Can Britain’s cinemas bounce back after lockdown?

You have to go back to the outbreak of the second world war to find the last time the cinema industry was forced to close by order of the state. Chamberlain’s government, fearful of air raids, ordered that all places of public entertainment be shut forthwith, only to renege on this a week later in the face of criticism. George Bernard Shaw wrote in a letter to the Times that the closure policy was a “masterpiece of unimaginative stupidity”. The cinema, it was argued, played a vital role in maintaining the morale of the nation. So, does the cinema industry still play that role, and what of its health?

Having started 2020 in an extremely healthy state, following an admissions total for 2019 that was the highest since 1970; things looked great for the industry. 1917 was packing audiences in, while the slate of films due for release in 2020 included several titles tipped to take a billion dollars at the global box office – No Time to Die, Mulan, Black Widow, Fast and Furious 9, Wonder Woman 1984 and Tenet. Then, in March 2020 cinemas were ordered to close. A cautious reopening in July was followed by a closure again in November. Box office takings dropped 76% in 2020 with admissions at their lowest since 1928 – the beginning of the age of talkies.

With the major studios pulling many blockbusters from their release schedules this meant that when cinemas did reopen in July 2020, there were few if any major studio titles to see. Of those prospective billion-dollar earners, only Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, got a substantial cinema release in the UK and elsewhere, taking $350m globally. Hollywood trade magazine Variety wondered if that wasn’t bad for a film released in a pandemic and with no cinemas open in New York or LA. No Time to Die has been rescheduled three times, rumoured to be costing MGM $1m a month in interest payments.

It’s estimated that the global cinema box office lost $32bn in 2020, and AMC (owner of Odeon in the UK) alone lost $4.6bn. Bad enough, but they were already $5bn in debt before the crisis. None of which looks good for the industry. But as I suggest to my students, the pain has not been shared equally. The pandemic has had a profound impact on the very structure of the film industry and in particular the cinema industry. Although it has occasionally come under stress, the traditional pattern of cinemas having an exclusive three-month window to show films has remained an important part of the economic life of a film. It is important to the major studios for whom it is an opportunity to generate huge revenues and establish the economic and cultural value of a film.

However, the pandemic meant that this outlet was not available to the studios, at least in any straightforward way. Their response was twofold: first, as we have seen they postponed releases, often more than once. Second, they looked to streaming as an outlet. Serendipitously, Disney chose the beginning of the lockdown in the US and elsewhere to launch Disney+, with a premiere of Mulan in September. Warner Bros launched rival HBO Max in the US with an announcement that Wonder Woman 1984 would be released on Christmas Day at cinemas and on its streaming service simultaneously. It then announced that it would put its entire roster of films for 2021 on HBO Max for the films’ first month of release, concurrent with a global cinema release. Both Disney and Warner Bros. were clearly using their tentpole films to boost signups to their streaming services and there is some evidence that this was successful. Disney announced that it would make “streaming its primary mechanism for monetisation”. In effect, as I have also taken to telling my students endlessly, the change we anticipated would take place over five years has taken place in five months.

A lot rides on cinemas reopening this week. It seems clear that there is a hunger for social activity. But is it possible to see going to the cinema as riskless for the foreseeable future and will this affect attendance? The Independent Cinema Office recently asked people working in cinemas about their concerns for the future; around a third replied it was their ability to attract audiences. Cinemagoers will return to a new socially distanced normality, in which mask-wearing will be compulsory, at least at first. And bear in mind people are now well-accustomed to streaming films from home – and paying for it. In April 2020, a month into the first lockdown, Universal released Trolls World Tour straight to Amazon Prime and took $100m in three weeks. Universal chief executive Jeff Shell announced that “The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations.”

Many release dates for the major blockbusters are a little way off yet. Oscar winners The Father, Sound of Metal and Nomadland are now being shown, as well as Peter Rabbit 2, with Cruella lined up for half term, which is likely to be the real acid test. Cinemas traditionally receive a large percentage of their takings in school holidays – 36% is said informally to be a reasonable estimate. While admissions have been increasing, people are mainly going to see studio-produced blockbuster films. Perhaps in future only these films will get exclusive releases in theatres with others streamed with less fanfare as “day-and-date” releases. In an age when watch-at-home film culture is the norm, one could ask what is a blockbuster without the cinema?

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