What’s the new normal going to be for UK cinemas?

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Cinemas are planning to reopen in July – but how will that be possible? Plus: the challenge going forward in keeping cinemas financially viable.

It’s no secret that the world is in turmoil at the moment. And considering everything going on, the return of cinemas has, perhaps quite rightly, been lower in people’s priorities.

But quietly bubbling away under the surface are the plans that will hopefully enable cinemas to reopen safely and securely. The biggest question hanging over the entire enterprise is this: how can you realistically adhere to social distancing guidelines in the confines of a cinema? It’s a question without easy answers, and one which everybody from the heads of film studios to cinema supervisors have been trying to crack ever since the pandemic began.

The most obvious drawback for cinemas when it comes to social distancing in screens is the immediate drop in revenue, both from people not risking a trip to the cinema in the first place, and the smaller percentage of seats that can be sold. Schemes such as Cineworld Unlimited and Odeon’s Limitless paused payments during the pandemic, but there are due to be reinstated as soon as cinemas reopen. They’re also one of the biggest and best safety nets, for the large multiplex chains at least. Online booking will likely become the norm. Hands free ticketing was already being gradually phased in during the last few years, with a simple barcode scanning system replacing paper tickets. As box offices were similarly being phased out in favour of every transaction being completed at the retail counter, the impact this will have on the amount of cinema employees could be significant.

And it’s the retail counter that may yet prove pivotal to the financial future of cinemas.

The majority of a cinema’s income comes from snacks and drinks rather than tickets. But the knock-on effect of fewer ticket sales of course means fewer customers buying treats. Assuming that the answer won’t be increasing prices – indeed, even before the pandemic a family trip to the cinema was beginning to cost the same as a city break – I suspect the solution is something that cannot be easily worked out in advance. Cinema income, with popcorn sales set to be heavily depleted, may involve a combination of factors, more enticing deals, or perhaps a loyalty scheme.

Theoretically, social distancing is relatively easy to instigate in a cinema. Void half the number of seats, leave every other row empty, and spaces between people within those rows. Furthermore, the average occupancy of a cinema screening is around 20-30% anyway. Easy.

Except in practicality, cracks begin to show.

As anybody who has ever been inside a cinema knows, squeezing past people to get to your own seat can be a trying process, involving much exertion and toes trodden on. Now that this cannot happen, there are two options. One involves only letting two people sit in each row so that they can enter from opposite sides, cutting down the numbers even more. The other is to have a system whereby people file into the screen in row order, so that everybody can stay safely distanced. And that is perfectly workable right up until the moment that anybody needs to leave the screen to use the toilet, or for an emergency. What’s more, this is without taking into account multiple people from the same household who can sit together. And with that comes the impossible task of proving that a group of people together are from the same household in the first place.

Hollywood Cinemas in Canada have already started reopening, while other chains such as Landmark are preparing to open soon, by putting in place plans to sell a maximum of 50 seats per screening and retraining staff with new regulations, including the use of PPE and plexiglass screens. Based on statements from Vue it looks like cinemas in the UK will undergo a similar procedure. A recent survey by the Independent Cinema Office revealed that smaller cinemas will struggle both practically and financially with social distancing in place, with some only expected to last three months.

But as an ex-cinema worker, my biggest concern isn’t so much the social distancing, it’s the hygiene. Go into any cinema for the final showing, and with the best ushers in the world there will always be debris from the day. Sanitising cinema auditoriums simply isn’t possible. Spaces between screenings can sometimes be as little as ten minutes and often overworked ushers barely have time to pick up popcorn packets and discarded drinks, let alone clean things like armrests.

One solution to this might be to put on fewer screenings per day to allow for a more thorough deep clean, but with the aforementioned drop in customers and revenue, this might squeeze the cinema’s already tight resources to breaking point. And this is before you think about things like customer toilets, where it is essentially impossible to socially distance. While regular cleaning will help, it’s a problem that will need a great deal of thought and very careful execution if customers are to feel safe.

Food hygiene is the final major issue, and the one with the most severe financial ramifications for cinemas. The nature of cinema fast food means that it is sat out for a long time before being sold, and this is a model that may have to change. Likewise, staff will presumably be trained in a new way of working, making sure hands are sanitized after every customer. Even things like tills could change. Many cinemas have a system whereby tills can be used by any staff member at any time, so they can jump on and serve, and this means that the sanitizing of till screens is something else staff will have to get used to doing.

Cinemas will return, but it will not be what we remember as normal for a long time. And I believe that, by and large, after getting used to the changes, a cinema trip will be as fun as it ever was. There could even be some potential positives, such as quieter screenings meaning less disruptive audiences. And fewer screenings per day may lead to films spending longer at the cinema. There are no easy answers, but cinema will bounce back, and I for one cannot wait to sit in a darkened auditorium again watching the latest blockbuster. It’s just going to be incredibly tough for the cinemas themselves in whatever the new normal turns out to be.

While cinemas figure out how to reopen, ‘Drive In’ cinema screenings are happening at select locations around the country, a list of which can be found here.

Image: BigStock


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