How Cinemas Are Programming for Re-Opening

By Claire Beswick | June 11, 2020 1:59 am PDT
Pathé Beaugrunelle in Paris, France

Celluloid Junkie’s ‘Re-Opening & Re-Imagining Cinemas‘ is a series of articles that tracks how cinemas around the world resume operations and seek to build a better cinema experience. We thank everyone who has contributed to this effort. 

It seems like a lifetime ago that cinema operators pressed pause on their schedules, and global box office revenue plummeted to near zero. For several weeks, exhibitors turned their attention to the safe shut down of their operation and then looked to put a plan in place for re-opening, with several key territories now opening their doors in a safe way.

There remained one piece of the puzzle yet to be solved however – what goes on screen when opening day comes. It is and always had been the ultimate Catch 22 situation – distributors cautious about releasing a film into the market when attendance and confidence levels are still relatively low, and audiences waiting for a title for which they would be willing to take a risk (either financially or from a health perspective) for.

Ultimately, someone had to make the first move and currently all sides of the industry pin their hopes on Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”. Warner Bros appears committed to the July 17th date, and with every day that goes by we all breathe a little deeper. But for those theaters already open, and those scheduled to do so between now and July 17th, there are still several trading weeks before Tenet provides the long-awaited and much necessary relief. And even when it comes, programming considerations will be quite different to the pre-COVID days.

Film Scheduling 2.0

For mainstream operators, their film programme is not solely a curatorial process, but one whereby artistic and commercial choices are underpinned by operational considerations. We have already explored what cinemas are playing while they wait for “Tenet”. Whether it’s classic films appealing to the nostalgia gene, family content or simply what was on screen prior to shutdown, the same operational measures will need to be implemented. What’s more, they will need to be communicated to audiences in order to win back patrons’ trust.

Veezi cinema re-opening kit

1. Seating Capacities

Individual governments have insisted on different occupancy thresholds for auditoriums. Some are a percentage of total seats available (France for example being 50%); some are capped at a total number of tickets per show, and some, like the UK Government, are concentrating on the distance between patrons (currently audiences from non related households must stay 2m apart). These thresholds are likely to be fluid and will relax in time before disappearing completely. Fortunately, ticketing providers have incorporated complex algorithms into their software to make this possible. Some exhibitors, Cinesa in Spain for example, are even restricting ticket purchases to two per online transaction.

2. Pricing

A key contributing factor in a customer’s willingness to return to the cinema may be their new-found economic status. Customers could have been made redundant, or may have taken out VOD subscriptions, all of which could influence their decision on whether to return to the cinema before a tent pole film is released. It is also logical to assume that if a consumer is sitting on the fence for whatever reason, they are less likely to make a trip to the cinema for what is perceived to be “old” (whether pre-lockdown or classic) content.

One potential solution which many exhibitors are exploring with success is discounted ticket pricing. With opening schedules being populated with classic, repertory films this makes sense. Some distributors are actively engaged in discussion with exhibitors to make these older titles available to them on preferable terms.

Cinema Re-opening Kit (source: Vista)

3. Scheduling

Many cinema operators will be familiar with the concept of engineering their schedule or timesheet to maximise the number of performances, whilst ensuring adequate turn around time between shows and ample opportunity for patrons to purchase concessions.

This time around, things will be slightly different. Care will need to be taken to ensure not only a maximum number of patrons per screen, but in communal and foyer areas during key walk-in periods. Shows will need to be spaced significantly further apart to achieve this, and for operators running multiple screens, care will need to be taken to ensure a walk in doesn’t coincide with other screens finishing. As a result, it is likely that operators may choose in the first instance not to open all screens at once, or to only run one or two shows per screen per day.

All of this sounds very sensible, but hardly likely to allow exhibitors to maximise attendance when “Tenet” arrives and re-fill an ever growing hole in their bank accounts. The beauty however of being the first blockbuster out of the starting gates is that you will not have to fight for screens in a multiplex. Exhibitors can accommodate demand by playing multiple screens, providing ample show times to choose from. Single screen cinemas should be encouraged to extend opening hours – and I would bet that the BFI IMAX will be running a 24 hour schedule.

