CJ Interviews: Steve Knibbs, COO for Vue International

By | June 17, 2020 5:51 am PDT

The global COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting government-enforced lockdowns, has pushed the international cinema industry to its limits. But throughout this time, innovation and a strong sense of community has surfaced, with exhibitors around the world using the downtime to plan thoroughly for when they can reopen. Celluloid Junkie caught up with industry veteran Steve Knibbs, Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Vue International, to see how Vue has been using this tough period to plan for the future.

Celluloid Junkie: What were Vue’s plans for 2020, prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic?

Steve Knibbs: We were very busy across a number of fronts and are looking forward to what had started as a much stronger year than I think most people were expecting. We’re pleased to now be getting back to business: our first three sites in Germany reopened on 21st May (19 out of 31 are now open again), all three of our Danish sites reopened on 29th May, all 20 sites in the Netherlands were open as of 1st June, with our Polish sites starting to reopen on 19th June.

We were working on rolling out our new recliner seats across all of our territories and were well advanced with our plans to have half of our international circuit with full recliner seats within the next 24 months. We were on site at a number of our cinemas when we had to close and some of these have just started to re-open so we can finish the works.

We also had two new openings, one in Glasgow, UK and Nijmegen, NL that were also halted, but again we still expect to open both of these in 2020 or early 2021.

We were finalising our work with the Competition Authorities in Germany to close our acquisition of the CineStar circuit.

We had just started to roll out our new “Get Lost” brand campaign in all territories as well. The “Get Lost” pre-show brand film had been really well reviewed and as it champions cinema going it will be a powerful message in the post Covid-19 world.

We have had to pause the roll out of our Vista installation project in Poland but that will also be picked up once we are open again.

And on the technology front, we were just starting a retail foyer sales kiosks trial at four sites in the UK, again to be restarted soon.

CJ: Talk us through Vue’s reopening plan for the UK in July? And other territories?

Steve Knibbs: It’s exciting to be moving forward with reopening plans and not to be in survival mode anymore, which has had to be our default setting for the past three months. We’re currently planning a phased reopening across the UK in July. This will be the same in Italy, although there are potentially some very onerous restrictions being proposed, such as no retail sales. If correct, this will severely hamper our ability to operate and cover our costs.

Our plan is to use these [European] sites to learn from all the new operating protocols that we have put in place to safeguard our staff and customers, adapt them where needed and then roll out the next phase of sites where it makes sense to do so. We can move forward at scale once we have all our new operating procedures in place, our staff have been trained and we can operate to the highest standards. Earning the confidence of both our in-cinema teams and our customers are absolutely critical and we need to learn and adapt before we open full circuits.

We never closed our cinema in Taiwan and we learned how to operate cinemas during difficult periods with the previous SARS and MERS outbreaks. We have been able to base many of our new operating protocols on what we learned over many years in Taiwan.

We have agreed the overarching principles for the focus of our campaign to get people back to the cinema:

Trust – our customers need to be reassured that Vue is safe. We will do this by clearly demonstrating that we operate to only the highest standards of cleanliness, organisation, communication and management of our cinemas. We will clearly communicate to our customers about what we are doing and then they will see it in action. Our message is clear – ‘Sit Back, Switch Off, Stay Safe’.

Desire – as Tim Richards, our CEO, said when asked about cinema-going after the crisis, “Under no scenario, when people have the choice to go out again, will they say, “No I’m staying in to watch Netflix””. People want to go out and have a great experience, and cinema is going to be one of the few things people can do in a controlled and well-managed environment. We will be ahead of sports, theatres and concerts. We need to remind people of that desire, that feeling of settling down to lose yourself in another world with no distractions, so that they say “That sounds like bliss – when can I go?!”

Instructions – people need to know what to do to enjoy the experience safely, so they know what is expected of themselves, their families and others. These will be things we are all very familiar with from our day-to-day lives, but we need to remind customers to follow the instructions; as they move around the cinema, follow the seating arrangements in auditoriums, go to the bathroom and exit after the show. We will need our staff to be visible and confident. We have a [Vue] Group campaign for this that has been worked on by teams across all our territories.

