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The Future of Cinema: The Post-Covid Theatrical Experience

Coronavirus restrictions have seen cinemas around the world close their doors during lockdowns and many have had to close for good.

As cinemas in France, Italy and the UK (three of Europe’s largest film markets) re-open their doors, we take a look at what the future might hold for audiences and the industry as a whole.

Post Pandemic Cinema In China, where the coronavirus is largely under control, cinemas are running at 50% capacity and February 2021 marked China’s biggest month for cinema ticket sales ever; totalling over $1.7 billion). With the US having had a much tougher road on the fightback against Covid-19, Hollywood fare has been largely absent from theatrical release, resulting in pretty much unchecked dominance of Chinese films at the worldwide box office. This dominance is fuelled almost entirely by domestic grosses, adding weight to the assertion that Hollywood films are far from the dominant cinematic force in China that they are in the rest of the world.

In the west, we are seeing indications as cinemas start to return, that the massive uptick in streaming services seen across 2020 has not diminished the desire of audiences to return to the theatrical experience.

At the end of April, Nomadland opened to $515,681 in 137 cinemas in Italy despite being available on Disney Plus in Italy and cinemas are operating with limited capacity (for social distancing) and a 10pm curfew which is reducing showtimes.

In the UK, capacity is also a factor and will be until at least 21st June. Cinemas in England are expected to have a 50% cap which means they will need to work creatively to meet the expected demand. In a UK-wide survey conducted by Variety, 59% of respondents cited cinema as their most missed out-of-home entertainment activity. As such, many cinema owners are pulling out the stops to make the prospect of returning to the big screen as appealing as possible.

Simon Greenwood, head of operations at Vue Entertainment UK and Ireland said, “It’s been a long year marked by restrictions on our daily lives and we know that the importance of escapism has never been stronger, but we’ve been more focused than ever on providing the ultimate big screen experience at Vue.” The company has added almost 5,000 luxury recliner seats and other modifications made over the past year include launching self-order food and beverage screens and adding new bars to foyers.

With new trends from production companies releasing movies straight to streaming channels - which have monthly subscriptions available that are often lower than the price of a cinema ticket, will Vue’s modifications be enough to retain the UK public’s excitement to return to the big screen in the long term? Once more vaccinations have been rolled out, more facilities reopen and there are more social events thrown into the mix, will cinema still be in demand, or will it be replaced with family and friends cuddled living room couches winding down from a day of fun with the streaming of one of the latest movie releases? One potential indicator could be the ongoing shake up of the distribution model by Warner Bros. In late 2020, Warner Bros announced that their entire film slate for 2021 would be released simultaneously at cinemas and on their streaming service HBO Max. This caused something of a furore between the company’s creative and commercial partners.

While the matter was largely smoothed over in the months that followed, it began to become apparent that despite the home viewing option, as markets in the US slowly began to re-open, the big-ticket films saw significant uptake from audiences. This includes Godzilla Vs. Kong opening with a $31,625,971 domestic debut on 31st March (at the time of writing, its total domestic gross stands at $98,400,006 and looks to be the first US release to pass the $100 million mark domestically since the pandemic).

Additionally, Mortal Kombat (also from Warner Bros) opened at $23,302,503 domestically and while it has not kept pace with Godzilla Vs Kong (its current domestic total stands at $41,239,383 at time of writing), its opening suggests that an appetite remains for the theatrical experience even amid the restrictions that remain in place across large parts of the US and UK.

Presently the current subscriber count for HBO Max stands at just over 44 million. While we are able to track subscriber numbers, tracking actual view counts for content on streaming services is slightly more tricky as most major services often decline to share that information. However, when comparing the box office takings of Warner Bros films like Godzilla Vs. Kong or Mortal Kombat with films not being simultaneously released on a streaming service such as A Quiet Place Part II (which opened to $65,195,299 domestically), one can see a clear willingness for audiences to return to cinemas.

While there are multiple factors particularly while some restrictions remain in place, with A Quiet Place Part II taking more than twice as much as Godzilla vs Kong from circa 3,700 cinemas (as opposed to Godzilla vs Kong’s circa 3000) one can theorise that uptake of streaming from home has been significant, but not to the extent that theatrical exhibition is no longer a viable or even preferred option.

What does the future hold? Despite all of the above, the exclusive theatrical window does appear to be being preserved, although it has now been significantly truncated in order to allow for streaming services to capitalise on the buzz of new releases. Cineworld for example struck a deal with Warner Bros earlier this year, set to come into effect in 2022, for its Regal chain based in the US to carry their films exclusively for 45 days (down from the traditional 90) before going to its streaming services. In the UK, that number will be 31 days (down from 109). Paramount Pictures have also announced that its films will be available via an exclusive theatrical window for 45 days before becoming available on their streaming service Paramount +. This will apply to the aforementioned A Quiet Place Part II and upcoming tentpoles Mission: Impossible 7 and Top Gun: Maverick.

This heralds a departure from traditional industry norms to a climate that will see deals struck on more of a case-by-case basis. While cinema remains relevant, it is clear that the entertainment and tech industries are grappling to establish a new equilibrium in a world that was changing at dizzying speed even before Covid-19 added fuel to an already raging fire.

We are already seeing cinema chains working with SVOD outlets in order to maintain something approaching a status quo. On a global landscape, China’s domestic films have assumed an ardently dominant position at the global box office despite having the fourth largest streaming service in the world with Tencent Video boasting over 120 million subscribers as of Q4 2020.

Interestingly, it is potentially at the local level rather than the global level that cinemas may find a new sense of purpose. As lockdown restrictions are eased a number of independent cinemas are taking the opportunity to work more closely with local and regional communities to determine their offering and make the experience more personal. One example is the Lexi Cinema in north London, which has worked with local refugee charity Salusbury World to provide subsidised screenings for female refugees settled in the area. They are planning to follow this up with more outreach work including working with GPs to have cinema prescribed to people suffering with depression or loneliness. Speaking to Empire magazine, founder Sally Wilton said “Cinema is about human contact and goodness – we need it now more than ever.”

Partnerships with film festivals could be incredibly valuable too. In fact, London’s Sundance Film Festival is set to return in the summer and there are plans to screen some titles at cinemas around the UK - a great opportunity for increasing the distribution of independent filmmakers and meeting the expectations and demands of the aforementioned niche audiences.

So how does this relate to the short or independent filmmaker?

We are deep into an era of revolution in the international film space. But rather than regard such drastic change as the end of cinema as we have known it, perhaps this series of seismic shifts signals the beginning of an age where filmmakers can connect directly with cinemas seeking to offer local communities and true lovers of the theatrical experience an offering we may not have had without the pandemic.

With changes to the distribution model set to be in a state of flux for the foreseeable future, it may be wise for filmmakers seeking an audience to take their lead from local cinemas and embrace this uncertainty as an opportunity to innovate.

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