From Monday, November 2, all leisure and cultural facilities had to close once more, as Germany went into a new state of lockdown. Cinemas, which were shut down for several months earlier in the year, are also affected by what Prime Minister of Bavaria Markus Söder has dubbed a “four-week therapy”. But can indie kinos survive this therapy treatment and will they be able to open their doors once more next month?
We spoke to Dr. Christian Bräuer, the president of the CICAE (the non-profit organisation that promotes cultural diversity in cinemas and festivals, which counts 4000 screens across 46 countries), the CEO of AG Kino – the German arthouse cinema association which represents the interests of over 300 independent cinemas nationwide – and one of the managing directors of Yorck Kinogruppe, which operates 14 arthouse cinemas in Berlin. He shared with us his take on the closure of culture and how current resolutions could trigger economic concerns and further endanger the country’s cultural landscape.
This second lockdown must feel like a slap in the face for cinemas that have made efforts to implement hygiene parameters which have been approved by health and regulatory authorities.
From our point of view, it is very disappointing. Cinemas are very secure places with strict sanitary measures. The distanced seating and ventilation systems put in place have ensured that there have been no clusters or hotspots linked to cinemagoing. There isn’t a case in the world in which a cinema was the source of infection. We have been monitoring and testing the air quality throughout, and audiences have been very disciplined, so yes, this lockdown is painful for us.
Do you feel like the government is barking up the wrong tree with this new lockdown?
Yes. It’s very frustrating that these efforts are not appreciated or enough in the eyes of the government. It wasn’t easy to secure all these parameters and cultural institutions have made a lot of efforts. To be fair, we understand that it’s security first and that more measurements are necessary in order to tackle this crisis. We have to accept this. We would just appreciate different measurements, as infection transmission paths don’t fit with locations like cinemas and the security concepts in place. The rooms are properly ventilated, there’s no overcrowding… I know it’s not easy, and it’s difficult to close schools, for example, but we know that there are more infections in schools than in cultural spaces. Same goes for offices.
In your opinion, what would have been a better alternative to shutting down cultural spaces?
I feel like it would have been possible to keep cultural spaces open. Yes, Berlin has many cinemas, but we can only sell one out of five tickets now, so it wouldn’t be overcrowded if a few people went to the cinema or to the theatre. It’s a secure space and it’s easier to know where people are in places that are implementing sanitary concepts. We will see what happens in four weeks, whether this second lockdown was enough to convince people that cinemas aren’t overcrowded places where people are close or share glasses, for example.
There isn’t a case in the world in which a cinema was the source of infection.
I saw that certain Yorck kinos have used their billboards to send messages. Kino International wrote “Take care of each other” on their billboard, and Neues Off brilliantly went for “The Nightmare Before Christmas”…
Yes, the team deserves credit there, not the management side. They’ve been creative and said what they wanted to say!
Are these signs a way of alerting people to the risk of endangering culture, or simply to send messages of hope?
That’s it! To me, it’s both. Like I said, we have to accept this second closure, and we want to fight corona in order to have a real cultural life again, but we also have to protest it. One Yorck kino billboard reads: “Ohne kunst und kultur wirds still”. Right now, we need to say that culture is relevant and not a luxury good. It’s necessary for all societies – especially democratic societies – and it makes life easier for people in times of crisis. It’s also necessary for debate and conversation about other topics going on in the world that aren’t linked to the pandemic. Germany may be Lufthansa first, but culture needs to stand up and say: don’t forget us!
As the president of the CICAE, you stated that future of cinema as a cultural venue is under threat and that if measures don’t take effect soon, bankruptcies can be expected. Can kinos weather this second storm?
We were closed for nearly four months in spring and since then we can sell only one out of five tickets. It worked quite well, despite the circumstances. Now, if cinemas are closed for a prolonged period of time, and if we don’t get any support, no cinema can survive unless they pay no rent. There was support earlier this year from Medienboard and Berlin Senat, but the issue is that Yorck was too big for the small company compensations, but too small for the support given to big companies. There needs to be a way to support medium-sized companies in the cultural sector. It is important that the compensations happen quickly, and I hope that the government do as they said.
You’re referring to the aid package for the culture and events industry called for by the State Minister for Culture Monika Grütters?
Yes. We discussed it with the Senat and Monika Grütters, even before the second closure. It’s of vital importance that cultural spaces get this compensation right now, but it’s also important that there is a fixed plan from the government. Even if we reopen soon, it’ll still be under the terms of the pandemic, and we all know it takes time – minimum til summer, maybe even longer. What we need is a strategy for the months to come, so we’re not reopening and closing again, for the sake of everyone: our staff, the distributors, the marketing…
The way audiences consume films has evolved. During the pandemic, many films have bypassed cinema releases altogether, like Mulan, Soul, and there are even rumours that the new James Bond film might head to Netflix. Do you see these new models as even more of a threat for cinemas in post-Corona times?
The question of what comes after is interesting – cinemas getting out of this crisis, if they survive, may have less market relevance. Streaming services, like Disney, might continue to change their strategies. This market power concentration is a big risk. Corona has definitely accelerated a lot of trends that were already there, whether it’s market power concentration or streaming subscriptions. But there have been some good developments, and it has become clear that cinemas must do more with regards to digital customer communication and online services. It’s a question of rethinking market strategies, thinking about the best ways of reaching an audience.
What do you think about the big Hollywood studios postponing their major releases?
Movies are postponed or going directly to streaming platforms, but last month, we had an excellent programme that showcased the works of brave independent distributors. They might not be big titles that everybody knows, but it was a diverse and high-quality programme. It’s terrific that despite the paralysed international film market, some distributors dared to release their films.
I’m not that convinced that we will reopen on December 1.
The audiences seem to have responded to this and shown their confidence in kinos, as the screenings that took place during the last weekend before the Monday lockdown were sold out in many cases.
Exactly. Berliners went to the cinema and they trust Yorck’s programming and safety. As you said, we had lots of sold-out screenings for the last weekend, and all the surveys that have taken place after screenings showed that over 90 percent of cinemagoers felt safe. Cinemas have behaved responsibly, audiences have been very disciplined, and people seemed to feel happy that cultural life was possible in times of corona. The audience appreciation is wonderful. Berlin has one of the most diverse cinema markets. We know our audience and our audience trust us. It’s the same with Wolf Kino, Moviemento, Il Kino and many others – they know their audience and people know what to expect when they go to these places.
Looking ahead, how hopeful are you with regards to an eventual reopening in December?
I’m not that convinced that we will reopen on December 1. I hope we can, and there is no shortage of great films to show, but I’m realistic and I doubt that infection numbers can reduce that fast. The issue is not knowing, as the release of films requires a certain predictability and marketing budgets. Best-case scenario is the start of December. Real-case scenario is probably a date closer to Christmas. Worst case would be next year.
Finally, in your opinion, will the Berlinale take place at the beginning of next year?
I really hope so, because film festivals like the Berlinale are very important for our market. What is clear to me is that we won’t have a usual Berlinale – it’s not possible, especially because February is not that far away. I hope that there can be a ‘real’ Berlinale, even if it’s a smaller edition. It would be such a good and necessary sign to send, a statement for cinema and independent cinema, showing that culture can take place in these difficult times.