A UK cinema manager’s perspective on the reopening of multiplexes

Popcorn at the cinema
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With cinemas set to open in the UK this July, how do multiplex managers feel about it? Here, under a pseudonym, one of them shares their concerns.

In the UK the debate around the easing of lockdown amidst the coronavirus pandemic rages on, with certain year groups going back to school and shops, pubs, zoos and outdoor venues reopening. There’s no shortage of debate as to whether all this is a good idea.

And then there are cinemas. All chains are expected to open up in July, with Cineworld the first to announce its intention to open its doors on July 10th. Its announcement came with a sweeping list of special measures that were being installed in its cinemas to reduce the risk to members of the public. Auditoriums will have new seating plans to social distance cinemagoers. Hand sanitiser will be available everywhere, and the overall capacity will be reduced by 50%.

Cineworld is also going to stagger movie start times to prevent large groups of people gathering in the foyer, and interaction between members of staff and customers will be reduced via the installation of plastic screens. Customers will also be asked to make contactless payments and there will be a focus towards e-tickets, that will be bookable in advance.

Naturally this all depends on the government’s latest guidelines. But as things currently stand it looks very likely that Cineworld, and every other major chain in the UK, who all closed on the same day, will open on, or around, the same day in early July. Odeon too has begun releasing its new policies too in advance of that (including the pre-packaging of its always-economically-priced snacks).

This has all left me, as a cinema manager who has currently been furloughed for almost three months, struggling to figure out how I feel about it all. On the one hand I’m eager to go back to work. I miss the smell of freshly popped popcorn, I miss the noise of the digital projectors, and I generally miss just being busy and responsible for something.

However, I’m torn because I will be responsible for what happens in the building when we re-open. I’ll be responsible more than ever for the wellbeing and safety of not just the customers, but also the staff members. I’m in somewhat of a moral quandary at possibly having to tell staff members to do their job in an environment that isn’t safe.

I appreciate that my cinema will almost certainly install all of the same precautions and procedures that Cineworld is doing, to make it as safe as possible. I’ll obviously be doing my best to make sure they’re followed and enforced, but there are some elements of running a cinema that can’t be socially distanced.  Ushers (yep, we have them) still need to walk down narrow corridors to get into screens to clean them. Those staff will be having to clean up after people, and that’s going to bring some degree of contact.. The sale of concessionary items like food and drink, while necessary to keep cinemas going financially, presents its own risk implications.

My almost six years’ experience of working in a customer service environment also has me worried about how some customers will behave, how powerless I might be if they refuse to social distance, or if they are actively putting people in danger. I’ve had reoccurring thoughts about having to ID someone but not being able to because they’re wearing a mask and refuse to take it off, or having to tell someone to leave because they’re not wearing one in the first place.

Perhaps this is why most chains haven’t indicated anywhere that they will be enforcing the wearing of masks in their cinemas. It’s certainly a difficult ask when you’re allowing people to buy food and drink but also expecting them to have their mouth and nose covered at all times. But is this an acceptable trade-off?

Then there’s the question of whether the inherent risk of opening a business to members of the public so they can sit together within the confines of a dark room for up to three hours will even be worth it. How many people will realistically come rushing back to cinemas even if they’ve been allowed to open? How eroded has public confidence been by this pandemic?

It doesn’t help of course that nearly all the major releases have been delayed, even Warner Bros’ Tenet, which was holding fast to its initial release date was forced to move back a couple of weeks to July 31st. But other blockbuster films like Black Widow, Mulan, A Quiet Place 2, The New Mutants, No Time To Die and Fast And Furious 9 have all been delayed, some to next year.

Others, such as The Lovebirds, Scoob and Trolls World Tour went straight to streaming or on demand services in the absence of picture houses being opened, and the latter achieved a great deal of financial success doing so. That in itself some feel poses a threat longer term to cinemas. Still, I expect that the film booking department will be hard at work securing a list of past classics and smaller new releases to welcome film lovers back into the cinema until it’s time for Tenet to truly test the general feeling amongst us all. But will that be enough?

Then there’s the accelerated popping up of drive-in cinemas all over the UK. Typically drive-in cinemas are touring events mostly during the summer showing a curation of past movies people might want to watch again. However they certainly provide a more attractive option to people concerned about interacting with others right now, so could we see them become a permanent fixture in the UK?

With much more flexibility now in terms of home streaming and drive-in cinemas I wonder where my old cinema fits it. I hope it finds a place somewhere in between all of that and people do come and watch films there, but it’s hard not to look at the lay of the land and feel that the fundamental way the film industry works is being altered by Covid-19.

It’s funny because I remember being at work before everything started getting serious and being shocked at the decision the studio made to move the James Bond film, No Time To Die. It was the first major release to shift, and was massively ahead of the curve. I remember talking to customers to arrange refunds for it and neither me, nor them, really understanding the gravity of what was happening.

I remember being so sure then that everything was going to be okay, but then more films started getting dropped from their releases, then we closed and then we were furloughed and, now, I’m not so sure about anything. I’ve just seen the news that Cameron Mackintosh’s theatres won’t be reopening until next year and all of his staff have been made redundant. Is opening cinemas in early July and potentially avoiding that fate better?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Images: BigStock


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