How did cinema respond to the CV19 crisis? Admirably as Guillaume Branders senior industry relations manager at the UNIC and Chris Mill UNIC’s policy and communications manager explain. The true test will come in the future though.
WHEN BACK IN MID-MARCH, Europe’s cinemas closed their doors, there was no clear sense of when they would again be allowed to open. Three months later, movie theatres are at last gradually re-opening, albeit with strict social distancing restrictions.
Everyone has had to make adjustments in line with government advice to limit the virus’ spread. Cinemas are no different. Readers of Cinema Technology don’t need to be told our sector was one of the hardest-hit, with cinemas left without revenue for weeks — not just box office, but concessions, B2B sales and advertising. Significant fixed costs still had to be covered. And it’s also worth noting that, in the weeks leading up to the start of confinement measures, many sites already implemented
strict measures to ensure the safety of both their customers and staff alike.
To provide some perspective, from mid-March until mid-May, fewer than 2% of more than 42,000 screens in Europe were open for business to any extent, not counting sites operating at severely limited capacity due to social distancing measures. At the end of May, year-to-date box office was down by 50% in five leading European markets. Current estimates indicate box office losses of at least €4.5bn for Europe alone in 2020 compared to 2019 — which, as you will recall, was an amazing year for the sector.
Despite these harsh circumstances, operators around Europe did not lose sight of what mattered most. Large and small companies, from Les Cinémas Gaumont Pathé in France to Cinamon cinemas in the Baltics, or independent cinemas such as Graves, Cumberland in the UK, redistributed remaining F&B stock to people in need, showing once again the fundamental role of cinemas in their communities.
Across Europe, cinemas moved to offer tickets to essential workers so they could be among the first to enjoy the cinema experience again. Another initiative worth highlighting came from Roxy Kino in Abensberg, Germany, which worked with local partners to sew and distribute masks
in exchange for donations to families in need.
While exact re-opening dates and guidelines evolve, we expect most cinemas in Europe to start operating again this summer. UNIC has kept a close eye on developments across the region throughout lockdown to ensure our members and their cinemas are in the best position to welcome audiences back. Our ongoing publicly available research into the state-of-play has been intertwined with efforts to keep cinemas at the heart of economic recovery plans at national and European level.
Support for the sector is there. As thousands of workers were furloughed following the closure of cinemas, most European governments swiftly introduced measures to help them. Danish authorities were amongst the first, as the State decided to cover 75% of wages throughout the crisis. Others followed suit.
Looking at rents, a small but growing number of governments have decided to encourage — or force — landlords to defer or decrease payments. This is the case in Poland, where rent payments were suspended for businesses located in malls — the case for most of its local multiplexes. In Sweden, a rent rescue package is encouraging landlords to provide renters with a 25% discount. Wider measures, notably regarding taxation and social contributions, have been taken across Europe. Moreover, “hardship funds” worth billions of euros have enabled cinemas to apply for direct grants or state-supported loans.
Such strong support will be key in helping cinemas welcome audiences back. Looking at schemes specifically for cinemas, UNIC and its members have been advocating to ensure the big screen’s value and that of the wider cultural industries is not lost on decision-makers. We will feel the lingering financial effects of this crisis more than most.
Positive steps have been taken around Europe, even if dedicated support funds for the film sector remain sparse.
National film funds in France, Portugal and Germany quickly decided to suspend payments of film levies and accelerate payments of subsidies, when available. In another showcase of industry unity, the Polish Film Institute was probably the first to bring all stakeholders from the national film value-chain together to discuss a coherent strategy for relaunching the industry and preparing for re-opening.
More could be done for the European cinema industry, especially as the sector strives to ensure support continues once doors re-open. Without lasting support, the outlook for everyone from the biggest chains to smaller exhibitors could be bleak. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. For instance, financial support for acquisition of protective equipment necessary for re-opening cinemas was introduced in late May in France and Belgium, among the first to roll in such a scheme.
Accessing the mechanisms of support
UNIC has been busy keeping members informed of the range of support mechanisms cinemas may be eligible for, developments in the closure/re-opening process and related safety guidelines, and practical/technical recommendations for operators as they prepare to re-open. Technology manufacturers, integrators, and service providers have made a range of technical guidelines, training courses or digital marketing tips available. Test packages were distributed globally to ensure that equipment will run efficiently upon re-opening. Once again, we can only admire colleagues’ passion to ensure our sector recovers as quickly as possible.
