As the city’s cinema screen blackout heads into its third week now, David Mouriquand takes a break from his housebound streaming routine to spare a thought for the precarious fate of Berlin’s independent Kinos.
With social distancing in full effect and studios having to cancel their upcoming film releases, local cinemas are fearing for their future. One of them is indie cinema WOLF Kino, a favourite amongst cinephiles for their sharply curated OV arthouse, film workshops, screenings for the littluns, quiz nights, as well as a studio and exhibition space where local filmmakers can meet with the audience.
We had a chat with WOLF founder Verena von Stackelberg, about negotiating financial survival, sticking together during challenging times, as well as the crisis’ long-term repercussions on cinemas and people’s habits.
Can you recall the timeline regarding the closure of the cinema?
Well, I had a couple of sleepless nights and noticed that moviegoers were getting a bit nervous. It was about grasping the situation and feeling responsible for my customers. The days prior to closure, I was on the phone with the local authorities and the cinema funding bodies, and we had already reduced the seat size of the cinemas and ordered disinfection. I decided to close on the morning of Saturday, March 14, and later that day, it was officially announced that all cinemas had to close.
How did it feel? WOLF was funded as a result of a successful crowdfunding campaign and it was your first break after three pretty successful years, right?
Yes, we felt we were finally getting there, and we were making good numbers. It was all going uphill, so it’s been even more tough to have to pause at this stage.
Unlike big chains, I guess you don’t have a capital cushion to fall back on. How much do you risk at this point?
Where to start? I’m very lucky because the landlords are also part of my company, so they’re relatively understanding of the situation so far. I think we all can deal with a month of this shutdown, knowing also that there’s some financial support. But we don’t have a big safety net, and cinemas have a very high rate of maintenance costs. The summer is always tougher for attendance, so you have to have savings to get you through any kind of period of less income. But the safety net goes quite quickly. It’s an existential situation for cinemas, I would say.
Have you had to let go of any staff?
No, I haven’t, because we’ve worked very hard on building a good team, and a good team is hugely important. We need very specific people who are passionate about what they do, who can multitask and deal with customers… I’d have to hit rock bottom before I let go of anyone. And I trust that aid packages will help.
What kind of financial support is available to you at this time?
One of them is an application to have employment pay for at least a percentage of the staff costs, so-called Kurzarbeitergeld. The other is that Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg has given all the cinemas who are eligible for the Cinema Programming Award, which we are part of every year, an advance of €10,000. This sounds like a lot, but it’s basically money we will not be getting from them later in the year. And it’s money we’ll need later on. Even if it doesn’t cover half of what cinemas need per month for rent, wages and side costs, it is good to have this kind of bandage now. But it’s not the ideal situation. Even if I appreciate how simple they’ve made it.
They said: “Send us your bank account details and we’ll transfer you the money.”
That’s surprisingly unbureaucratic of them!
Completely. It’s unbureaucratic, and quick access to funds while we’re waiting on an announcement by the official government bodies on how they can support us. The support packages by the government so far are either interest-free loans, which are very uninteresting in a way, because I don’t have to have more debt. Or a few small-sized businesses or the self-employed can apply for money, but I don’t think we fall into the small-sized category, as we have more than 10 employees.
I don’t think that the public should be held accountable for making up for our losses.”
With local favourites such as Lichtblick Kino, Moviemento and Il Kino to name a few, as well as the Yorck group, WOLF is among the 33 theaters to take part in a Berlin arthouse crowdfunding campaign, kicking off today. Nice to see you’re all sticking together against adversity.
Yes, its launching today [Friday, March 27] and we’re happy to show solidarity and participate, but to be honest, I don’t think that the public should be held accountable for making up for the losses due to this crisis. Of course, there are plenty of people who are fully employed, who continue to be paid, and they can donate because they’re in a more comfortable position. But I really think that this can’t be the solution overall. But of course it’s a very nice initiative, mainly because all cinemas are getting together and helping each other.
What’s the game plan if the arbitrary date of April 19 gets pushed back and you can’t reopen for a few more weeks, or longer?
I really don’t know, to be honest. I’m unsure what to trust in the media when people say that this is just the beginning of a much longer period of closure. Some say it will take until maybe September or even a year. And if that’s the case, we’re basically fucked! One or two months, we can handle and there will be support systems that will help us. I also think that at this stage landlords are urged to be understanding. But not every landlord is a millionaire who can just afford to donate some months’ rent…
Let’s be optimistic and imagine that cinemas get to reopen sooner rather than later, what long-term repercussions do you envisage?
I’m quite worried about the different levels of trauma – for lack of a better word – that people might feel. For example that they might experience a sense of unease in crowded spaces for a period of time after places reopen. If we get to reopen in the summer, we’ll just have to think of an open-air cinema option. We’ll have to be resourceful.
The way we consume films has greatly evolved over the last years, with movie theatres already heavily challenged by streaming services. Considering these are peak times for streaming and studios are now sometimes releasing films online, do you see this as a further threat?
Yes, this is the biggest worry. This situation messes so much with the release schedule, and distributors are beginning to have day-and-date releases [when a film becomes available in theaters, DVD and VoD all on the same day, with no exclusivity window for cinemas]. I was always fully embracing this, but my vision from now on is that cinema programming will not be defined so much by new releases anymore – with cinemas being that special, exclusive place where you’re able to catch new releases first. By now people know that whatever we show, they can watch it at home. And I think the market is going to shift and there will be more and more day-and-date. There’s no going backwards. We will have to be much, much more creative in the way we programme, and our model will be more event-based. And more based on the love of cinemagoers for their local cinemas.
Do you think it might galvanize a protective sense of community around theatres?
I think it’s a huge acceleration of a development that was going on for years. It’s happening a little too fast now for most cinemas to adapt. At WOLF, this has always been the concept – we have events, people come and watch films even though some are also available somewhere else online. For example, we were about to screen Bacurau, the Brazilian film by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. It was just made available on MUBI [the distributor and subscription-based streaming OTT service that offers online streaming of a hand-curated selection of films] and WOLF. Our concept was to collaborate with MUBI on a select amount of titles that they’re not releasing theatrically in Germany but have theatrical rights for. So, we could have exclusive cinema screenings of these films. And I think that there are people who would rather pick the cinema to watch it. So we’d been slowly moving in this direction, but now, it’s like ‘Bang!’ – It’s here and we have to deal with it. I do also want to mention that other distributors like Grandfilm, have launched a VoD service on their website, and they give 50 percent of the income to cinemas they often work with. It’s not much, because VoD revenue for the films we show is tiny, but it’s a great initiative.
To end on a positive note, have you had many messages of support that have kept optimism levels up?
Yes, a lot. People are writing and asking how they can help. Also the day I was closing the cinema, I had one really wonderful encounter with an old man from the neighbourhood, whom I know from seeing him walk his dog by the cinema every day. He came up and asked if we were closing. We got talking and he said he knew people and would send me an email with some ideas. And he did – it was a very long email, with lovely lines like “Don’t lose hope”, “Places like yours are essential to the neighbourhood” and “Go and lobby wherever it takes you to save the cinema”. I think this old man is right survival will mean a lot of lobbying. And it’s up to the cinemas now to make themselves heard, to start to shout and scream.
WOLF KINO | Weserstraße 59. Visit their website and support your local independent cinemas.