Cinemas battle to keep filmgoing flame alive as UK lockdown bites

British film distributors scramble to salvage release plans, as cinemas in Scotland and elsewhere manage to stay open

Cinemas across England shut down today as the new national restrictions introduced by Boris Johnson take effect. Cinemas are already closed in Wales, as part of the “firebreak” lockdown, and in Northern Ireland. However, some UK venues are still open – mainly in Scotland, where a tiered lockdown system in still in operation. Cinemas in tier 1 and 2 districts, such as the Eden Court in Inverness, and the Playhouse in Perth, are still showing films, albeit under social distancing regulations.

As the ramifications of the new lockdown became clear, the country’s film distributors scrambled to salvage their release plans. For some, such as Curzon, it was an easy pivot to its own streaming platform. Others, such as Modern Films, are going with a “virtual screening” platform that allows the hard-hit venues to share in the revenue.

High-profile titles such as The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar’s short film starring Tilda Swinton, Supernova, the festival hit with Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple dealing with the latter’s dementia, and Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, starring Mads Mikkelsen, have all been postponed. Netflix are continuing with plans to show its potentially award-winning drama Hillbilly Elegy in the few cinemas remaining open ahead of its streaming release on 24 November, but it looks unlikely at this stage that cinemas will see much of another Netflix film, Mank, the much anticipated biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, directed by David Fincher, before it debuts on Netflix on 4 December.

Jake Garriock, head of distribution strategy at Curzon, which specialises in auteur and foreign language cinema, says: “Indie distributors can be a bit more nimble. We’ve recognised from the start of the pandemic that we would have to be flexible with theatrical screenings.”

Curzon’s latest release, About Endlessness, is shortly to play in Inverness, but will also be available on the company’s own streaming platform, Curzon Home Cinema, which has proved a lifeline during the pandemic. “We always have the option to launch there if cinemas are closed. Financially it would not make sense to delay a release with less than a week’s notice as the marketing budget for the film is spent.”

Paul MacDonald-Taylor, head of film and visual art at Eden Court cinema in Inverness, says that it has been business as usual, given the fact the cinema only reopened a week ago. “We tend to show foreign language and art films so we don’t really rely on Hollywood product to keep our cinema going. The films we generally show are still coming out, so there’s plenty we can choose from. The distributors we usually work with have been very helpful, and it’s all been smooth sailing so far.” MacDonald-Taylor’s cinema is coincidentally staging the Inverness film festival, which will show some of the postponed titles, including Supernova, The Human Voice, and the Italian language adaptation of Martin Eden, which was also pulled from its release slot. The long-running French film festival will also pitch up there in November, as well as visiting whichever of its other venues that remain open – which so far include the Phoenix in Oban and the Robert Burns Film Centre in Dumfries.

Social distancing regulations are also an issue. MacDonald-Taylor says the cinema, which is part of a multi-artform complex, is operating at 25% capacity. “It isn’t ideal, but looking back at numbers from previous years for similar films, they are remaining about the same kind of numbers. We’ve had a lot of sell-outs. People haven’t been put off.”

The picture isn’t quite so positive elsewhere in Scotland. The Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen announced it is closing temporarily, saying that the impact of the English lockdown on UK-wide film distribution meant that “most of what we had planned to show you is no longer available”.

Supply pipelines are an issue wherever cinemas are open. Daniel Phillips, manager of the Mallard cinema in Guernsey, says they have managed to find enough to fill their screening schedules, but lost one of next week’s films at short notice – the aeroplane survival thriller Horizon Line. “It’s disappointing, and frustrating from a business point of view. The film content we are able to access is fairly limited to the films we’ve had over the last few weeks. The situation is changing all the time, but we should be getting Hillbilly Elegy in a couple of weeks.”

As a self-governing crown dependency, Guernsey is not technically part of the UK but is, as Phillips says, “beholden to the UK release schedules”. The island is also not subject to any Covid restrictions (other than 14-day self isolation for arriving travellers) and so it really is business as usual. “So many brilliant films we could be showing are being pulled from our schedule because we come under the UK umbrella. We would welcome any new releases at the moment.”


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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