What’s the best way to watch films on the big screen during Corona? Open air! And we Berliners are spoiled for choice with no less than twenty Freiluftkinos open to the public until September. We talked to Arne Höhne, the organiser and programmer at favourite OV outdoor screen Freiluftkino Kreuzberg, about this year’s strange season and how the pandemic has affected the business.
How has this season been for you so far, and what challenges have you faced in the wake of lock-down?
The first challenge was all the discussions we had with Berlin politicians and those who had a say in what could take place and what couldn’t. We had a detailed plan on how to do safe open-air cinema but it took a long time for us to be listened to. Kreuzberg opened with a one-month delay, which I still think was not necessary, because it’s open-air and our plan ensured safety. But they had other priorities like opening beer gardens and swimming pools. We weren’t the last ones on the list, but we weren’t the priority. That was tough, especially when you consider that we have a limited amount of time during the year – losing one month is huge.
With regards to social distancing measures, did you find the parameters challenging?
Oh yes! You have to put a lot of effort and plenty of ideas into it. The main thing was keeping it a safe space. It wasn’t “We want to open – full stop”. No – we wanted people to feel safe and feel good about coming. So, it was masks, booked seats, and we organised the space so that people moving about could maintain social distance, avoiding any possible arguments that could arise about your neighbours being too close, for instance. When you go to a Freiluftkino, it’s a relaxed atmosphere, and it was important for us to maintain that relaxed spirit.
For the first two weeks, you were only allowed 200 people, is that right?
Yes. That was another added challenge. That number changed, but considering the space we have, we’re still only allowed a certain percentage. We’re currently at 2/3rds capacity right now. That’s the most we can do, considering the restrictions.
Of course, the big change is the absence of tourists, considering we’re screening our films in OV. But it’s still full with Berliners who love cinema, and who help fold their chairs!
Was there ever the risk of the Freiluftkino season not going ahead at all this year?
For us, no. Because open air cinemas are such a big deal for people in Berlin. That’s why we opened on the very first day it was possible. We wanted to say: Something has to happen in Berlin! People had been home for a significant amount of time, and they were so thankful when they came to the cinema when we opened. They didn’t have to stay at home anymore and make 10,000 decisions on what to watch on Netflix…
Did you qualify for any grant money or Corona funding in order to reopen?
No. All the cinema funding that exists was for reopening indoor cinemas or spaces that play films for about 240 days per year. We did not qualify for this. You could say that from the programming we’re a high-profile arthouse cinema, but it doesn’t fit into the regulations.
Even operating at 2/3rds capacity, how has the audience attendance been this year?
If you think about Berlin in a normal year, every evening for all the open-air cinemas, you have around 10,000 seats. If you reduce it to what exists now, you have a huge audience demand. So, many evenings have been completely sold out. Considering the circumstances, we’re very happy about the audience attendance. Of course, we discussed the problems with regards to limited seating, and it’s true, it could have been much better, but we can’t forget how privileged we are that we can open and we can show films to an audience. When you think about clubs and theatres, for example, they’re facing a tough situation – a lot of venues have a much trickier time of it than us.
With regards to audiences, have you witnessed a different type of audience member or different attitudes compared to previous years? I noticed that people were a lot more willing to help out at the end with folding the deck chairs and cleaning up…
In general the appreciation is always very high. We have very fair prices, and we try to sustain a very positive mood. This continues, and we’ve noticed that our regulars are coming this year too. So no, I wouldn’t say I’ve noticed a shift in audiences this year. Of course, the big change is the absence of tourists, considering we’re screening our films in OV. But it’s still full with Berliners who love cinema, and who help fold their chairs!
We know that there are people who don’t like online booking and some people who cannot do it… but it doesn’t make sense if hundreds of people come to queue.
Do you think the necessity of online booking is a hindrance or a deterrent for audiences who are more used to rocking up on the evening and seeing if there are tickets left?
That’s the difficult thing. For us, it’s the only way. We know that there are people who don’t like online booking and some people who cannot do it, and we fully plan to return to the normal way next year. We talked about a several options, but with the limited capacity and the health parameters, it felt like the best way of doing it. It doesn’t make sense if hundreds of people come to queue…
Has the programme curation been more difficult this year, considering the shifting release calendar and the fact that less films were released?
Actually, not really. Our programming always depends on what was released from last October until the beginning of the season, and we only add a few new titles. So, that was not a big problem. And I think that if you look at the diversity of the programme this year, it holds up to previous years. If you compare our programming to some of the other open-air cinemas in the rest of Germany, the difference is huge, and we’re always hugely grateful to find an audience for the wide diversity of films we show.
You also have various events planned, like the XPOSED shorts programme, this weekend’s SO36 Big Birthday Bingo Bash, and the Arabic Film Festival, which opens on September 1, is also doing their opening night at Freiluftkino Kreuzberg – has it been more important for you this year to secure these special one-night events?
It’s only important for us because we like to have these events. It’s more of an ongoing thing. We already had various festivals like the Arabic Film Festival or XPOSED as guests at our evenings. The thing about open-air cinema in Berlin is that it is an event in and of itself.
Our goal was to do our best and try not to think too much about loss. The last four weeks of this season, as well as the weather, can make a big difference
Absolutely. Though it’s a canny idea for more film festivals – especially those that have been postponed like the Arabic Film Festival – to utilize outdoor screens for their premieres, especially under the terms of the pandemic.
Yes, sure. And we’re always open to that! (Laughs)
I was wondering about this year’s revenue loss. Financially speaking, what’s the toll?
Right now, we don’t know. Not really. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it, but to know how it really went, we’ll have to wait until the end of the season in September to see the numbers. Our goal was to do our best and try not to think too much about loss. The last four weeks of this season, as well as the weather, can make a big difference. And I must say that our sponsors have been very cool – they continued as if it was a normal year, and they’ve all been super supportive.
Since you missed the first month of the season, has the possibility of extending this year’s Freiluftkino period been discussed, in order to recuperate some of the losses?
We will discuss it, but our experience in going further into September has been that it’s too cold in the evenings. You always remember the warm September evenings, sitting outside with your friends, but normally you don’t sit still outside very late. But we will see. October is not an option. If we go deeper into September, it’ll be for only one more week. There’s also a lot of work and stress to factor into the organisation – it’s such a nice thing to do, and a lot of fun, but from our working capacity, an extra month is not doable.
Finally, do you think that the pandemic will change your business or operating model in future years at all?
Nobody knows exactly, but I think we’ll go back to normal. That’s the idea!
Make sure to book your tickets online for Freiluftkino season and keep on supporting them for their last four weeks of the 2020 season.