Cinema has endured arguably its greatest crisis in nearly 125 years, writes Patrick von Sychowski. With screens dark and projectors off, it was an unwelcome break for an industry used to operating year round. Yet even during this intermission hope was not lost. Even as major Hollywood titles skipped darkened cinemas, blackening the mood of cinema operators further, there was plenty to remind us of the power of cinema. If proof was needed that CV19 would not mark a permanent end to the desire to be entertained by what is still the only art form that is larger than life, these ten reminders from the ‘Great Intermission’ were just that.
1. A light still shines (in Sweden…)
Even in the darkest days, not all cinemas closed down all over the world. Gower Street Analytics estimates that — at its nadir — 99% of the world’s cinemas shut, while Omdia (formerly IHS Markit) believed that 94% of global cinema screens were in active. That still left a notable proportion of cinemas keeping the light burning, quite literally. Japan and South Korea — the world’s third and 10th largest cinema market respectively — only closed down most of their screens when audience numbers dropped to an average of less than 5% occupancy due to a lack of new releases. Even then, territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which had learned the lesson from SARS and MERS, kept going or re-opened, even as China did a u-turn on the few cinemas that had re-opened early in the middle kingdom.
Meanwhile in Europe, Sweden became the outlier when it imposed strict restrictions on its population but no blanket lockdown. While the largest cinema operator Filmstaden (part of Odeon/AMC) closed its sites, the family-run No.2 operator Svensk Film kept going. It showed recent films like “Onward”, “The Gentlemen” and “1917”. Eventually cinemas in neighbouring Norway became the first in Europe to re-open and from there it has gradually been spreading to the rest of the continent. So from the countries that gave the world Bergman gloom and Nordic Noir came a beacon of hope for cinemas, ensuring continuity of operation.
2. Jukebox cinema?
Once the audience for recent releases and older titles had dried up in Sweden and South Korea, cinema operators pivoted to cinema-on-demand or jukebox cinema. Under this scheme you could rent out an entire auditorium for your family, a small group of friends or just by yourself. Korea’s CGV even launched a campaign called “I Watch Alone — Rent a Theater and Watch a Movie Alone” to attract moviegoers back. In Sweden, Svenska Bio pivoted and rented out its auditoriums for both video gaming and cinema-on-demand, hosting more than 500 events and selling over 13,000 tickets, of which around 200 were for video games. Both countries are considering continuing these schemes once regular business resumes, showing that the novel Coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just resulted in the closing and re-opening of cinemas, but also the re-imagining and re-evaluation of business models.
3. Cinema vendors pivot
With demand for everything from projectors to Coke Freestyle machines down to zero, plenty of vendors had to furlough staff and suspend all activities. However, a handful of service and equipment suppliers saw it as an opportunity to come to the aid of those in need, refashioning their supply chain to offer new kinds of products. Harkness Screens was one of the first to step up when, instead of screens, it started manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care staff. “We truly believe that we can help those on the frontline and hope that people take us up on our offer to provide assistance in these extraordinary times,” explained the CEO of Harkness Screens, Mark Ashcroft. You can read the full story of their response on page XX. Other cinemas and vendors helped in small and big ways, all demonstrating that even if a cinema is dark, its heart still beats strong.
4. Drive-in cinema — it’s a thing again
Perhaps the most unexpected hit of the Great Intermission has been the revival of the drive-in. With hindsight it should have been obvious that sitting in your own bubble is the safest way to keep your distance (two meters between cars, please!), while still enjoying the magic of the big screen. When Spain’s first cinema re-opened it was a drive-in. The first 15 days sold out completely. When regular cinemas re-opened in the US, the highest grossing multiplex (a Santikos in Texas) was only #61 in the box office chart. The 60 sites above it were all drive-ins. The phenomenon took off everywhere from Norway to South Korea to Poland. In Germany the Federal Network Agency had assigned 43 frequencies for drive-in cinemas (to transmit audio on) by early May; with about 80 more applications submitted to date. The Cinema Technology Community (CTC) published a useful How-To guide for those thinking of opening their own drive-in. With no touring acts like Lady Gaga, there is a surplus of LED screens to rent, meaning drive-in cinemas can host screenings during daylight hours. However, these screens are not DCI compliant (unlike the Samsung Onyx), so no new films can be seen on them. Although the French cinema trade body FNCF argued they were a “distraction” in working towards re-opening regular cinemas, there is hope that drive-ins are back to stay and will form an important part of the future cinema landscape. For more, see page 48.