Vue’s SBC Cinemas in Taiwan – prepared for pandemics. (image: SBC)

CJ: What safety measures and changes to normal operating are you putting in place to reassure customers & staff?

Steve Knibbs: It is such a complex project to get re-opening right that it’s impossible to explain it all in a Q&A as it is so multi-faceted. It isn’t just a case of getting managers and staff back to the cinemas and saying “get on with it”. It’s actually like opening a whole new business, but without the instruction manual.

Safety & Confidence – one of the ways we will come out of this with a viable and successful revamped business model is if we put these two items very clearly and proudly at the top of any decisions we make. With regards to safety, people will choose where to go when they leave the house based on a variety of influences, but one of the leading questions they will ask, at least in the initial phase, is “Will I be safe if I go to X?” This applies just as much to our employees as it does our customers.

Social Distancing – we have had to work up new operating protocols that enable social distancing: what PPE we will need, how to get everyone in and out of the cinema, how many people we can have in the foyer at one time, where are the potential congestion points and how to manage these so we don’t break social distancing rules.

We are having to optimise the seat layouts in each auditorium to ensure the right distancing is in place. We will need to monitor customer behaviours in-screen. We have had to review the retail range to reduce product handling, reduce contact opportunities and transaction times, move to a paperless environment and encourage use of smartphones at all times to minimise social interaction. We will need to allow longer times to exit screens and avoid customers passing others waiting to enter screens, carefully manage access to toilets. Critically we need to know how our staff work safely in the building. The list is long and if we take any shortcuts we could break that all-important confidence and trust that we have to build up in both our staff and customers.

Cinema operations have always been critically important but it is now the foundation upon which the industry will bounce back. I have always believed that, even in this competitive world we live in, that a poor experience in any cinema impacts on people’s future habits and will eventually impact my business. This is truer now than ever before. We all need to be “great” and not just “adequate”.

CJ: “Tenet” has been rescheduled for 31st July, but “Mulan” is currently still set for 24th July. What else is on your roster of content to screen around those tentpole releases?

Steve Knibbs: In addition to the all-important four main summer tent poles – “Tenet”, “Mulan”, “Wonder Woman 84” and “SpongeBob – we are starting to see local distributors bring much needed local productions they had ready before the market closures. It’s great that they have held them back from other platforms and we look forward to showing them on our screens. Already confirmed are films such as “Dein Herz Tanzt”, “Meine Freundin Conn”, “Pfefferkorner” and “Wickie & Die Starken Manne” in Germany, “Undtagelsen” in Denmark, “Wickie de Viking” and “Rundfunk” in Netherlands, “Furioza” in Poland and “Il Caso Pantani” in Italy.

There will also be some great new Event Cinema screenings which haven’t been released before such as “Michael Ball & Alfie Boe – Back Together” and “Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes”; all this will come alongside some classic film content which people will enjoy as they rediscover their love of cinema.

The content will be there, it will be priced appropriately to get initial traction, the operations will be world class. We will rebuild confidence. Cinema is an affordable pleasure for people of all ages and backgrounds to cheer themselves up, have a laugh or a cry.

Vue’s Cinemaxx Germany re-opening. (image: Vue)

CJ: How have you been keeping in touch with patrons? What kind of feedback / communication have you had with them?

Steve Knibbs: I checked our data with our fantastic marketing and communications team and this gives you an idea of how hard we have been working to stay in touch with cinema-goers since lockdown started everywhere in March. Since then, we have reached over 67 million impressions on social media across all territories, we delivered 11 million impressions just last week which is the same level as when we were showing movies. We have seen an 800% increase in our customers sharing our content, and last week the Vue share of the social media conversations amongst cinemas accounted for 46.2% in our territories – with highlights in the UK at 81% and Italy at 60%.

