Even if, as expected, the government gives the go-ahead for cinemas to reopen in early July, many will be keeping the shutters down. The Rio in Dalston is staying closed over the summer, while other London indie cinemas are either weighing up whether to open their doors again or actively planning for an autumn reopening.
‘We think September is the most likely time [to reopen],’ says Oliver Meek, The Rio’s executive director. He cites a combination of factors: the ability to keep staff on furlough, the challenges of implementing the required social distancing measures, and a thin slate of films, dominated by Christopher Nolan blockbuster ‘Tenet’. ‘For independent cinemas, summer is always a quiet time – we don’t tend to do very well with blockbusters. Films like ‘BlackKklansman’, ‘Parasite’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ do well for us. [Most of all], we want all of our staff to feel confident and our customers to feel safe.’
At least one other independent cinema that Time Out is aware of will also be remaining shut until September, with others likely to join the Rio in keeping their doors closed for the summer.
One cinema that is planning to reopen in July is the six-screen Peckhamplex in SE15, albeit with caveats. ‘We don’t have an official date [yet],’ says Peckhamplex chairman John Reiss, ‘and we're not going to open just because the government says so. We’ll decide primarily on grounds of health and safety. We have our social-distancing and hygiene plans ready to go [but] if it takes us a week longer to open, so be it.’
Another consideration is ensuring audience members sit in their designated seats to maintain social distancing. ‘I don't want to put our staff under pressure if people refuse to sit where they’re supposed to,’ says Reiss.
Asher Charman, co-founder of The Castle Cinema, is preparing to reopen the Hackney cinema in time for ‘Tenet’ on July 31. ‘We feel comfortable with the required safeguarding measures,’ he says. ‘We’re lucky to have a large bar which makes social distancing in those areas much more straightforward.’
Kensal Rise community cinema The Lexi is another that won’t be reopening in early July. ‘We’re monitoring the situation closely and will only reopen when we are confident that we can provide a safe and relaxed environment for everyone,’ says Rosie Greatorex, director of The Lexi. ‘We’re also anticipating a phased return for our staff and volunteer team. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.’
Size is a key factor. The bigger multiplex chains like Cineworld, which will reopen on July 10, are better equipped to handle social-distancing requirements and cope with diminished audience capacity, while smaller indie cinemas lack the option to screen ‘Tenet’ multiple times across multiple screens. ‘Like the whole of the hospitality industry, we’re waiting to see if there’s any update to the two-metre rule,’ says The Castle’s Charman. ’Reducing it to one metre in line with WHO guidelines will have a significant impact on our capacity.’
Despite the enormous challenges of the present, the Rio’s Meek is optimistic for the future: ‘It will be challenging and [going to the cinema] will be slightly different – it will be more like getting on a plane where you get a little safety announcement – but there's still a great deal of love for cinema and everyone will be committed to getting it back up and running.’
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