Extensive coronvirus safety measures are being introduced- starting with socially distant seating patterns – to ease anxieties about a potential outbreak.
Around the industry, there have been discussions about whether staff should wear masks and gloves and have their temperatures checked before shifts, whether there should be plastic gloves or wipes beside ticket kiosks in foyers and whether patrons should be asked to take their rubbish with them and leave row by row after the movie.
More definite plans include staggered start times to minimise crowding in foyers, more intensive cleaning of cinemas between sessions, more online bookings and cashless payments, special sessions for seniors because of their heightened coronavirus risk, hand sanitiser stations in foyers and possibly cinema entrances, social distance floor markings and selling pre-packed rather than serve-yourself popcorn and lollies at candy bars.
While safety measures could change depending on the virus’ progress, cinemas might have just 25 to 40 per cent of seats occupied initially, with one executive saying only JobKeeper support for staff will make it financially viable to resume trading with the same ticket prices.
Tenet is carrying the hopes for recovery for the global movie business, worth more than $64 billion last year, though Hollywood studio Warner Bros is reportedly waiting to see if 80 per cent of the world’s cinemas have re-opened before risking a $US200 million movie. If it is postponed, it’s likely other studios will delay major releases too.
“If Tenet doesn’t come out or doesn’t succeed, every other company goes home,” a marketing executive from a rival studio told The Washington Post. “It’s no movies until Christmas.”
No Hollywood blockbusters, that is, though there is a queue of Australian, smaller-scale and foreign-language films ready for release.
But cinema is an industry built on bullishness so there is optimism that one of Hollywood’s most financially successful directors will deliver once again. And surely, executives suggest, everyone will be keen to get back to the movies by July.
Even with the boom in watching streaming services, surely the cinema will still be recognised as the best place to watch a movie. And with everyone getting used to limited crowds in public and Qantas even filling middle seats in economy, surely multiplexes will seem safe by then.
There are heavy financial consequences and thousands of jobs resting on those assumptions, even if the industry expects that annual box office will fall by at least 50 per cent this year.
Executives at the country’s biggest cinema chain, Event Cinemas, believe a survey of 16,000-plus members of their Cinebuzz loyalty program show that Australians will be ready to head back to the movies.
According to director of entertainment Luke Mackey, more than 80 per cent of respondents said they would return within the first 12 weeks of reopening or as soon as there was a movie they wanted to see, although he concedes the options did not include “when cinemas feel like a safe environment”.
“I think there will be a small percentage of people who are hesitant but overwhelmingly if people are going to come back from an entertainment perspective, [cinemas] will be high on the list – very affordable and very clean and safe,” he says.
Mackey is waiting for government advice on how many seats the chain can sell for each session but expects a maximum of 100 is “a manageable number for both us and the public” during the first stage of reopening.
The chain’s website will allow patrons to book “in your bubble” to keep groups separated. And it expects to have one morning a week just for seniors.
In such a global business, Hoyts chief executive Damian Keogh thinks the US virus statistics are more relevant than Australia’s for the immediate future of cinemas here.
“Our virus numbers here are low,” he says. “We feel very confident about opening up in July from a safety perspective at this stage but in the US they’re still getting 20,000-odd cases a day.”
While hopeful, Keogh thinks the chances of Tenet opening as scheduled are currently 50:50 but has contingency plans if it does not.
“We may still open around then if we feel there’s enough content that’s relevant and a demand for people to come back to the cinema,” he says. “But it’s almost eight weeks away so it’s a fluid thing at the moment … By the time we open, we think restaurants, gyms, cafes and … even pubs [will be back] so we’re going to have a fairly good indication of the public view.”
Keogh expects Hoyts cinemas will be “probably closer to 30 than 40 per cent full” with checkerboard-style seating initially. He is hoping the industry will be “pretty close to normal” by October to December depending on what happens with the virus.
“People have been sounding the death knell of cinema forever, dating back to the days televisions were brought into Australia, so it’s a very resilient industry,” he says.
After what he calls a challenging and sad time for both staff and movie fans, Palace Cinemas chief executive Benjamin Zeccola is expecting the arthouse chain will reopen with about 50 per cent of seats available for each session initially.
“What we haven’t worked out yet is whether every second row will be removed from sale,” he says. “That may be the case in some cinemas, where the rows are closer together. That could mean as low as 25 per cent in that particular room.”
More detailed cinema cleaning could mean the usual 15-minute gap between sessions might be extended to 30 to 50 minutes, resulting in just three sessions a day for each cinema rather than five or six. And instead of the traditional 5pm, 7pm and 9pm sessions, Mr Zeccola says start times will be staggered so foyers are less crowded but still lively.
“Without JobKeeper, opening wouldn’t be viable,” he says. “The landlords are a party to this. By adopting a percentage rental arrangement versus a flat rent, the tenant and landlord can recover together. But if there’s a flat rent, it’s not viable.”
Mr Zeccola has no plans to test the temperature of patrons or worry too much about coughing in cinemas. “I think people are going to be self-quarantining,” he says. “The advice is very clear: if you’re not well, you don’t go out. But climate control systems in cinemas are massive and they’re filtered so I think going to the cinema is going to be a relatively safe experience.”
But not everyone will be rushing back.
Well-known Australian film-maker Bill Bennett (The Nugget, Kiss or Kill) posted on Facebook this week that he is to keen to see Tenet but there is no way he would step inside a cinema even in relatively COVID-19 safe Australia.
“I will drive 600 kilometres from Mudgee [to Sydney] and back to watch a good movie,” he says. “I love the cinematic experience.
“But it’s just not safe. Even if there are only 10 people in the cinema, you don’t know what 10 people were in the previous session and whether or not the cinema sanitised every single seat.”
Bennett believes cinemas will remain the premium forum for such ”event” movies as Tenet or James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels but fans are likely to prefer watching new releases at home in the virus-affected future.
“Cinemas are like cruise ships,” he says. “What would get me back in cinemas? I can answer that in one word: a vaccine.”
There are other major questions for the industry as it re-emerges: after reassessing their priorities during lockdown, will audiences be less susceptible to Hollywood’s constant marketing of new movies that often turn out to be disappointing?
Will they want to see different kinds of movies: more human stories and comedies rather than superhero and action sequels? Will the economic collapse even leave them enough money to buy a ticket as well as paying for streaming services?
And for the industry, will multiplexes need to be redesigned as more encouraging and socially distant environments? Will big movies squeeze smaller films out of multiplexes even more? And how will the industry resolve regular flare-ups over how long cinemas can screen movies before they are released on streaming services and online?
Zeccola has no doubt the industry will eventually be strong again.
“People are more into storytelling now than ever,” he says. “And the greatest storytelling form is cinema. From what people are saying to us on social media and email, they just can’t wait to come back to the cinema.”
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.