From March 2020, Berlin cinemas were forced to close for 324 days over two lockdowns. Now they’ve reopened, stricter regulations have caused some confusion and the loss of audiences. Looking back over those two odd years, how do you assess the situation now?
Most people are vaccinated, but we now have record numbers of Covid cases. Meanwhile, movie theatres are subject to very tough regulations and we don’t even know what will happen in two weeks! We were closed for almost six months in 2020 and then again in 2021. Social distancing and hygiene rules have made it extra hard for us to recover pre-pandemic audiences and to sell tickets. Last year was slightly better than 2020, but it’s a tough situation.
In 2020, ticket sales went down by a whopping 70 percent for the whole of Germany. Two shutdowns, the initial shock, uncertainty and chaos – how did you handle it in Berlin?
Fortunately, the start of the year had been fantastic – the best we had in decades – until March came and the shock of the first lockdown. This explains why cinemas did not die right away and could wait until the support programs came to the rescue. The problem is that after the first lockdown, a lot of distributors just postponed their movies. And just as we started to get people back with good, high-quality movies, the second lockdown came.
Last July cinemas were finally allowed to re-open after an eight-month shutdown. How has it
been going since then?
The summer months – July, August and September – were unexpectedly successful. We had fewer admissions than in 2019, which was a fantastic year, but more than 2018. Then in the autumn we benefited from the momentum created by two huge box office hits: No Time to Die in October and Spiderman: No Way Home in December. This Bond did better than the Bond before the pandemic.
As for Spiderman, it was one of the most successful releases ever. But then November ticket sales went down due to distributors postponing movies. This happened with the latest Almodóvar, Madres Paralelas, for example, but also with Christmas family favourites like Bibi und Tina. The week after Christmas is usually the strongest. But not last year, and this was due to both the regulations and a slimmed-down programme. Of course it was a little harder for arthouse cinemas. But we had great arthouse releases in 2021: films like Nomadland, French Dispatch and Dune performed as well as films before the pandemic.
Who are the people who’ve come back to the movies after the lockdowns? Did you observe a shift of audience, either due to the pandemic itself or the regulations you had to apply?
Yes, we lost our older audiences as they understandably grew wary of public spaces. The over 60s used to represent a third of our audience, but it’s now gone down to 10 percent. Between 2018 and 2021 we saw the number of young people under 30 increase by 50 percent and they now represent over a quarter of our audience.
Last summer we saw that a new demographic of young people who didn’t go to cinemas before was now queuing in front of theatres and clapping after movies because they were so happy to have a cultural life again. But then in the last quarter, when the Delta wave came, we saw a decrease again.
People became more cautious, and there was the switch from 3G to 2G, and not everyone was vaccinated.
The first two weeks of January were good, but then the box office slumped again after the introduction of the new 2G+ rule on 15 January. How did you deal with such a sudden decision?
It was tough. Firstly because it came overnight. It’s also not easy to explain to someone who is fully vaccinated or recovered that, yes, they need a test, even if their ‘boosted’ friends don’t. People get disappointed and angry, and I can understand them. It’s really frustrating, especially when you realise that in restaurants 2G+ doesn’t involve any social distancing or wearing a mask while sitting at a table.
In theatres you have to wear your mask at all times. And we invested so much in air-filtration! Even the tiniest cinemas have them. Judging by the statistics we have from the Luca App warning system, theatres account for a super low number of infections: under 1 percent in comparison to 10 percent for restaurants and 50 percent for clubs and big public events. So when we know that cinemas are not where people get Covid, subjecting us to ever-tougher regulations feels unfair and highly frustrating.
The Berlinale announced it would stick to a 50 percent capacity, on top of the 2G+ requirement. What’s the actual rule when it comes to seat occupancy in Berlin cinemas?
It’s changing all the time. Basically it’s either masks on or social distancing. Since moviegoers now have to keep their masks on during the whole screening, cinemas can decide for themselves what to do. If you have a huge theatre and it’s not sold out, it’s easy to block some seats. But it penalises smaller venues.
Another rule is that if you want to get financial support, you are only allowed to sell under 80 percent of your tickets. If you sell out, you don’t get public support. It’s all a bit weird.
In the autumn we benefited from the momentum created by two huge box offices hits: No Time To Die and Spiderman: No Way Home.
Are you satisfied with the financial help, do you feel cinemas received adequate support from the Berlin Senate?
Overall it was fair. But aid programs are like those floats for children at the pool, it’s to stop them from drowning until they can swim without them. Aid programs were good as emergency measures, but we need to move on. After two years, even small cinemas need to be able to earn money – to reinvest, to repay loans and debts and for the time after.
They need to be able to keep afloat without support. I’m afraid of the time when the financial aid will stop. The post-pandemic market will be hard. By now almost everyone has streaming subscriptions and people will need time to get used to being back in public spaces, they are still careful and anxious. It’s not like pushing a button: the pandemic is over, everything is back as it was before. It will be a rocky way back to normal.
