Keeping the Magic Alive

A survey by the world’s leading screen technology company Harkness demonstrates that despite Covid the future is bright for the big screen. Chief Executive Mark Ashcroft drills down on the issues its findings have raised.

(May 7, 2021) – Contrary to some popular opinion, this is “No Time To Die” for the UK cinema industry. Covid lockdowns and a year-long emphasis on home-viewing may have sent it to “A Quiet Place” but it will find its voice again, and hopefully sooner than the 2024 predicted by many pundits, including PWC who publish an annual outlook for the entertainment and media sector.

No-one is disputing the fact that restrictions have had a devastating effect on the cinema sector, with figures for 2020 box office by Comscore, and separate figures for admissions from the Cinema Advertising Association, showing that both were down over three-quarters on 2019.

Total revenues for the year came to £296 million – 76% down on the 2019 figure of £1.2 billion which broke the sequence dating back to 2011 of UK box office exceeding £1 billion. Admissions figures at 43 million were another 75% down on 2019 due to the shutdowns of cinemas from the middle of March until early July, and then again at the end of the year.

Things had been looking so good too. Early 2020 saw the sector outperform both 2019 and 2018, which were the two most successful years for cinema-going since 1970 (2018 saw the highest number of annual cinema admissions in recent years). And when cinemas re-opened over the late summer months and into the autumn, the feedback from returning audiences, both on the safety but also the enjoyment of the experience, was hugely positive.

Our qualitative survey to a random selection of adults has shown that watching films on the small screen has been instrumental in helping them through the pandemic. But it certainly hasn’t replaced the big screen experience that for many has been a life-long habit. And they won’t be deterred from returning to the cinema once they are permitted to do so.

When asked if they had watched more films during lockdown, 79% of respondents agreed, with the most popular genres being, perhaps surprisingly, thrillers and dramas, closely followed, less surprisingly, by comedies and feel-good films.

In fact, an Ofcom study showed a surge in screen time during lockdown that saw people spend up to 40% of their day watching TV and online video services, with them spending twice as much time watching subscription streaming services, a trend that was even higher among 16 to 34-year-olds.

Subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ recorded people in the UK watched an average of 71 minutes a day on those services in April 2020 – more than 30 minutes higher than in 2019. Young adults aged 16-34 watched these services for two hours a day on average.

Our survey also showed 34% had invested in new products to enhance their home viewing experience, with respondents split almost equally between new TVs and streaming services. For the latter, 66% of respondents said they had taken out new subscriptions or added to existing subscriptions. In fact, households signed up for 12 million more streaming subscriptions in Britain alone last year. There was an average 36% increase in subscriptions to Netflix each month between March and July and in just the nine months since its launch, 3.5 million people signed up to Disney+.

In many ways, the pandemic has simply accelerated changes that were already happening in the industry, as cinema chains were already competing for consumer attention with streaming services. The King Kong of these, Netflix, is also pressuring the sector with its resistance to observing the “theatrical window” – the period during which films are exclusively available in bricks-and-mortar cinemas.

Add to that, Warner Bros’ planned release this year of 17 films, including “Dune”, “The Matrix 4” and “The Suicide Squad”, to its HBO Max streaming service for 31 days the same day they debut on the silver screen, and you can see how movie-release norms are being challenged.

The impact of this could shape forever the kind of films we see at the cinema, as studios become more risk-averse about the genres of films made, relying more heavily on blockbusters and franchises and the teenage audiences that attend them in droves.

This is reflected in our survey findings which showed that boxsets at 47% were by far the most popular film type watched during lockdown, with newly-released films at 24%, documentaries at 17%, old films at 8% and sport at 4%. Regardless of genre, three quarters of survey respondents felt that watching films at home did not nearly compare with the big screen experience, while 81% would still prefer to watch the latest Blockbuster at the cinema in a post-Covid future.

Surely no-one can deny that big-scale filmmaking is best seen on a big screen that spotlights small but significant details in the work? Where would the Oscar winners Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, Titanic, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings have got without their big screen debuts? They’re just not the same on a small screen.

And it was the big screen that was the single biggest factor in which aspect of watching films at cinemas was most valued. Some 28% rated the big screen literally, second only to the whole evening out experience at 62%. This is an experience that is now at its lowest price since 2015, with the average cinema ticket costing £7.

This may go some way to explaining the growing popularity (even before Covid) of local, independent, boutique cinemas such as Beacon Arts Village in Hoylake, The Wirral, that counts 007 Daniel Craig among its patrons. These screen a more diverse range of films and double as community hubs, incorporating fully-stocked bars, quality, home-made food, high-end seating and even their own clubs for film fans.

These independent venues are typically less reliant on showing Hollywood Blockbusters and may therefore be more resilient during Covid times than cinema giants such as Cineworld who temporarily closed all of its UK and US venues, with the potential loss of more than 45,000 jobs. The other end of the spectrum is what may be an ongoing requirement for social distancing that might require the design of larger screening rooms for new-build cinemas.

Post-Covid, more than 60% of our survey respondents were very inclined to return to the cinema, while 32% were somewhat inclined and a mere 6% were not inclined at all. It appears the vast majority (81%) also believe our home viewing habits are not here to stay and will not replace the cinema viewing experience in the long term.

Covid is the latest in a long, long line of threats to cinema. Some 80 years ago, it was television. Then 35 years ago it was home videos. Now it’s streaming services. And just as it did then, cinema will survive, and likely thrive. It takes more than a global pandemic to break our emotional connection to big-screen films.

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