Beyond operational considerations, cinemas have had to rethink the way they engage with their audiences. Operators in Europe have encouraged loyal customers to support them by acquiring giftcards, vouchers or subscriptions to be used once they re-open. Italy, the first to close cinemas in Europe, took this a step further with the national Biglietto Sospeso (“Suspended Ticket”) initiative to support cultural institutions by encouraging Italians to purchase “tickets” that, rather than gaining entrance, providing support to institutions so that they can re-open or continue when restrictions lift.
Most operators have actively engaged with audiences via social media — asking people to share their best cinema experience, film quizzes, etc. In Austria and Germany, the #curtainrace campaign has seen cinemas sharing videos of their curtains slowly opening with a countdown projected on screen, to symbolise future re-opening. In Finland, Finnkino posted videos on how to draw Disney characters. In Romania, Grand Entertainment challenged their audience to recreate famous film scenes, with the best images shared on their social media channels. These are a handful of many such creative initiatives from exhibitors around the region.
Many cinemas have taken creativity further, temporarily reinventing themselves. Several local cinemas have turned to food delivery, such as Cinecitta in Germany which launched delivery services for popcorn, nachos and other staples. We have also seen innovative collaboration with local VOD platforms, such as in France with La Vingt-Cinquième Heure, a geolocated platform allowing access to online screenings for people living in a 40km radius from participating cinemas.
Preparing for re-entry
Now too, the first large-scale, national re-opening campaigns are being launched. France’s #oniratousaucinéma (“we’ll all go to the cinema”) campaign was launched by the national cinema federation (the FNCF) and it involves French talents sharing their passion for cinema. The German association, HDF Kino, launched a similar campaign with messages of support from celebrities and cinema-goers, using hashtags #kinokommtwieder (“cinema is coming back”) and #durchhalten (“holding on”). Other European initiatives have been developed — and we haven’t even mentioned individual cinema campaigns. Many have been publishing detailed info to announce re-opening, showing audiences they are taking steps to ensure safety and enjoyment. Doors have been temporarily closed, but cinemas have kept busy.
And this extends beyond the Big Screen too. The entire film value chain, from creation, to production, to distribution and beyond, continues to feel the effects of CV19 and, most importantly, will all have to work together to get back on our feet collectively. It’s clear continued prosperity of European film and cinema will rely on close collaboration at all levels.
Being able to do so holds the key to emerging from the crisis stronger, more innovative and closer to audiences than ever before. Over the past few months, it has become apparent that people not only miss going to the cinema, they are more than looking forward to a time when they can do so again. Numerous local studies and audience surveys, combined with countless messages of support for cinemas of all sizes and locations across social media and beyond, fill us with assurance that once this intermission is over, cinemas will reclaim their place as the cultural activity of choice for billions of people across the globe.
With this in mind, UNIC can look forward to a bright future for the cinema industry. In moments of crisis and upheaval, we sometimes gain a sense of clarity as to the important things in life — and being obliged to spend time apart from one another has perhaps made the communal experience of seeing films on the big screen more important than ever. For cinemas, it’s not really a case of “I’ll be back.” Truthfully, they simply hadn’t gone away in the first place.
Safety guidelines? Check locally…
Health and safety remains a key concern for operators, for both guests and staff alike. Social distancing will play a part in operations for the foreseeable future, with distancing inside and out of screening rooms, increased hygiene measures and establishment of guidelines to ensure compliance and effectiveness.
Therein lies a further challenge: preparing and implementing guidelines according to evolving national rules. Rules related to minimum safety distances, masks for staff and customers, temperature checks, disinfection of surfaces and maximum occupancy vary widely. Some territories have seen relatively relaxed restrictions, others have made it challenging for cinemas to re-open.
National associations are publishing safeguarding guidelines, giving a better, locally coordinated idea of what cinema-going will look like in months ahead. Staggered seating and programming, online/contactless transactions, crowd monitoring and enhanced hygiene are all requirements of “new normal”.
From our side, the pan-European nature of UNIC means we are unable to produce re-opening guidelines encompassing all our members. Considerations, however, have been shared with our members, operators large and small, as part of the broader exchange of best practice taking place throughout the sector, which shows we are most definitely all in this together.