The benefit of most people now working from home is that we may see a shift in viewing habits and peak times. Once reserved for evenings and weekends, with more free time and flexible working patterns many patrons may choose to visit during the day (this could become a particularly attractive option for those who are still a little nervous about larger crowds).

Helen Hunt in “I See You”. (image: Saban Films)

4. The Audience Development Opportunity

If we assumed that we had simply pressed pause on the pre-lockdown programme and were ready to resume where we left off when cinemas re-opened, we would be sorely mistaken. There is most certainly commercial potential remaining for some films, which were on screen prior to closure, but many have since had a digital or even physical home entertainment release. This piece is not intended to fuel a windows debate, but it will be interesting to see how key players will approach these films. If there is audience demand and commercial potential, such as for “Trolls World Tour” for example, which parties will engage in dialogue and potentially explore new models?

Research has concluded that families with young children are more eager to return to the cinema which is good news for “Sonic The Hedgehog”, “Onward” and other family titles. In the UK, there also appears to be more willingness from younger adults and BAME audiences.

What has been quite clear from territories such as South Korea and The Netherlands, is that any new film released right now is attracting larger audiences. The two new releases in the latter last weekend, the Helen Hunt thriller “I See You” and Hirokazu Koreeda’s “La Vérité” posted the highest screen averages of all titles. South Korea’s new release “Invaders” on the 5th June (originally slated for March 12th) saw their highest attendance since February.

Could these next few weeks provide a window of opportunity for smaller independent titles, which may struggle for screen space in the latter blockbuster-packed months of the year? Smaller distributors, with their ability to be reactive and nimble are better placed to make quick decisions and to release films effectively with shorter lead times. In other words, they can take advantage of evolving audience behaviours and an evolving release calendar at short notice. This may play particularly to the strengths of distributors of local content in individual territories, and for independent cinemas confident in the experience that they provide.

One thing is for certain: during lockdown customers have had access to a breadth of content spanning many genres, and have had a lot of time on their hands. Customers may have a new found appreciation for smaller and niche titles. Could that translate into cinema attendance? One would hope that the catalyst for more diverse programming known as “Parasite” that took place at the beginning of the year would endure, although competing for space will be tough.

Ultimately, it will be the cinemas’ responsibility to cater for audience demand, and to understand what those demands are and how they might have changed. Loyal, older audiences may take longer to return to our screens and a decision must be made whether to adapt programming strategies to accommodate new audiences, to continue to target previous audiences to encourage them to return, or most sensibly, a combination of both.

Novo Cinemas is looking forward to your return. (image: Novo Cinema website)

5. Marketing and Communication

As the world starts to re-open, there will be countless other forms of entertainment vying for consumers attention and it will be necessary for communication from cinemas to be engaging and to evoke action.

In a post COVID-19 world, many aspects of film marketing and communication will have changed. Distributors are looking at how their marketing spends are allocated as we spend more time indoors and less, for example, on public transport.

Most cinemas have communicated effectively with patrons whilst they have been closed, and many have established a two-way dialogue – for example, running polls and stakeholder surveys to find out which classic films audiences’ would like to see on the big screen which can be translated into action.

It will be vital to ensure that your safety measures are conveyed to customers at every touch point: newsletters and email communication, social posts, on your website and in cinema. All of which is vital to make audiences feel safe within your establishment. Novo Cinemas has a pop-up on their website before you are able to book tickets reminding guests of social distancing guidelines.

The Same, Only Better

There’s no denying that times have been challenging for cinema owners and customers alike, and there is a long road ahead before we resume “normal” levels of operation. During the closure period, links have been established directly and indirectly with our audience and over the coming months we will start to understand how this newfound dialogue can help us springboard into a more satisfying and profitable relationship.

There is a far deeper conversation about how we can use programming and communication strategies to develop and evolve our business, but for now, it is important to hold the hands of our customers as we ask them to trust us and return to our buildings. After four long months, it’s our pleasure to.

Claire Beswick