Coronavirus: Cinemas around world ponder reopening strategy

By Vincent Dowd
Arts correspondent, BBC News

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image copyrightWarner Bros
image captionJohn David Washington stars in Tenet alongside Elizabeth Debicki (seated)

Tens of thousands of cinemas around the world were forced to close by Covid-19. Some are reopening in certain countries and the industry is banking on big summer releases to attract filmgoers back. But will customers feel safe stepping through the doors?

The original trailer for Christopher Nolan's $200m fantasy spy epic Tenet ended with a release date of 17 July. The most recent trailer dumps the date totally.

It's now uncertain when Tenet will come out - like much else in the film world.

It's a Warner Bros release, but even competitors - as well as the big cinema chains - are hoping Tenet will mark the moment when audiences start buying cinema tickets again.

In March virtually all cinemas worldwide closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sweden, Taiwan and South Korea were partial exceptions.

In recent weeks other countries have announced that cinemas can start to reopen. Yet Louise Tutt of Screen International magazine says the situation on the ground is complex.

"What most of the cinemas are showing is a strange mixture," she says. "Partly it's films they were showing pre-lockdown and a few library titles.

"For instance, in South Korea they've re-released The Greatest Showman and cinemas in parts of Germany are beginning to show new local comedies.

"But social distancing and a lack of new films means very little money is being taken. A European country or a US state may lift lockdown, but in most places admissions are a fraction of what they should be."

Cinemas in Denmark and Croatia were among those that reopened last month. Italian cinemas are about to open with an audience limit of 200, or 1,000 for outdoor screenings.

Plans in the UK are still under discussion, but cinemas in England could potentially reopen from 4 July.

image copyrightDisney
image captionLiu Yifei plays the title role in Disney's Mulan

Finnish cinemas were allowed to open at the start of this month. But Tero Koistinen of the Finnish Chamber of Films says only about 10% of the country's 350 screens are in operation.

"The cinemas which did reopen mainly were single-screen independents and a few arthouse venues screening titles like Parasite and Emma," he says.

"But the volume market simply isn't there yet, whatever is permitted in theory."

Koistinen says it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of Tenet. "It's not only that Finns want to see the new Christopher Nolan movie, although I think they do. But Tenet has become the great symbol of the return of Hollywood movies.

"Finns really enjoy local titles on screen. But commercial cinema basically means Hollywood, and until Tenet and a couple of other big films are released our attendances will be quite low.

"We will have to see how social distancing develops. It may be that multiplexes will play Tenet across several screens but always to a limited audience."

Louise Tutt says Warner Bros are having discussions daily on when to release Tenet around the world.

image copyrightUniversal
image captionBond film No Time To Die has been put back to November

"The cold commercial fact is they need around 80% of screens open. And they can't release it in the US unless the main film-going hubs like New York and Los Angeles are open for business - the places worst hit by Covid-19.

"I don't think they can release it in Asia and Europe until America is watching too. The story has been kept pretty shrouded and they don't want secrets given away before everyone can see it. So a 17 July release is starting to look like a big ask and there's a back-up date which would probably be 14 August.

"It's highly problematic for Warners, but one good thing is that Christopher Nolan is an evangelist for the cinematic experience and he will be good at talking that up. But marketing is all over the place this year, if only because no one is seeing trailers on the big screen."

Tutt says other big summer releases will also play their part in persuading audiences to return. They include another Warner release, Wonder Woman 1984 and Disney's Mulan, a live-action version of its 1998 animation.

Both films are more female-focused than Tenet. But Tutt thinks the big unknown is whether audience behaviour will have changed.

"No one can say how willing or not people will be to go into a cinema and sit there for two hours." she explains. "But we saw when the beaches and parks opened up that people dashed there, because they were desperate to get out of the house and feel some kind of normality returning.

"One thing in cinema's favour is that films like Mulan and Tenet have a built-in appeal to young audiences. Anecdotally they appear the people least anxious about going out into the world."

image copyrightWarner Bros
image captionThe first trailer for Bill and Ted Face the Music was released this week

Like Tero Koistinen, Tutt thinks multiplexes may work in a very different way for the remainder of 2020.

"Perhaps something like Tenet or Mulan will stay on screen for a long time because individual audiences will be limited in size. So a film will still be seen by everyone who wants to see it, but it will take longer to happen.

"I do think people are desperate to go out and have a communal experience."

Before we get there, though, audiences will need to feel comfortable going to a cinema again.

"In the US and the UK there are huge promotional campaigns being finalised to persuade us back," says Tutt. "That's one half of the battle.

"The other is having great films out there that audiences really want to see.."

Tenet is currently scheduled for UK release on 17 July, while Mulan is scheduled for a 24 July release.

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