Among the many things that we have temporarily lost in lockdown is cinema. I mean real, big-screen-scale, popcorn-scented, visceral, escapist CINEMA. Big chains and small independents alike shuttered their doors back in March, their offerings understandably considered inessential in the grand scheme of things. The once everyday occurrence of people sitting crowded together in a dark room to look up at a screen became unfeasible.
As we adjusted to being closed off from the world, we found ourselves drawn to alternatives in the form of streaming services. Providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime have been a godsend in these times, quite frankly.
But what did the lockdown mean for cinema new releases? Well, the studios were faced with an interesting dilemma . Burdened with films which had already been marketed for release, they found themselves with closed venues and no paying customers. So, they were forced to delay. This has led to projected worldwide box office revenue losses of, wait for it… $4.7 billion, according to UK-based data company Gower Street Analytics, quoted in Screen Daily.
Closer to home, Glasgow Film Theatre CEO Allison Gardner reports a loss of 60% of their income-based profits, from ticket and bar sales alone. However, Gardner was keen to emphasise that the GFT has managed to retain its entire permanent staff, who will continue to receive 100% of their salary throughout the closures.
The first big domino to fall was No Time to Die, the highly-anticipated latest instalment in the James Bond franchise. That film was due to hit cinemas in early April, but now sits at a late November release slot. The likes of Wonder Woman 1984, A Quiet Place Part II and Fast & Furious 9 followed suit in their release being delayed by many months. This was not just limited to the bigger blockbuster fare, though – indie films were also hit hard. Charmingly foul-mouthed Scottish teen drama Our Ladies and affable, big-hearted baking-themed comedy Love Sarah also felt the sting of forced delays.
What other choice did studios have than to delay? No cinemas could open in order to show the films. And their usual customer base was confined indoors, eyes glued to a much smaller screen. The obvious solution, for some studios, was to release films straight to on-demand, cutting out a cinema release entirely. This was the case with Trolls World Tour. That gamble paid off financially, primarily owing to its family-friendly appeal. £15.99 per rental might seem like a lot, but weigh that up with the cost of a family trip to the cinema and you can see why for some it starts to seem like a good idea.
But as convenient as watching films at home may be, I think most film fans would agree that nothing compares to the cinema. Being unable to see a new film in its intended setting has created a weird sort of longing in me. I’ve started wondering: what will cinema look like on its return? Is the complete cinema experience a viable option when safety concerns are still paramount?
As it stands, cinema chains like Vue, Odeon, and Cineworld are aiming, though by no means guaranteeing, to reopen their doors as early as 4th July, with strict social distancing and hygiene measures in place. As yet, no specific government guidelines have been issued for cinemas. However, a task force has been set up around exhibition and distribution, working towards a standard of safety for all UK cinemas, according to Gardner.
Possible measures could include Perspex screens at till points, hand sanitising stations as standard, a system of limited bookings to allow spacing between seats, and staggered showtimes to ensure minimal contact between customers as they enter and exit.
This will prove a considerable challenge for both the big chains and for smaller, independent favourites like Glasgow’s GFT and Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and the family-run Dominion. Dominion Director Alastair Cameron told the BBC that the cinema had ‘battened down the hatches’ in order for the business to survive. Given that independents generally have less space in which to operate than the multiplexes, the Dominion are making sure plans are in place to maintain customer safety when they’re allowed to reopen.
Cameron says, ‘We have thought out all the social distancing logistics and drawn up all the plans. People will be seeing parts of the building they have never seen before as they enter through one of our many emergency exits.’
But when exactly when we’ll see Scottish cinemas open again is still up in the air: ‘It’s a bit of a waiting game, but we [GFT] will definitely not be open for the 17th July,’ emphasises Gardner. ‘Even if Nicola Sturgeon was to announce that cinemas will be allowed to open next week, it’d still take time for planning. We still wouldn’t have the guidelines, making sure all the staff are happy to come back… there just wouldn’t be enough lead-in time. We want to do things properly.’
The big test case for audiences returning could be Tenet, the latest blockbuster from director Christopher Nolan, which had stubbornly positioned itself as the first post-lockdown release by refusing to budge from its 17th July release date. However, Warner Bros. recently pushed this back two weeks for, at time of publication, a worldwide release of 31st July. That means Disney’s live-action Mulan, with its July 24th date, could supersede Tenet as the film to welcome audiences back. Nevertheless, ‘Tenet has become the great symbol of the return of Hollywood movies,’ Tero Koistinen of the Finnish Chamber of Films told the BBC. All eyes, so to speak, will be on the mysterious epic.
All of this begs the question: is it really worth it? It seems like an awful lot of trouble to watch a film, and I say that as someone missing the theatrical experience terribly. Opinion, as with everything these days, is divided on the matter. One Twitter poll by film critic and producer Scott Mantz revealed that a third of people would immediately return to the cinema, whilst the remaining would either cautiously wait 1-3 months, or won’t be going back at all until a COVID-19 vaccine is produced. There’s an understandable sense of reticence around the matter.
In my eyes, watching a film at the cinema is an unparalleled experience, one that no amount of convenient home streaming choices can truly match. On a positive note, though, your favourite film venues aren’t going anywhere – think of it as a short intermission. The jury’s out on whether the next month will see venues begin to open again, or remain firmly closed – but whatever happens, safety has to be the first consideration. Cinema will be there when we’re ready, and cinema will be worth the wait.