5. Marquee messages of hope
“We’ll be back” was the message on the marquee of the Prince Charles Cinema in London, long-known for using its black-on-white lettering as a message board. With no films playing, cinema marquees became a way to send messages of hope to audiences. “The cinema marquee and its readograph — the backlit sign written with moveable letters — is as important as the movie poster,” noted Celluloid Junkie’s Karen Krizanovich in a definitive overview of the messages they sent in the early weeks of the lockdown [Ed: Late March seems a while ago…].
Many quoted movie lines or references (“Home Alone”, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”), while others went for puns: ‘Now Playing’: “The Social Distancing Network” and “No Close Encounters of Any Kind”. Others appealed for people to ‘Stay Safe’. The Esquire cinema in Cincinatti Ohio even ran a competition for patrons to select the quote. Others handed their marquee to public services: “Happy 23rd Anniversary Simon & Karen” a recent one read at Evesham’s Regal Cinema. “We just wanted to do something to make people smile,” said Eva Moeskops, Regal manager, “bringing our already close-knit community together for a bit of fun.”
Adverts before films tends to be one of the most complained about things by cinemagoers (see also: price of popcorn), yet with all of our big screen films Missing in Action, gone too are the cinema adverts and trailers. Germany’s largest cinema advertising operator WerbeWeischer had the cunning idea of letting people watch cinema adverts at home, as a means of supporting their chosen local cinema. The resulting campaign #hilfdeinemkino became an overnight success.
“We were overwhelmed,” CEO Stefan Kuhlow revealed during one of many #CJCinemaSummit sessions hosted online in recent months. “We had an immense social media reaction and it was picked up by numerous influencers. Radio and TV wanted to talk to us”. Just over a month after launch the campaign has seen four million advert views and as well as a the revenue from the advertisers, the website has a donate button which generated an additional €30,000. The campaign is still running.
Cinema advertising operators have also been carrying out research on cinema-going intentions, finding that there is an appetite to return to picture palaces. “Research is showing that cinema audiences will want to return to watch movies on the big screen and that cinemas and eating out are the second most anticipated activity post-lockdown” notes Cheryl Wannell of cinema advertising trade body SAWA. The only thing people are looking forward to more? A trip to the hairdresser for a cut, perm or colour, naturally.
7. Urban cinema
If you can’t go to the cinema, the cinema will come to you. That was the case in cities all across the world where the sides of buildings were turned into impromptu screens, with people hanging off balconies and from windows to hear classic dialogue bounce between buildings. On Dublin’s Cork Street theatre company manager Scott Horgan screened “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Calamity Jane” while collecting donations for Age Concern. Amazon drove trucks carrying giant double-sided LED screens to project episodes of “Modern Love” to be viewed from Madrid’s balconies. In Mexico City people could nominate walls and films for Azotea Coyote to project films on in partnership with sponsor Stella Artois.
In Cologne’s Belgian quarter a selection of classics were projected onto an empty house wall every Friday. “We asked ourselves how one could maintain a sense of community and cohesion despite the current situation,” explained Cologne native Ulli Kilberth. Seeing the balconies below his own, he thought, “These could also be balconies like those found in theatres or operas”.
8. Kerbside popcorn?
It’s no secret that operators make most of their profit from the concessions — and patrons have been known to grumble about the cost — yet when forced to stay at home and pop their own popcorn for another Netflix session there was clearly a longing for a real cinema combo. The popularity of kerbside selling of popcorn took even wisened exhibitors by surprise.
