The publication earlier this week of data gatherer Comscore’s first UK box office report in 16 weeks certainly caught the attention of cinema operators – especially those indie venues that are still determining their reopening dates. With just over 40 cinemas reopened in England – a mix of Odeon, Showcase, Everyman and stand-alone indies – alongside a few drive-in operators, and with no new titles on offer from distributors, the numbers were never going to inspire much confidence. In the event, the July 3-5 weekend in the UK and Ireland – during which non-drive-in UK cinemas were still closed on the Friday, with about 5 per cent reopening on the Saturday – delivered a total box office of £257,000: just under 1.7 per cent of an average weekend’s takings in 2019.

At the five-screen Genesis Cinema in east London, proprietor Tyrone Walker-Hebborn had no interest in waiting to see how other venues fared before reopening doors, which he did at the first opportunity, on 4 July. “It’s our duty to start getting things moving again,” he says, adding that the repeated postponement of titles by studios has been a source of dismay. (The first major release, Tenet, won’t land until 12 August.) “Right now it’s time to all come together, all support each other, get the films out. Let’s all start getting confidence back in the industry, because while they’re pushing it back, all that sends out to the customer is maybe they’re not so confident about reopening the cinemas, and that’s not good.”

Genesis, which Walker-Hebborn says can operate within social distancing guidelines at around 50-60 per cent capacity, has been playing an archive programme stranded into banners such as In Case You Missed It, Feel Good Gem and Black Lives Matter. Top titles for Genesis at the weekend were Knives Out, Parasite, Queen & Slim and BlacKkKlansman, and the venue achieved 600 paid admissions in total across Saturday and Sunday – enough to just about cover operating costs and “keep us honest”, in the words of its owner. Revenue splits between distributor and cinema on these mature titles heavily favour the latter, and most distributors are using generous business terms to encourage venues to open – after all, the product on offer isn’t proving much incentive.

Walker-Hebborn looks with envy to France, where the National Federation of French Cinemas (FNCF) took a highly active role in ensuring that virtually all venues reopened at the same time. A major government-backed ad campaign announced “Les cinémas sont ouvert!”, and re-opening day, Monday 22 June, found 70 per cent of theatres (accounting for 87 per cent of screens) back in business – rising by the same Friday to a full 95 per cent of theatres and 98 per cent of screens, according to Comscore France. Contradicting predictions that older audience members would be hesitant about returning, the first week’s top titles suggested an older audience skew, including historical dramas De Gaulle and Mr Jones (titled L’ombre de Staline in France). Admissions reached 900,000 in the first week of business, 22 per cent of the country’s average last year.

The regional picture

In Lewes, the three-screen Depot has operated since 2017 – returning a cinema to the East Sussex town for the first time since the 1970s. The venue reopened its doors on Saturday… but only to its bar and kitchen. Depot director Carmen Slijpen has yet to decide when the cinema screens will reopen, and is gauging customer response. “We definitely want to give it thes whole month of July for people to get used to the venue and see how everybody behaves,” she says.

Like the Genesis, the Depot has the advantage of owning its own building; it also has the buffer of tapered early-years support from its charitable trust baked into its business plan. For Slijpen, the reopening isn’t a case of chasing profits, and with social distancing she will only be selling 60-70 seats in each of her bigger screens, with the smaller screen only suitable for private hires. “Of course, this is a loss-making year for us,” she explains.

Slijpen is encouraged by data from predictive analytics company Gower Street, which has forecast UK cinema box office to total £665 million in 2020 – roughly half of 2019’s. (“I was expecting worse,” she says.) Helping this prediction along are the very robust numbers for UK cinema-going achieved in January and February this year, 19 per cent up on 2019. March, April, May and June have been calamitous. Gower Street is predicting the third quarter of 2020 to be 75 per cent down on the previous year, and then the fourth quarter “needs to do the heavy lifting” to hit its forecast of a shortfall of just 19 per cent on Q4 2019. A fresh surge of Covid and a return of lockdown would depress all these numbers.

Those that wait

This week, the BFI announced that its Southbank cinema is targeting 1 September as its reopening date. Major culture institute HOME Manchester had already announced 4 September as its own date, and the UK’s leading arthouse cinemas seem to be thinking along similar lines. (Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre, however, announced that it won’t reopen until 2021, explaining: “As a charity with very limited reserves, we cannot risk the uncertainty of opening too soon.”)

HOME’s creative director of film and culture Jason Wood reveals that, thanks to the impact of Covid, HOME is looking at a £1.1 million loss in 2020. “It’s impossible to underestimate what a huge blow to any arts organisation the lockdown is,” he says. “And there’s no sugar-coating the fact that the mitigating circumstances we’re going to operate in when we reopen are going to bring tremendous challenges.”

As previously reported in Sight & Sound, digital and streaming platforms such as Curzon Home Cinema, MUBI and BFI Player have enjoyed boom times during the pandemic – a fact that might augur a permanent shift in audience habits.

Wood is less focused on the platforms as an existential threat, and more on the opportunities of future collaboration. He points especially to the growing trend for arthouse distributors such as Modern Films and Peccadillo to offer titles via their own Vimeo channels, splitting revenue with cinemas, which can drive transactions via their own websites. It is venues such as HOME, Watershed Bristol and Glasgow Film Theatre, after all, that enjoy strong brand recognition for, and a direct relationship with, local audiences. “It has been good to see the kind of cross-collaboration, the desire to help venues out to bring content to audiences,” says Wood. Today (10 July), the Barbican launches its own pay-per-view service, Cinema on Demand.

The boon of digital will also be for smaller arthouse cinemas with fewer screens, which can offer virtual screenings of titles they would have struggled to fit into the programme, points out Wood. And digital will be crucial in another vital aspect of arthouse cinema: “With social distancing, we’re not going to be able to have the guest visits from directors that we pride ourselves on. So those things will still happen, but they’ll happen in a virtual environment.”

Wood, for one, is ready for the challenge that the future brings.

“We are going back into a completely different landscape, and things are not going to be as they were before,” he says. “We have to embrace new learnings. We have to embrace new ways of engaging with audiences, and that, undoubtedly, is going to involve online, streaming and transactional video on demand.

“I think the companies that insist on a 16-week theatrical window, the companies that are very averse to day-and-date releasing, they probably face a greater challenge than the independents do.”