s furlough scheme until the end of 2020 is popular but has been overtaken by announcements that it will close in October.

The report concludes by clearly demonstrating the twin challenges venues face. The two highest scored responses for venues’ main concerns about reopening are “practicalities of reopening with social distancing measures” set against “audience confidence levels and lack of admissions”. They scored equally highly (4.5/5).

The ICO’s report ends with some quotes from respondents that reinforce their dilemmas:

“The cinema depends on providing a positive guest experience. I’m worried that the new normal jeopardises the ability of people to enjoy the cinema again … film will not be the same without the social contact of meeting friends before the movie. This is why I think the struggle is to sustain the cinema in the intermediate term.”

A RETURN TO SHOWMANSHIP

That last quote reflects a view I share at RADIANT CIRCUS. At this stage of the pandemic I find the hazard tape and industrial-strength social distancing signage a too-distressing symbol of the loss of life and freedoms that have come hand in hand with the economic hardship of the coronavirus outbreak. Cinemas should be our places of shelter from the storm, not our containment.

If cinemas have time and resources before they reopen (more of that in a bit), they will need to use it to address required social and hygiene controls as a creative as well as an operational challenge. Reduced audience capacity will be tolerable for audiences if venues can avoid making cinema-going an even more stressful and sterile experience. Whilst I recognise that the financial survival of the venue and the safety of staff and audiences are of paramount importance, my personal nightmare is of venues having the perpetual air of “crime scene” rather than “picture palace”, where the big screen experience becomes a looped re-enactment of Secret Cinema’s 28 DAYS LATER, zombies re-cast in their role as audience…

Continuing to look at things from the audience perspective, perhaps this is time to consider measures that would actually elevate the shared cinema experience, regardless of the toxic viral load that’s out there? Maybe the focus of support for the industry shouldn’t just be on grants for PPE but on broader measures to improve the physical infrastructure of tired (aka historic or just badly designed in the first place…) venues? What if we shift our horizon lines, recognise that everything wasn’t exactly dandy before the virus and start to seriously consider how we future proof our indie spaces?

Where could we start? COVID-19 has given us excess licence to talk about life’s mundane details, so let’s begin with more numerous and better equipped toilets in venues. Too many venue WCs are like a low-budget escape room experience where the exit puzzle involves pounding on a stubborn pressure tap in an attempt to ‘wash’ your hands in the meagre trickle of cold water that runs down the back of the grubby porcelain…. No amount of hand sanitiser (or singing “Happy Birthday Twice“) is going to make me feel ‘COVID-secure’ in those scenarios…

Another measure might involve re-thinking the automation of the cinema experience. Venue house managers or programmers can play an important role in our post-shutdown cinemas by stepping into the auditorium and making their presence felt with a welcoming announcement from the stage. This would reassure the assembled masses that this is a staged/managed environment and not merely a post-apocalyptic wasteland where anything and everything is permitted. Too many darkened auditoriums already felt adrift of social control before the shutdown, arthouse and mainstream cinemas alike given over to their lords of the flies. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t blame audiences for this but the technical and financial constraints within modern film exhibition that have engineered out venues’ interactions with audiences beyond the box office and concession counter.*

I don’t mean we should unleash a new series of holiday camp commandants patrolling heavy petting in the middle rows (although that could be fun…), but a return to classic cinema showmanship where every screening gets a brief introduction and personal welcome from the venue management. Not an automated pre-show reel (although I miss seeing John Waters pop-up at the Prince Charles…) but a live human to set the scene, establish our social contract as an audience, and remind us, after everything, that we are all in this together.

For that’s what I’m missing most about cinemas being closed. Not the big screen technology. Not popcorn and ice cream (god knows I’ve eaten enough of that…). Not even films themselves (for some reason they haven’t been high on my list of lockdown appetites…). But humanity. Communality. Being part of a crowd.

The indie screen venues that can reopen successfully with social distancing in place will have learnt to master their health and hygiene controls so they are a seamless part of the audience experience. Returning to the darkness, I want exhibitors to sell me the idea of a new normal not with the unnerving ornamentation of our imminent doom (“DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE”) but with the welcoming and reassuring cheer of old-school cinema showmanship.

See you in darkness again soon…

Richard – Barker-In-Chief, RADIANT CIRCUS

* I also find the tutting and shushing from rows of white male privilege at venues like the BFI more distracting than the behaviour that goads it… but that’s the subject of another post on another occasion…


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