Will cinema survive the pandemic? Industry experts weigh in

It was a dark day for the film industry when it was announced that all 128 Cineworld theatres would close across the UK and Ireland last month. 

After months of uncertainty yet an abundance of hope, it was the first major sign that the cinema business just might not survive the staggering impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Hollywood was plunged into chaos in March when lockdown restrictions meant movie and TV productions around the world had to shut down. One by one, studios announced the delay of anticipated blockbuster movies from No Time To Die, to Black Widow and F9. 

The looming question is, will they actually arrive in 2021? The situation is so uncertain that no one can truly predict whether we’ll get to watch the latest James Bond flick gloriously in cinemas or if Sony Pictures will resign and give their diamond jewel a digital release with a whimper. 

Seven months into the global health crisis, we’re all more than used to binge-watching our favourite shows and action-packed movies on the small screen via the many streaming services on offer. 

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However nothing quite compares to the anticipation that builds before your cinema date, the warm smell of sweet popcorn in the foyer and saying you’ll ‘definitely see that new movie when it comes out’ while watching the slew of adverts. 

Cinemas are a part of our social culture and it would be a true horror if another chain buckles amid the various lockdowns. 

Of course, not everyone is quite as nostalgic about cinemas as some have argued that the pandemic is forcing the industry to adapt to the online habits of consumers. 

However, what do our experts – those who work in, love and thrive in the film industry – predict for its future? 

Amir El-Masry (actor) – Night Manager, Rosewater, Limbo, Industry

‘Lockdown has had a profound effect on my kind of work because there’s been a limited amount of opportunities that have been coming. 

‘The ones that do come, you have to make a heavy decision whether or not you’re going to take it because it could potentially stall and delay for another few months, you really have to be certain. 

‘The way auditions take place now are primarily over Zoom and you self-tape. I’ve been self-taping even before the pandemic, but the way in which you communicate with casting directors is so essential to how you get into the character straightaway, and what the director has in mind. That communication has slowed down. 

‘Limbo has ticked every single box it can in this pandemic. We’ve been to the Toronto Film Festival and now London, but something is still missing. We need an audience to sit and watch… This film can’t be seen on a small screen. I know, everyone says that, but it’s with the aspect ratio and all the little intricacies in the film. It will be really hard to see those things on a 15-inch or 13-inch laptop, you know?

‘It’s worrying. We saw Cineworld closing all its cinemas and now Picturehouse. Arthouse films and indie films rely on the Curzons and Picturehouses, the independent outlets that expose new artists and up and coming directors and creatives to showcase their work. How else are they going to be able to promote their work?’ 

Tyrone Walker-Hebborn – owner of Genesis Cinemas 

‘You could be forgiven to think that Cinema is dead! Fortunately for everyone we are made of sterner stuff and the warring cry of ‘The Show Must Go On’ is in the DNA of independent cinema operators up and down this fine land. 

‘It’s been said that it is not the strong that survive but the adaptable and independent cinemas have shown how nimble they are by adapting to the new Covid safety measures extremely quickly and effectively… 

‘Cinema is a Covid-safe environment, social distancing has been achieved by staggering showtimes, virtual bubbles around each booking is enforced along with increased hygiene procedures and all the other safety measures put in place by the government before we were allowed to open. 

‘Yes, we have had support from the government, the BFI, Mayors’ office, Film London and yes there are some distributors, Altitude, Lionsgate, Entertainment One etc., who are supporting with a reduced slate, but we cannot survive without the public supporting us, if they feel they are able to, by coming in and buying a ticket. 

‘This is the only thing that will save cinema and other local hospitality businesses… We can get through this together.’ 

Bobby Holland Hanton – Chris Hemsworth’s stunt double 

‘It truly is a real shame that Cineworld has closed down. I really hope that this will only be temporary and that they can reopen soon, obviously safety first is always paramount but closure of such a huge cinema chain is devastating to the industry. 

‘I feel right now more than ever people want to be able to get out and see a movie to try and switch off from the real world even if it is just for a few hours. 

‘It’s very hard to say right now how this could affect stunt performers going forward… as it obviously has affected everyone in every walk of life! I just hope everyone can get back to what they love to do, making films as soon as possible so we can all give the audience what they want… people want to be able to watch a movie and switch off if we can’t give them that it’s going to be really tough.’ 

Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe Esq. MBE – founding director of the British Urban Film Festival 

‘Reports of the death of cinema or the film industry as we know it have always been exaggerated. It’s important to stress that cinema-going, while a very popular pastime for families and individuals alike, is not a necessity especially in the middle of a pandemic.

‘As an industry we are fortunate than most to have the fall back of home entertainment to get us through what seems like purgatory at the moment. 

‘From a workforce point of view, making a living from film was volatile at the best of times and it’s not clear how the many thousands of cinema staff and self-employed creatives who are being directly affected move forward. 

‘From a film festival point of view, the absence of a live physical audience – which helps establish the reputation of a filmmaker – requires adapting in an era where the promise of a virtual, global audience provides infinitely greater opportunities for recognition especially for indie filmmakers.

‘To that extent, the British Urban Film Festival (which was recently granted with Bafta-qualifying status for short films) is embracing a digital box office environment, retaining all of the elements required for audiences and filmmakers in order to remain relevant both financially and commercially.’

Tony Gill – director and head of UK publicity at Media House 

‘While things are still in a state of relative flux during the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future of the industry. 

‘It’s proving itself to be remarkably agile and adaptable in the current climate. Productions are beginning to hit the floors again. 

‘As an example, production house Pooja Entertainment recently wrapped the entire shoot for its espionage thriller, Bellbottom, during the pandemic. 

‘Adapting to the situation, they chartered a flight for the entire crew to fly to Scotland, completing filming in full compliance with Covid restrictions and guidelines. There haven’t been any announcements of particular films that were in production being shelved.

‘Bollywood is an iconic and extremely lucrative film industry, generating audiences globally. There will always be an appetite for its consumption the world over, and I feel the pandemic has propelled changes that were taking place anyway, in line with industry trends and applicable to all film industries, such as the choice of exhibition platform – be it theatrical or digital release.’ 

Arika Murtza – director and head of international publicity at Media House 

‘Bollywood will continue to be one of the arbiters of a global culture that we have seen emerge from the world. 

‘The ‘new normal’ has just made the industry recognise a different way of premiering its films as it adapts to the tech and cultural change and the changing demographic tastes that we are seeing in the world.’ 

*Additional reporting from Rishma Dosani, Louise Griffin and Sarah Deen.

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