Enabled by ticketing software suppliers such as InFlux and Vista, cinemas were able to sell popcorn for pick-up directly in their apps. “Have a movie night at home and turn your living room into #MySantikos until we can reunite,” Santikos wrote on its website. Even at $8 per tub (no extra butter) some locations saw car queues so long that the traffic cops had to be called in. Blake Andersen, president of Megaplex Theatres commented that “The result of this for our employees has been huge. We haven’t had to let a single full-time hourly employee go despite closing our doors.”
In China, operators like Wanda and Dadi pioneered sales of surplus concessions stock, be it hot dogs or popcorn, on e-commerce apps. While some cinemas in Europe and North America donated surplus stock to food banks and essentials workers, UK-based snack supplier PCO came up with a £20 ‘Movie Package’ sold through the website of its partner Scott Cinemas. Among other things, it contained 2.2kg of sweet cinema popcorn. Perhaps not the same as eating it below a large flickering screen, but a sweet taste of things to come.
There were many ways for patrons to show solidarity with their closed cinemas, but none mattered more than those that provided a cash lifeline, particularly for independent and arthouse cinemas. The simplest way was to buy cinema vouchers to be used at a future date. One cinema in Germany sold tickets to ‘ghost screenings’, where no audience would be in attendance and no film would be shown, but cinema fans could still show support by buying tickets. Best of all, the cinema did not have to split the proceeds 50-50 with any ‘ghost’ distributor.
Cinema In Flux launched an online merchandise store, with proceeds from sales being pledged to the Will Rogers Motion Pictures Pioneers Foundation’s Pioneers Assistance Fund. Yet the call to #supportyourlocal went further with many cinemas showing ingenuity in the ways fans could give them cash love. Having been crowdfunded from its inception five years ago, Singapore’s indie cinema The Projector had a message when it closed: “Now we ask that you Stan our MERCH-4-MONEY project.” This included adopt-a-seat (S$20/£12), totebags (S$26/£15) and pre-hire venue for future date (from S$799/£454). In Japan the #SaveTheCinema (Minishiata o Sukue) campaign to lobby the government for state aid, with ‘Save Our Local Cinema’ t-shirts quickly selling out. While merchandising for film franchises like Star Wars and Batman has long been a reality, it seems cinemas are a no less worthy super hero to have on your chest.
10. VoD + Cinema = True
Many cinemas will not quickly forgive Universal for releasing “Trolls World Tour” on TVoD for $20 per rental, though whether AMC will stick to its word of boycotting future titles is to be seen. But cinemas are clearly smarting from titles like “Scoob!” (Warner Bros) and “Artemis Fowl” (Disney) bypassing their screens for streaming platforms. Yet cinemas and streaming need not be enemies. “We’ve known for a long time the most frequent streamers are our best customers,” echoed Phil Clapp, CEO of the UK Cinema Association. “It mirrors research findings about overlap between film consumption at and out of home.” And some streamers came to the rescue of cinemas in their hour of need. France’s La Toile has offered a white label service for cinemas for years, yet when closures hit, its phone started ringing non-stop. La Toile offers a selection of curated films each month, with its platform embedded in an exhibitor’s existing website. Customers rent a film for up to €5.99, with the fee split between exhibitor, rights holder and La Toile.
In the US, Kino Lorber launched the innovative Kino Marquee platform, involving more than 150 exhibitors, including Alamo Drafthouse and Laemmle. There was Alamo-at-Home, while the streamer MUBI partnered Yorck Cinema Group in Berlin and other chains for a special promotional deal for its members. Cinema Beltrade in Italy launched ‘Beltrade-on-the-sofa’. None of these replaced the cinema experience, but were a lifeline of cash. Even studios got in on the act, with Warner Bros offering cinemas a cut of the streaming revenue of “Scoob!”.