Keeping The Projectors Rolling: The Future Of Cinemas Post-Pandemic

“The movies”

While it became something of a meme across Twitter in the build-up to Fast And Furious 9 the sentiment within Vin Diesel’s simple, two word expression is hard to argue with. There’s truly nothing like the cinematic experience. The large-scale visuals; explosions and sweeping landscapes, the roar (or perhaps silence) of the speakers, the collective audience experience of laughing along at a character’s stupid decisions in a comedy, or the edge-of-your-seat tension at a character’s stupid decisions in a horror. However, how have the places in which we view and participate in such spectacles fared during the pandemic? What does the future look like for them now – especially after a year of closures, few new releases and, for some, disputes with distributors?

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to managers and curators from a handful of different cinemas about their experiences working in cinematic exhibition throughout the pandemic. Independent cinema Watershed in Bristol, arthouse-specialising The Little Theatre in Bath; owned by chain Picturehouse, and a branch of a major UK chain cinema who wished to remain anonymous.

As with most businesses and industries, the last 12 months and beyond has created much uncertainty in regards to the future of cinemas. Headlines forecasting doom over low audience numbers, Tenet not making as much money as ‘expected’ and more appeared to overshadow the seemingly few positive angles that were thrown deep into the mix. “We were most worried after the second lockdown, just before Christmas” explains the chain manager. “We saw very few customers, because we just didn’t have the films”. Posing itself as a family cinema the chain simply didn’t have the families wanting to risk going to the cinema, despite safety precautions in place. Alongside this new releases, particularly major wide-release blockbusters, were a rarity. With little to attract audiences cash inflow began to dry up, creating worry and risk of closure. However, as things have reopened this time, and with major releases such as Black Widow and Fast And Furious 9 – even Space Jam: A New Legacy has proved a success – things are gradually getting back on track, thanks to the increase in demand.

Meanwhile, Watershed view things slightly differently. The main worry is with the world in its current state. With daily cases continuing to fluctuate and trepidation still in the air how far to go with reopening is still a matter of questioning. While able to open up to full capacity Watershed has chosen to limit screens to 50% capacity (up from their previous 25%) – The Little Theatre, who managed to secure funding during the pandemic, allowing them to keep their doors open and projectors on, claim to be continuing with measures in order to keep their staff and customers as safe as possible during this time of “uncertainty”. Watershed is understandably, particularly in regards to their location – which has often been hit hard by the spread of the pandemic – wary. “First time round it felt like we were reopening for good, however that was not to be… We have learned not to be too optimistic, but pragmatic. So, whilst this feels like we are on a journey to ‘normal’ we do not know”.

Yet, perhaps the biggest headline that dominated cinemas in 2020 involved just what they would be showing when they finally reopened. After a falling out between some chain owners and Universal over the PVOD release of Trolls: World Tour there was a refusal to show any films that came under the studio and distributors label. It was an odd time, particularly considering the franchise titles, and money, that would be missed out on – including the likes of Jurassic Park, Fast And Furious and Despicable Me – if they were to not be shown. Yet, the chain, which was caught up in this debate, casually claims “it wasn’t really anything to worry about, we kind of knew that it would be ironed out”. While it appears that bridges were rebuilt and the distributor-exhibitor relationship is certainly changing much quicker than before, there have still been a couple of select titles that have escaped screenings at certain cinemas, allegedly due to ongoing conversations with distribution partners.

But, if the landscape looked rough for such chain cinemas, even The Little Theatre admits with its largely arthouse and independent focusing programming “we cater our programming to our audience to ensure that we are screening their choice of film… Distributors weren’t releasing many films for us to screen last year”, the independent market seemingly provided plenty of titles. The Little Theatre finished their line of thinking with “we are certainly spoilt for choice at the moment”, and while this wasn’t quite the case for Watershed during the summer of last year they certainly state that “there was mutual support across independent distribution and exhibition”. Amongst the doom and gloom that the news often dwells upon we saw plenty of success stories about just how well independent films and cinemas were doing amongst the somewhat struggling sector. British indie features such as Rocks and Saint Maud were two of the standout success stories from the year, doing well at the box office against titles such as Bill And Ted Face The Music – and, for the former, perhaps earning further BAFTA success because of it.

While chains appear to have had communication and support from each other – regular meetings and visits with the likes of regional managers, and message communication with fellow managers – the independent sector has truly shown strength in support. “There has been a really positive sense of community” details Watershed’s cinema curator, adding “through our role as Film Hub lead in the South West we have been supporting independent cinemas across the South West, which has been a great source of support and sharing. Also… sharing intelligence with independent cinemas across the UK with the [UK Cinema Association]”. Independent cinemas appear to have long had a sense of unity and support towards each other, and now more than ever that has shown. Campaigns detailing and describing just how important independent films and the cinemas that show them are lit up across social media in the last year. Crowdfunding pages and petitions to keep historic, landmark cinemas alive – such as The Phoenix in East Finchley – achieved large scale pushes from fellow cinemas and audiences alike.

