We are not scientists or experts on public health, but we do understand that the independent cinema sector in the UK is a varied and multifaceted sector, with a wide range of large and small buildings, public spaces, auditoria and audiences. Given this range of settings, we anticipate that there will be variations in how independent cinema operators practically apply measures to mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19. This article is intended as advice on further safeguarding considerations that independent cinema operators can make in addition to the guidance set out in the UKCA’s Working safely during COVID-19 in Cinemas. As reported in our recent survey, we don’t anticipate many independent cinemas opening before September.
Reopening cinemas while we all live with the Coronavirus Pandemic is complicated. There is no one-size fits all solution to doing this completely without risk to health, our economic sustainability and cultural robustness. But as we work towards restoring something approaching normality within cinema-going we can think about several key areas and how to implement the best possible practice while looking after our audiences, staff, economy and culture. This is our current thinking offered as guidance. Some of these measures will be more applicable to individual cinemas than others. The size, ease of access, location and frequency of screenings at each cinema will all play a part in deciding which of these factors are applicable at this time. As scientists learn more about the behaviour of the virus and our politicians apply guidelines these considerations are bound to evolve quickly. We will do our very best to update these as new information arises.
We can identify three core areas of operation to consider when reopening our cinemas: Health & Safety, Economic necessity and Cultural robustness. It is important to keep in mind that all of these inter-relate and impact on each other.
Health & Safety
This is about making our cinemas as safe to visit and work in as possible. As the majority of independent cinemas will have smaller and narrower public spaces, thoroughfares, entrances and exits than commercial multiplexes, so making the practical implementation of social distancing much more challenging, we can adopt some more rigorous measures than the baseline advice in the UKCA’s guidance. This will provide stronger forms of mitigation which are also clearer to both staff and audiences, and therefore easier for all to adhere to. We can consider:
- Social distancing and crowd management when queueing, entering and exiting the cinema, in auditoriums and in washrooms, with appropriate signage and floor markers for each area.
- If operating with social distancing at 1m+ as per Government guidelines applicable from 4th July, asking our customers to wear face coverings/masks as one of the additional risk mitigation measures that goes with the reduced distancing.
- Where continuing to adhere to 2m distancing advice, as this will provide a safer environment for staff and audiences in some venues and is a clearer protocol for audiences and staff to follow, we can also consider asking our customers to wear face coverings/masks.
- PPE – ensuring staff are supplied with masks/visors and gloves and where distancing is difficult, Perspex screens.
- Hand sanitiser stations at all entrances to the cinema foyer and to the auditoria.
- Implementing one-way systems through our buildings to avoid unnecessary physical proximity.
- Staggering show times so audiences for different screenings do not overlap in our public spaces.
- Deep cleaning our washrooms and auditoriums at least twice daily and between screenings if possible. Spot cleaning all high contact areas such as door handles.
- Increased staffing to accommodate ushering and ensuring distancing is taking place in all parts of the cinema as well as increased cleaning levels during operating hours.
- Training for staff on the above areas as well as how to manage tone and atmosphere within our cinemas so they remain as welcoming as possible.
- Flexibility around job roles for staff more vulnerable to Covid-19 (people aged over 70, those with underlying health problems, BAME members of staff).
- Temperature checks for staff on arrival at the cinema; staff who record a temperature above 39C should be sent home and asked to take a Covid-19 test.
- Clear signage around distancing.
- Use of contactless payment, pre-booking of tickets and snacks.
- While the current government guidelines limit social gatherings to no more than 30 people – cinemas are exempt from this and there is no legal limit to the number of people admitted to an auditorium beyond the pre-Covid fire and safety regulations. Clearly the size of auditoriums is a key factor here.
- Where possible contact records should be taken for each customer to be contacted in the event of anyone at the cinema testing positively.
- Ventilate the auditorium with a fresh air supply as much as possible throughout the day, during and in between screenings. In cinemas that have air-conditioning systems, operators should consider switching down, or off completely their air conditioning system to reduce the circulation of the same air within the auditorium; or to switch the system over to fresh air supply setting if this is possible.
What to do if you experience an outbreak
If an audience member or member of staff tests positive for Covid-19 we would recommend that the venue is closed immediately. That staff are sent home to self-isolate, and all recent audience members are contacted to let them know that they may have come into contact with Covid-19.
The building should be deep cleaned before reopening.
Each cinema clearly has to consider the impact of reopening against a context of increasing overheads set against reduced income. If sustainable, it may be worth remaining closed longer, continuing to use existing support schemes, and only reopen when recommended seating capacity rises as social distancing diminishes. This is certainly an approach being taken by larger cultural institutions like London’s Southbank arts complex. Clearly it needs substantial reserves to underwrite however.
Assessing the economic pressures can be daunting. It is worth considering these factors to begin with:
- Reduced ticket sales because of social distancing and also psychological anxiety of some vulnerable audiences around returning to enclosed spaces.
- The demographic of a given cinema’s regular audience – i.e. if your audience is largely older then it may be wise to delay opening as long as possible until the number of viral cases decrease.
