Coronavirus: Independent cinemas unlikely to open before September

By Oliver Wright
BBC News

Audience at WatershedImage source, Watershed
Image caption,
Most venues feel they would only survive a maximum of three months with social distancing in place

Independent cinemas have - like other entertainment venues across the UK - been closed since March because of the coronavirus lockdown. But while some owners are keen to welcome audiences as soon as possible, many have concerns about reopening too soon, for both financial and atmospheric reasons.

A survey of independent cinemas in the UK found a majority did not expect to reopen before September.

The Independent Cinema Office (ICO) poll found 72% saw autumn as the earliest likely date to return to business, while others said they may wait for social distancing to end.

The government has said cinemas could reopen on 4 July but one owner told the BBC he feared venues could feel "like a hospital" while safety precautions remained necessary. Others said if only half the seats - or fewer- were full they would not make a profit.

The ICO has called for extra government funding to help venues survive.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
This mask-clad movie audience in Bosnia could be an illustration of cinema trips to come in the UK

Cinemas across the UK have been closed since 23 March, though some chose to close before being formally ordered to.

While venues have been able to furlough staff and some could access other government support schemes, many have been losing thousands of pounds each month.

The Tyneside cinema in Newcastle said it was it is spending £36,000 a month despite being closed while Yorkshire's Hebden Bridge Picture House estimated it was spending up to £8,000.

But, in spite of the ongoing costs, the majority appeared not to be battling to reopen quickly, despite feeling pressure to do so as some bigger chains unveiled their plans.

Image source, Hebden Bridge Picture House
Image caption,
Hebden Bridge Picture House had been planning to celebrate its centenary next year with a series of big events

In February the Hebden Bridge Picture House was flooded when storms Dennis and Ciara battered parts of England. Workers had not long finished repairing the damage when the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close.

However, Jason Boom, clerk at Hebden Royd Town Council, which owns the 540-capacity, single screen cinema, said: "We're not making any kneejerk reactions, we are not desperate to reopen on the first day cinemas can reopen."

Image source, Jason Boom
Image caption,
The Hebden Bridge Picture House was flooded for the third time in five years in February

In Lewes in East Sussex, Robert Senior, who heads up the charitable trust behind Depot - a three-screen cinema with a combined capacity of 310 - said he did not want to reopen until safety measures were relaxed.

"Cinema should be fun, not like a hospital," he said.

Image source, The Depot
Image caption,
Depot say they do not want to reopen if the cinema feels "like a hospital"

Venues have also raised concerns around implementing social distancing and its impact on capacity.

According to the ICO survey, 41% of respondents did not think they would be able to reopen with social distancing measures, either because of the design of their building or the reduction in income limited audiences would bring.

It also found independent venues were concerned about how audiences would feel about returning to the cinema.

Mr Senior said Depot had to be "very busy to break even" and he did not want to show films to "a handful of people sitting there looking miserable".

He said: "We have a very elderly population so we want them to feel comfortable here too."

Image source, Parkway Cinema/Rob Younger
Image caption,
The Parkway Cinema in Barnsley has two screens and can hold about 700 customers

However, there are some cinemas keen to reopen in order to capitalise on two major summer releases.

Rob Younger owns the three-screen, 217-capacity Station Cinema, in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and has a 50% stake in the Parkway, in Barnsley, which has two screens with a combined capacity of about 700.

He said he would like reopen in time for the release of Christopher Nolan's new film Tenet, which is scheduled for 17 July, and Disney's Mulan, the following week.

"If it does [go ahead] that would be the time to open," he said.

However he said he was concerned about the cost of reopening and said support from the government or British Film Institute (BFI) for the first "few weeks or couple of months" would be a big help.

Mr Younger said over the past few weeks his staff had been at home but getting paid and the overheads of the closed venues were minimal.

So, he said: "The difficulty will be getting up and running again.

"If we are looking at just 25 to 30 people in a screen [in Richmond] we can't make a profit."

Image source, Ian Wallman
Image caption,
The Ultimate Picture Palace, in Oxford, had been due to launch a £230,000 crowd funding project in April

Micaela Tuckwell, general manager of the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford, said lockdown had had a "pretty catastrophic" impact.

Plans to launch a £230,000 crowdfunding project to buy out the current owners had been put on the back-burner and the 108-seat venue has been losing about £10,000 a month in potential ticket sales.

She said without additional funding the cinema would not survive and she had been pushing to reopen as soon as possible as a result.

However, after a recent audience survey she had put that plan back until September.

"Our date was 1 July to reopen but, from this survey, I've realised that there's a much smaller audience of people who are willing to go to the cinema in the next one to two months," she said.

Ms Tuckwell said she feared it may take up to 18 months to recover from the effects of lockdown and the pandemic and said she would need to attract about £50,000 in funding to see the venue through the tough times ahead.

Image source, Ian Wallman
Image caption,
Cinemas say capacities would need to drop by about 75% to meet social distancing guidelines

Some cinemas have also cited the impact of difficulties in selling traditional audience treats, such as popcorn and drinks.

In Hebden Bridge the sale of sweets and drinks previously made a "fantastic contribution" to the business, Mr Boom said.

"Popcorn is out, we can't serve drinks, not even a cup of tea or coffee, and from a profit point of view that's one of the most profitable things we sell," he said.

He also raised concerns about access to toilets and said the cinema had been considering asking people to go before they arrived.

When do cinemas expect to reopen?. Survey of 497 cinema and film festival bosses . Chart showing survey results of when cinemas expect to reopen .

Clare Reddington, CEO of the Watershed in Bristol, said the loss in income as a result of lockdown and the need to dip into reserves would hit the venue's ability "to take risks and support local filmmakers".

She said: "With the building shut we've lost about 48% of our income.

"We're predicting extremely conservative numbers from now until the end of the financial year.

"That will put us in a really difficult financial position and will eat up the reserves that we've spent 20 years building up.

"The short term picture is difficult but not catastrophic, but towards the end of the financial year we would start to reach the end of our reserves and start to be facing problems."

Without a sector-wide response, cultural venues like independent cinemas would "be damaged in a way that will be really hard to come back from", she said.

Image source, Watershed
Image caption,
Watershed say the loss of revenue will stop it funding local filmmakers work

Catharine Des Forges, director of the Independent Cinema Office, said: "This report demonstrates the uncertainty felt by our independent cinemas and festivals, and the need for the sector to be given priority funding in order for them to survive this health crisis."

Since the lockdown began the BFI has launched a £1.3m resilience fund.

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture Media and Sport said: "Independent cinemas are an important part of the UK's fantastic film industry and we are supporting them with an unprecedented financial package including the job retention scheme, a business rates holiday, and the Bounce Back Loans initiative.

"We are working closely with the UK Cinema Association to help cinemas reopen when it is safe to do so and give audiences the confidence to get back in front of the big screen again."

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