It’s getting more and more challenging to compete with platforms, especially when theatres no longer have the monopoly on premieres, with new releases bypassing cinemas to be released on big plat- forms, and theatrical and SVOD releases overlapping. Take the new Campion movie, The Power of the Dog, or Don’t Look Up – they were playing simultaneously on Netflix and in Berlin cinemas… We have to differentiate between Netflix and major studios. Netflix never respected cinemas, while studios like Warner Bros. and Sony did.
Netflix also wouldn’t do a real campaign for the theatrical releases of their films, so nobody noticed them. Even if it’s a Jane Campion film and it will compete for the Oscars! Before, there was a 120-day window when films could only run in cinemas. Now it’s 45 days or less, which is a huge disadvantage for us. It’s a big challenge for the industry. And it was all made worse by the pandemic.
It’s often been said that Corona functioned as a catalyst highlighting and accelerating underlying trends. Is it time for cinemas to wake up and re-evaluate their mission in a digital world dominated by SVOD platforms?
Arthouse cinemas are important institutions in neighbourhoods. It’s an analogue space in a new digital time. We consume online. We stream, we buy, we date online. It’s relatively new. The cinema experience in itself hasn’t changed in over 100 years. Maybe today you book your ticket online, or you become aware
of a movie through social media. But the unique experience of going to the cinema hasn’t changed, and Berlin has one of the most diverse cinema landscapes in the world. No city has as many arthouse film theatres as we do, not even Paris.
We’re talking about 100 cinemas, right? That’s a lot of theatres, which is great, but could it mean too much competition?
It’s a challenge, but it also means a more dynamic scene and more awareness of cinema as a topic. In Berlin films create a buzz and cinema-going is on the cultural agenda, unlike cities with a smaller amount of theatres. Also, a high density of cinemas fosters diversity: from the Yorck Group and Astor Film Lounge, to small Kiez Kinos like Wolf or Il Kino.
Then what we can do, or must do, is interact with local communities. You can really programme for and with your audience. It’s about curatorship, knowledge, and experience. It’s not diversity by algorithm or token diversity: it’s real existing diversity.
This could explain why small ambitious Kiez Kinos seem to have weathered the pandemic relatively well compared to multiplexes, as they were able to hold on to audiences with original programming. Elisa Rosi of Lichtblick Kino explained how their Frances McDormand retrospective did unexpectedly well, drawing a new generation of young moviegoers. The next challenge would be to retain them, even when the party days are back and they have more options...
I totally agree with her. We’ve seen more and more young people in our cinemas. They have all those streaming options at their fingertips, but they choose to go to our theatres. Classics have been a trend for a while, but the pandemic bolstered it – like Tarantino films or with McDormand. And who comes to watch them? People of my generation who saw their release in their youth, or those young people who’ve never seen them before and are curious. And yes, In the Mood for Love did very well, it was one of the box office successes after the second lockdown.
Could this be the silver lining, this new, younger audience, hungry for real cinema?
Audience development is part of our job, especially reaching out to younger audiences. And that’s why
it’s so good in Berlin, because why do people move here? For the diversity and the opportunities, for the clubs and bars, but also for the culture. Students from all over the world move here and that’s
a huge potential market for us. Take the new release of Spencer with Kristen Stewart. At the beginning we weren’t sure who would watch this movie – we thought it would be older people who knew about Lady Di.
But it was mostly young people who came and they wanted to watch it in the original language. That’s another trend we noticed, that movie-goers in their late teens want to watch movies in their original languages. They’re more and more exposed to foreign languages through their social media consumption, and their language skills are better. Now we have Korean films in Korean with English or German subtitles.
So, for Yorck, does it mean more screenings in original versions?
Many, many more. During the pandemic, for the first time ever, subtitled films did better than their dubbed versions, which is very new for Germany. A film like Dune, we almost only had in the original version – that’s the Yorck audience, which are people who didn’t go to see it at a Multiplex. It reflects the city’s growing multiculturalism with ever more international Berliners eager to watch films in their native languages. We also started screening German and foreign-language films with English subtitles and found there’s an audience for that.
Do people subscribe to cinema the way they subscribe to SVOD? Is the Yorck subscription ticket popular with youth and internationals as well?
Two thirds of our subscribers are actually under 40, with the majority – over 40 percent – aged 30 and under. This is great news for cinema as a whole, because those subscribers do not only go and watch more films, but they also experiment more with difficult films or documentaries. This is an opportunity for smaller films with less marketing power to find an audience and foster a new knowledge of film.
For the first time ever, subtitled films did better than their dubbed versions, which is very new for Germany.
How do you feel: worried, frustrated, optimistic? All the above?
I am tired of the pandemic, tired of fighting for fair hygiene measures, tired of looking at the Corona cases increasing and decreasing and waiting for the next improvised rule. But the great support we received from our public and the great movies we got each time after reopening made me optimistic. Watching a good movie in a cinema will never become obsolete. That’s the magic of cinema: it’s dark, everyone is sitting around like at a campfire, and someone is telling a great story. And there will always be people who want to tell those stories. These movies need the Berlinale and they need cinemas. But I am not naïve. It is expensive and risky to run a cinema, it always has been. We just need fair regulations and a little support.