As exhibitors in major European markets begin eyeing potential openings at the end of June and through mid-July, some smaller hubs are returning to operation this week, albeit under strict social distancing guidelines and at reduced capacities.
Overall, a somewhat clearer picture is beginning to emerge with regard to restarting the business in Europe — though much remains to be outlined, and course corrections amid the ongoing coronavirus situation are certainly possible.
Most of the continent, along with the UK, has seen theaters dark for months, and box office losses have been steep. But with some markets now planning for the ease of confinement, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon.
None of the major hubs — which include the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy — have set formal dates (see breakdowns below). However, UK Cinema Association chief Phil Clapp tells us, “We have been in discussion with government on the safeguards needed to protect audiences and staff. As part of that discussion, we have said that we believe these could be in place in time for an end June re-opening. We are, though, aware that government will have a host of considerations when deciding on when to allow UK sites to re-open.”
The vast majority of European cinemas will re-open with reduced capacity due to social distancing measures.
Vue International boss Tim Richards tells us he believes soft openings are possible at the end of June with a harder push in mid-July. Vue operates in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Taiwan. In the latter, the company’s 20-screen SBC multiplex has continued to operate throughout the crisis, having leaned on lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic.
“We have opening and operating protocols that we’ve learned the hard way in Taiwan. Ironically, it’s the only site that is still open for us,” says Richards who remains “very bullish and optimistic for the industry.” Time is the key factor, he says.
Vue is “ready to go in nine markets, and if we have to be ready in different ways in each market depending on the official guidance, we will be. As an industry, we have this unique ability to manage how many people are in our foyers and auditoria at any given time through careful scheduling, and planning the entry and exit of our customers into and out of our screens. To achieve this we have the support of our staff and our state-of-the-art operating systems. We can automatically build in social distancing.”
Added to that there might be temperature readings and masks “if that’s the right thing to do for the safety of our customers and staff.”
People are keen to get back to the cinemas. Recent polls out of China show there is a desire while Richards says that on Vue’s surveys “going to see a movie is either the first or second choice leisure activity in all of our markets. People want to get out, sit somewhere where they can sit back and be entertained — not in a living room with the kids screaming.”
Overall, the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC) reports that as of May 4, fewer than 2% of the 42,000+ screens in 38 European markets were in operation. Sweden continued kept some theaters running throughout the crisis while Norway, Czech Republic and Slovakia have recently announced dates, beginning as soon as tomorrow for the former. Some Icelandic cinemas came back online on Monday this week; Finland and Portugal will open at reduced capacity on June 1; Switzerland is tentatively set for June 8; and Ireland is going later, on August 10.
Helping to bridge the gap, and get people in the mood, drive-in theaters have already done business or are soon to be opened in such markets as Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway and Lithuania.
A notable question, however, is what product cinemas will screen given the Hollywood studios don’t have tentpole titles on their release schedules until Warner Bros’ Tenet from Christopher Nolan and Disney’s Mulan, both in July. While most offshore markets outside Europe remain closed, Korea geared up again recently (though it never fully shut) and has been using a mix of older favorites like La La Land and the Avengers pictures as it also added Universal/DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour both theatrically and on VOD. Hong Kong will open later this week, but the world’s second biggest market, China, which is expected to lose over RMB 30B ($4.2B) this year, remains a question mark. More should become clear on the Middle Kingdom this month.
It is expected that European markets with strong local industries could start showing homegrown movies that were shelved when the cinemas closed, as well as rolling out studio library titles.
But part of the reason the major markets are leaning towards late June/early July is the need for new product. In Australia, the National Association of Cinema Operators yesterday acknowledged that the availability of fresh Hollywood titles would be a factor in a July restart.
French producer Jérôme Seydoux, who is also at the head of the country’s leading exhibition circuit, told Le Point on Tuesday that a July re-opening appears possible, but “in order to open in a credible manner, the Americans also have to open their cinemas.” He called Tenet and Mulan the key to opening in July.
Here is a snapshot of the latest updates on the key European majors as well as some of the smaller hubs:
SPAIN: Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez discussed a four-phase ‘Plan for the Transition Toward a New Normality’ which began May 4. Under Phase 2, whose start date is not set, “Cultural events will be possible with fewer than 50 people in interior spaces, and for open-air events, there will have to be 400 people or fewer, and they will have to be seated,” Sánchez said according to El Pais. Cinemas will re-open under Phase 2, with a tentative date of May 25, but at a third of their capacity and with assigned seating. In Phase 3, that should bump up to 50%. Cinemas located in malls might only be able to reopen in Phase 3. Plans have to be approved at the provincial level, which could mean staggered openings.
FRANCE: Also last week, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said movie theaters will not be allowed to re-open when the country begins to lift its national lockdown May 11, while a ban on festivals and events that draw more than 5,000 people has been extended to September. A decision is now expected to be announced on June 2 for the cinemas. Exhibitors org the FNCF has created an advisory committee to draft guidelines for the industry which it hopes to deliver at the end of May.
UK: The biggest of the European markets (Brexit notwithstanding) has yet to outline a clear plan for re-opening. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to provide further indications on Sunday, May 10. However, as noted above, some believe late June is a possibility.
GERMANY: Cinema re-openings have also not yet been clarified in Germany, however HDF Kino, the market’s largest theater organization, has predicted a July start. Constantin Film’s Martin Moszkowicz warns it could take two to three months before consumer confidence returns. Another fundamental issue, we are cautioned, is product.
ITALY: The hardest hit of the European majors, and the second worst worldwide, saw its theaters go dark beginning in February. Moviehouses for now are expected to remain closed at least until June. Italy is a particularly interesting case given it has traditionally been nearly impossible to program during the summer. But a concerted effort by the Hollywood studios last year, alongside local orgs, to release in the corridor helped boost the market’s fortunes in 2019. MoviementVillage, a project begun and promoted by film groups ANEC and ANICA last year to make the Italian business a 12-month affair, is helping to prepare for the re-openings this summer with the addition of outdoor/drive-in cinemas. Programming will be a mix of titles from 2019 and 2020.
POLAND: An increasingly significant market in Europe (particularly for local product), Poland began lifting restrictions in mid-April. As part of a four-phase plan, cinemas may be able to open on June 1.
NETHERLANDS: More news is to come for Holland on May 12, but in the meantime, May 20 could be the re-opening date for movie theaters.