Cinema bosses fear Covid passports will slam brakes on a roaring recovery

Ben WoodsTue, 6 April 2021, 4:20 pm

GODZILLA VS. KONG, - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
GODZILLA VS. KONG, – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Hollywood pays its way by titillating audiences with plot twists, but even movie executives from Tinseltown were caught off guard by an unexpected turn this Easter.

Monster movie Godzilla vs Kong emerged a US box office hit, selling $48.5m (£35m) worth of tickets and landing a right hook on critics calling the death of the cinema.

The CGI-fuelled romp not only trumped expectations of making $20m to $30m over the holiday period, but instilled hope of a roaring rebound from an industry left bruised by a pandemic-induced shutdown and a structural shift towards streaming.

On British shores, cinema bosses are feeding off the enthusiasm as they prepare to welcome movie-goers back from May 17.

Yet those hopes are being tainted by concerns that vaccine passports could be imposed on entry to cinemas, theatres and sporting venues.

Such proposals have prompted a backlash from the cinema sector on the grounds that it would exclude a broad swathe of the population and add a layer of bureaucracy when social distancing has already proven effective.

The industry fears that the Government may be about to inadvertently jeopardise its recovery, just as Godzilla vs Kong has provided a modicum of hope.

Vaccine passports in other countries
Vaccine passports in other countries

Tim Richards, chief executive of cinema chain Vue, warns that Covid passports will prevent young viewers from returning to the cinema.

“The issue with Covid passports is that it is creating different tiers of society,” he says.

“There are a lot of conscious objectors, or people with medical conditions and there are younger people who have simply not had the opportunity for a vaccination yet.

“When you look at how important younger audiences are – especially those coming with their families – [this move] would preclude them from coming out.

“This would be a small hindrance on recovery of the business at a time when we really need it.”

The cinema industry is facing a long road back to normality.

Cineworld plunged to a record $3bn annual loss last year after the pandemic brought the curtain down on its 767 cinemas across Europe and the US.

The FTSE 250 firm, which also owns the Picturehouse chain of cinemas, is now expecting ticket sales to take more than two years to reach levels seen in 2019.

Such woes have been compounded by Hollywood studios, which have torn up age-old agreements with cinemas in favour of streaming.

Warner Bros announced in December that it would release this year’s slate of 17 movies to the cinema and its subscription service HBO Max simultaneously.

The move put a dent in the so-called theatrical window, which protects exclusive film releases to cinemas for weeks and months before moving to on-demand services or DVD.

While many studios have opted for this route to help recover losses caused by the cinema industry shutdown, analysts believe it is the first step in a structural shift that will put streaming ahead of the silver screen.

Yet after notching up the best opening weekend of any movie released during the crisis, Godzilla vs Kong has struck discord with this prevailing view.

Its performance suggests those who predicted cinema’s demise may have spoken too soon.

Moviegoers sit socially distanced as they wait for the movie "Godzilla vs. Kong" on reopening day of the TCL Chinese theatre during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles - MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS
Moviegoers sit socially distanced as they wait for the movie “Godzilla vs. Kong” on reopening day of the TCL Chinese theatre during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles – MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS

Eric Wold, an analyst at B.Riley Securities, says Godzilla vs Kong has destroyed “the lingering concerns around the theatrical window importance and demonstrates a solid path to resurgence”.

Vue’s Richards says the film’s success underscores the “unprecedented demand” among people eager to return to the cinema.

“I think the studios have all tried to get some of their movies like TrollsMulan and Wonder Woman [out] because no screens were open, but the one thing it reinforced is the importance of cinemas to the ecosystem,” he says.

“We are looking at a situation now where the studios have stopped putting their movies onto their subscription services because they know we are going to be opening up. They are time-shifting and not platform-shifting.”

But can the UK capitalise on a big screen resurgence?

Phil Clapp, chief executive of trade body the UK Cinema Association, says Godzilla vs Kong‘s US box office success speaks to “a hope” that the UK cinema industry will see a similar response from its audiences.

Clapp has played down the idea of a “seismic shift” towards on-demand video, claiming it was “fanciful” to suggest people would want to continue streaming films after a year of doing so in lockdown.

“The results in the US [from Godzilla vs Kong] are in the context that they still have social distancing, they still have capacity limits, but the industry is one which can work with those to still provide an enjoyable and safe experience,” Clapp says.

But while the UK Cinema Association is eager to get cinemas back to full capacity as quickly as possible, the path plotted by ministers may prove yet another bump in the road.

Clapp says: “There are issues around discrimination and significant operational issues for cinemas.

“Clearly some people might be reassured by venues being required to do this, but after we reiterated our opposition to Covid passports our social media has gone off the scale with people supporting us for taking a clear stance.

“We were able to open last year with social distancing and other safeguarding in place, and not a single case of Covid has been traced back to a UK cinema since the pandemic began.

“We believe we can operate safely without the additional burden of Covid passports.”

Clapp says under 18s – who made up a quarter of cinema visits prior to the pandemic – will not be vaccinated and are unlikely to take a test to visit the cinema, resulting in lost trade for the sector.

Cinemas may soon find they have the welcome headache of having to grapple with more movie-goers than they can cope with when they re-open at 50pc capacity next month.

But while Godzilla vs Kong is one battle they are welcoming with open arms, a protracted tussle with ministers is one conflict they are desperate to avoid.

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