In regards to the current, still slightly changing, release schedule there’s a heavy amount of optimism from all corners. Perhaps, the surprising factor in this optimism isn’t so much linking to the increased slate of blockbuster films due out; it’s more to do with festivals. Watershed cites the recent Cannes Film Festival and the excitement that this has drawn up to a number of potential upcoming releases. With film fans ready to attend festivals again this has been a sign of positivity for cinemas who will hopefully be showing such films at some point in the near future, after further hype and build-up. As for the current moment in time awards season has also created a buzz of excitement in returning to the big screen experience. Best Picture winner Nomadland, despite being available on Disney+ for free in the build up to cinemas re-opening, was one of the success stories when the lights were once again dimmed (after being turned back on) – “we have had a decent slate of this year’s award-winning films being released which has kept us busy” explains the manager of The Little Theatre.

They explain that their usually quiet summer period has seen plenty of demand. Part of this is put down to the quick restarting of various strands within their programme. The Discover strand showcasing new independent films has proved popular, as have Silver Screen events. “We have had consistent numbers since we reopened, greatly helped by the consistency of films that we are screening”. This is partly put down to the vaccination scheme potentially making people feel more comfortable about returning to the cinema. Watershed too has seen a variety of ages walking through the door, from those in their 20s to the over 70s.

The only cinema still seeing some trepidation in booting strands back up is the chain (Watershed will soon be running and hosting annual festival Cinema Rediscovered, alongside having already hosted a number of introductions and Q&As). Wary about restarting their silver cinema screenings due to a lack of elderly customers they have struggled with their kids club because of a lack of new releases in the build up to reopening, something which appears to have changed since talking to the manager. Perhaps this is down to the decisions of the chain owners themselves, “we usually get told what to show” they state. However, they add, in reference to continuing occasional throwback screenings – such as recent ones for Fargo and Saving Private Ryan – which proved successful after previous reopenings “we have seen good audiences for those and they were really popular last time around. I saw Back To The Future and everyone loved it, there’s something about that experience, revisiting something with an audience [on the big screen]”.

It’s recognised that, as already mentioned at the start of this piece, there is nothing like the big screen experience, especially with an audience. Each person I spoke to almost instantly acknowledged that they were looking forward to being able to, safely, be at full capacity again. Allowing for films to truly come to life and make an impact on the big screen. Whether they be new major releases, revisited classics, smaller character pieces or something odd, obscure and under the radar. “Initially I thought people were just wanting to get out of the house [after so long], but overtime… it’s become clearer that people really want to be here and see films this way, with an audience” admits the chain manager in a moment of reflection, looking back over how the past two months have put the cinema in a better spot to the one in which it found itself a year ago.

The main phrases that I took away from these conversations is that we’re entering a time where cinemas are more “confident” (The Little Theatre). The landscape is one of “hope” (a word which echoed throughout the answers of the chain manager). And while there may still be some issues along the road, for now – and based on the continued support that cinemas have been seeing throughout the pandemic and since this most recent reopening period – the future is looking strong. Relationships with distributors are certainly changing quicker than ever, but to perhaps benefit both parties further, and even customers. With such changes we could perhaps even see wider Netflix releases in cinemas sooner than we may have initially thought? The pandemic has seen a change across the exhibition industry as a whole, and how cinemas with varying showcases have come together to support each other, and adapted individually – including in what they screen. The main takeaway appears to be the hopeful view that while “fragile” (Watershed) the future is one “with lots of great films” viewed in a way that has an effect unlike any other.

When asked how people can support their respective cinemas, aside from buying tickets, there was a strong case from the cinema managers and curators for cinema memberships, which often give further bonuses/ discounts in terms of food and drink, and special screenings. In addition to memberships plenty of cinemas also offer the likes of gift cards and reward schemes. Many also have cafes and bars as a part of them, so if you don’t feel safe going to see a film just yet there is the opportunity to simply buy a drink – or even a snack, etc – to take away. A number of independent cinemas also have ways in which you can donate to them, which you can likely find details in relation to on their websites, alongside the various ways in which you can support them. Or, if you’re able to afford it there are lots of cinemas which offer the chance to hold private screenings and events – details of which are also available through their websites. “It’s a challenging time for everyone, and the more we support each other the more likely we will get through this” (Watershed).

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