I’m particularly proud of how our teams have worked together across all of our territories to agree ideas and deliver really innovative campaigns that have worked everywhere and entertained cinema-goers. It’s been great to see this develop and is one of the upsides from this period that will help us more in the future.

CJ: How do you think the industry will have changed after this pandemic? How do you think it will *need* to change to survive?

Steve Knibbs: I really find it hard to answer this as it’s such an unknown right now as we start to re-open our cinemas. I strongly believe that cinema’s place in peoples’ lives will continue. As long as the filmmakers keep producing iconic, breath-taking, thoughtful, innovative and must-see movies, cinemas will be here to show them in the way that ensures they stay with people all their lives.

We have all been locked up now for several months watching lots of streamed content, so, off the top of the reader’s head: name me three films you watched on Netflix or Amazon? Now think about the last three films you watched in a cinema pre-crisis. My bet is that people can answer the second part much more easily and quickly than the first and that’s because watching films in a cinema stays with you. It’s not just part of the wallpaper and that’s what makes it stand out – and that won’t change.

For sure there will be more technological innovations, such as greater automation with contactless payments becoming the standard in an increasingly cashless society. I think we’ll see more vending choices and a faster roll out of new seating offers in screens that are built with the required social distancing requirements.

I also think with limited access to live sports and theatre, possibly for an extended period (until there is a vaccine, for example) cinema might play a role in how people interact with these other sociable leisure events out of the home. During the crisis period there have been some great examples of cultural events streamed on TV and online, and if you then go and see these in a cinema it’s a whole different experience from your living room. The audience size may be limited in our cinema screens for a while, but at least it’s an audience of more than one or two who can react together. And it has the added benefit of best in class picture and sound quality that is second to none.

Cinemas will remain cultural centres for everyone, the place you go to get lost in a vast array of content – from the latest films to what’s best in the arts, theatre and live sport.

Vue statistics

CJ: How do you feel about developments in the industry, such as exhibitors working with streaming platforms on various initiatives and drive-in cinemas becoming more popular in the time of COVID-19?

Steve Knibbs: I’m not sure I see any collaborations with streaming platforms aside from what’s already being offered in certain niche areas of the market. In the mass, populist market, cinemas will continue with their business model because it works and has delivered fantastic value to the movie-making eco-system for decades now. We should remember that and protect it.

Drive-ins are not an option for all-sorts of reasons; they are ok as one-offs and promotional mechanisms, but not as a sustainable and viable business. They ended in the 1970s in the US as multiplexes were built on the land instead. It was never really anything in European markets, at least not on any scale. There are issues with affordable large scale outdoor venues, the weather, one showing a day (evening only), no business in the winter and so on.

Cinema operators like Vue will focus on rethinking the business they know. We will adapt and develop it so it grows back to where it was pre-pandemic, and then go from there. We were big believers in the power of our recliner seats pre-COVID and we have the same, if not an even stronger, conviction about this post-pandemic. We have a ready-to-go pipeline of cinemas that we are upgrading this year and into 2021. On top of this we will test and roll out new technologies that make the cinema-going experience easier and safer for customers, and we are constantly looking at how we can improve overall service levels.

Cinemas need to come back confidently and sell themselves effectively to all their stakeholders; from customers, studios and distributors, to suppliers.

CJ: What do you think makes the cinema industry a special one to work in?

Steve Knibbs: Cinema right now has an opportunity to place itself front and centre in the recovery process across the world. It’s one of the few things that people can access easily and safely and is affordable for everyone. It helps with wellbeing and mental health, and that should not be underestimated as we emerge from this crisis and peoples’ lives change. Cinema, in my view, plays a crucial role in a new world and it’s up to us in the industry to get on and deliver the best and safest experience we can.

I’ve worked in the industry since 1986 and I look forward to its future as much now as I ever have, because it does things no other leisure medium can do at a price that makes it accessible to everyone. I work in something that brings to people more than it takes – and in my view that’s no bad thing these days. Long Live Cinema!

CJ: Thank you for talking to us and all the best for Vue reopenings!

Helen Budge

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