This week’s new Covid restrictions mentioned little about cinemas. As long as screenings begin before 10pm, and food and drink isn’t served after that time, no problem. Nothing drastically new, then, on top of the measures (social distancing, face-masks) already in place?
Within hours, there were casualties. A five-day October event for the horror film festival FrightFest, at Leicester Square’s Cineworld, was promptly killed. “Everything that makes FrightFest FrightFest is being stripped away by Covid restrictions”, tweeted Ian Rattray, one of the festival’s founders, on Wednesday afternoon. A couple of hours later, London’s Peckhamplex cinema announced “with great sadness” that it would be closing – again – until November. The rising R number has hit hard.
The industry has been on a knife-edge since Covid regulations transformed Britain in March. An early irony is that cinema, perpetually discussed as if it’s in a constant state of jeopardy, was in rude health. “It’s been a very strange period”, says Oliver Meek, executive director of Dalston’s Rio Cinema. “At the end of February we had our most successful month of all time. Parasite did incredibly well. And then things crashed down.”
Jason Wood, creative director of Manchester’s HOME arts complex, concurs that “lockdown came at a very inopportune time. We’d just had our best-ever period – we had record admissions for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Uncut Gems – we were absolutely packed. And then the lockdown took the wind out of our sails.”
As the industry came to terms with it all, with the furloughing, with the funding, with the online appeals for donations, staff began to realise that when things did get going again, it would not be business as usual.
When cinemas were allowed to re-open, a new landscape was quickly created. Seats were either taped off or removed completely to enable social distancing, and peculiar new routines were introduced. It has come at a cost. “Because of the extra safety measures, we need more staff than we did before, not less,” says Meek.
“Checking people’s temperature on the door, checking they’re wearing masks, track and trace, limiting the amount of people that come through…” Audiences, though, took to it easily, and enthusiasm among cinemagoers has been a balm – and, to many businesses fearing the worst, a lifesaver.
“It’s been a very difficult financial time”, says Ian Wild, chief executive of Sheffield’s Showroom cinema. “But we opened last week, on Friday 18, and every day this week has been busier.” Róisín McNeill, venue manager at the ArtHouse Crouch End, which reopened on August 28, says her team assumed people would be nervous about returning to cinemas and that business would be modest. “But we’ve been seeing the opposite. People couldn’t wait for us to be back open. In terms of business I can’t really tell the difference between this year and last year. I’m surprised at how busy it’s been.”
Jason Wood echoes her. “We’ve stuck to the two-metre rule, which has severely reduced our capacity, from 550 seats to 110. But when we did reopen we were at 80 per cent capacity all week – it was really successful. Most films are selling out. La Haine has sold out every show for two weeks. Same with The Painted Bird, and Rocks. There’s been a really strong response.”
Festivals, meanwhile, have had to completely change things up. “It’s been a very strange year so far, and getting stranger as it goes along”, says Paul McEvoy, director of FrightFest. “It’s the new normal. Or the new abnormal.” FrightFest’s major annual event is held over August’s long bank-holiday weekend, in various London venues. This year, that was changed to a digital festival, involving online screenings and Q&As.
“We had had no experience of doing that,” says McEvoy. “But we managed to put together a really good online event which was well attended, and we kept up the community spirit by being interactive on social media with fans.”
Ben Luxford, head of UK audiences at the British Film Institute, speaks of similar changes for the London Film Festival, which takes place next month – but not quite as we know it. Again though, he mentions an upside. “Obviously there are some immediate differences”, he says of this year’s festival. There will, naturally, be no parties or red carpets, but in their place, digital opportunities. As well as 13 films showing in cinemas across the UK, there will be 58 screenings for UK audiences, with online Q&As.
“Everyone’s going to get access to these films that they wouldn’t usually have,” Luxford says. “And the hybrid element of the festival – the films being online and the opportunity to engage with talent – sets the tone for a more democratic route for festivals in the future. So it’s positive, weirdly. It forces your hand to create a new flexibility and way of working.”
Yet, just when things were looking up for the industry, this week’s new guidelines have caused concern. “I was really pleased until a couple of days back,” says Mark Cosgrove, curator at Bristol’s Watershed cinema. “Audiences are back, and clearly want to see the films. But the past 48 hours throws a bit of a shadow over what has been a month of really good admissions.”
The effect of the new rules is more insidious, he suggests. “The uncertainty is the big issue. The uncertainty that it creates in audiences’ minds. People will think twice about things, quite rightly, from a health point of view. It makes it all very precarious.”
Likewise, FrightFest have completely reconfigured next month’s event. “With the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars, it was just too worrying for us to put tickets on sale,” says McEvoy. “They were supposed to go on sale this week. Who knows where the next few weeks are going to go in terms of increased restrictions? And if people are planning to attend, it’s all about hotels, booking tickets... We didn’t want to disappoint people. So we took this awful but inevitable decision.” Instead, they’re again moving the event online, with a different programme.
Another concrete consequence of Boris Johnson’s statement on Tuesday has been audience drop-off. “For a cinema, the ‘no alcohol after 10pm’ rule doesn’t have a massive effect”, says Jason Wood. “But we’ve noticed this week that our main evening show, which goes in at 8pm and finishes at 10:30pm, has been less busy. So there’s been a slight reticence among audiences to not be out late. They’ve reacted to the new restrictions by choosing to go to earlier shows. We’ve tweaked our cinema times to finish slightly earlier, just to give people more confidence.”
Johnson’s suggestion that the restrictions may remain in place for “six months” has also sent out shockwaves. “It’s the mood that it sets among people,” says Cosgrove. “You’ll maybe think twice about going out, about socialising. If people’s behaviour changes, it sets everything back. It’s already been the worst financial year ever, so another six months are going to be tough.”
But staff are trying to be optimistic. “You have to be”, laughs the BFI’s Ben Luxford, “otherwise it’s not worth thinking about!” The ArtHouse’s Róisín McNeill says they’re taking things month by month – a whole half-year can’t quite be processed. “We’re feeling very positive about it, and riding the wave. And it is cinema weather, coming into October and November! So it could be even busier.
“You have to be positive about it. People want to come in to feel less gloomy about things – to escape a bit.”
Wood believes the situation may even change the way people feel about non-blockbuster product, for the better. “As an independent cinema, this could be a productive period – more independent films will get a shot at being successful. It may make people realise that there is a film culture beyond Hollywood blockbusters. There are challenges – but sometimes with challenges there comes opportunity.”
There is, though, an ominous caveat. “Of course, that all becomes irrelevant if we are again told to close our doors. And we have to recognise that that is a possibility.”