- The proportion of fixed costs such as Perspex partitions and signage.
- The proportion of on-going consumable PPE costs such as sanitizer, masks etc.
- Increased staffing costs across cleaning and ushering.
- The use of redundancy and volunteer schemes against the clear benefits of retaining staff as far as possible.
- The range and quality of available new films from distribution and the degree to which they are marketed and have the capacity to encourage mass returns to cinemagoing.
Last but certainly not least, are cultural considerations. As we all know, most independent cinemas perform a wider social function within their communities. Even more so in small towns and rural communities where the cultural venue offer is often limited.
It is worth considering what the implications are for us as gathering places for a range of diverse, and often underserved, and potentially more vulnerable to Covid-19, communities. For example senior citizen matinees, reminiscing sessions, youth groups, BAME audiences, and a wide range of further constituents such as LGBTQ+ who frequently use our venues as safe gathering spaces.
To continue to provide a home to our various audiences, beyond simply showing films, while ensuring a positive, safe and engaging experience, we need to communicate as best as we can to our audiences. We need to tell them what measures we are implementing for their benefit and why in the most approachable way possible.
Examples of this are:
- Audience surveys (Survey Monkey is a reasonable and effective method for this).
- Regular use of social media platforms.
- Clear signage on the outside of our buildings.
Finally, a core part of what makes independent cinemas so special is often our programming. This on-screen diversity is what sets us apart from non-independent chains. Therefore it is important to consider the effect of the Pandemic on access, via film distributors, to the kinds of films which have come to define your cinema experience for your audiences. Currently there are very few new releases available from independent film distributors until at least September. The current release calendar is understandably very much focussed on online releases. We need to ask ourselves, and the distributors we work with:
- what number of new releases will be available on reopening,
- what the marketing for these will be,
- who the audiences are that these films are designed to reach,
- how the films fit with our existing venue personality,
- what other content is available to screen – the FDA have put together a content guide for exhibitors.
Taken all together we can help each other minimise the safety, economic and cultural risks of reopening. We can even create new opportunities to build on the good will and thirst for quality cinema we are seeing in our loyal audiences across the UK and begin to rebuild our vibrant, diverse and stimulating sector back up to pre-Covid heights.
Views from the sector
We spoke to a number of different operators to get their views on reopening.
“At the Palace in Broadstairs, like everyone, we are desperate for normality and keen to reopen our doors to our brilliant audiences. The newly announced social distancing reduction to 1m is definitely better than 2m for cinemas. But we still don’t feel confident about being able to reopen in July. There are not enough quality new films for us to play. Our old listed building with its single screen of 111 seats is configured in such a way as to make social distancing difficult. The combination of increased time taken to enter and exit our auditorium through our narrow foyer and corridors, coupled with new deep cleaning between every show and increased staffing, all on top of a reduction in capacity to an average of 35% makes it very hard for us to see a way to reopen and remain financially viable under current conditions.
Our reality is, it is more likely we can survive the financial implications of social distancing, while looking after the health of our staff and audiences, by remaining closed at least until we are sure any second wave has passed – and ideally until a vaccine of some description is found. We are modelling reopening in September assuming there are enough new films to show and the virus is under some semblance of control. We would consider reopening earlier than this if our building was larger and lent itself more to social distancing. But as it stands we are taking the cautious approach for the benefit of everyone who uses us – no matter how frustrating waiting may be.
We want to reopen when our audiences can relax, immerse themselves in a great film and not worry about Covid 19. We don’t want to ask our audience to ignore all the face masks and sanitizer gel and somehow enjoy what should be an entertaining experience DESPITE their environment. We want our customers to enjoy the Palace BECAUSE of our environment.”
“We plan on reopening Broadway in September. Based on feedback from customers about safety measures on reopening, we understand that although people are extremely eager to get back to us, there were a number of areas that would make that first visit back even better. These measures range from simple signposting of social distancing and antibacterial wash stations, to upgrading of our box office software so customers are able to easily book tickets in advance, order concessions in advance of arrival and check-in at the screen. With a range of measures to implement, we’ve been working hard in the building and with colleagues across the independent cinema sector to ensure that when the lights go down that our customers, tenants and staff feel comfortable and safe, and that takes time.
We also have to consider the programme. Operating in the independent cinema sector means that we’re not as reliant on summer blockbusters as the larger multiplexes. In fact, summer can be relatively quiet for us, except that is for the outside terrace, so we’re coordinating with other independent cinemas, distributors and funders to have a common approach to reopening in early autumn. This means that when the doors open, there’ll be new content ready for viewing on the big screen.”
HOME is re-opening in September as that is when the films of the type that we screen are available so we have a fighting chance of taking some money. We are not a venue that plays blockbusters and July and August are peak time for that market so I understand why the big chains want to open. If HOME opened in July playing to screens with on 30% capacity available due to social distancing and content that is of no interest to our market we would simply lose a lot of money that could put the future of the organisation in serious doubt. We also need to be sure that our team is safe and audiences can visit us safely so our approach is going to be cautious.
With special thanks to Simon Ward for his contribution to this article.