‘I still think there will be cinema – nothing can replace the live experience,’ Institute of Contemporary Arts director, Stefan Kalmár, tells me. We are speaking about the nature of film screenings in a post-lockdown UK and how this might change the ICA’s relationship with its audience – particularly with the recent and inevitable shift to online viewing. The London arts organization isn’t planning to reopen its building on The Mall until September and, its two screens hopefully within this year. ‘Theatre, live art, gigs, performances – all will be impacted going forward,’ he adds.
Kalmár, who since becoming director in 2016 has stressed the important social role of the institution, says that the closure costs the ICA £350,000 per month. While it’s possible to see ways its gallery programme could operate safely upon reopening, the challenges facing cinema are of a different order. ‘With the physical distancing required for each person, you lose two seats in front, behind, left and right – except with “pods” [people who live together]. Effectively, that means one ticket sold will represent 16 tickets before.’ Translate that to the ICA’s main screen with 185 seats and a second with just 45, and the numbers clearly don’t work.
Holli Keeble, CEO of Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, is concerned about the practical and economic considerations of post-lockdown programming. ‘There are a number of physical factors at play,’ she explains when we speak for this article. ‘Firstly, many independent cinemas don’t occupy buildings that have spacious public areas which could work as holding areas to control the flow of people. Our cinema, for example, is a beautiful but idiosyncratic heritage site from 1937.’ While Tyneside has three main screens, ranging in capacity from 89 to 263, Keeble points out that for the many single-screen sites across the UK, reduced capacity will be particularly challenging. ‘Cinemas will be required to demonstrate imagination and create new revenue streams to survive over the next 12 to 18 months,’ she believes.
Purpose-built and opened in 2015, with five screens and a spacious layout, Manchester multi-arts venue HOME is, perhaps, better placed than most to adapt to life under COVID-19 restrictions. Jason Wood, creative director of film and culture, says that, when it does re-open, HOME will return ‘with a film programme that will allow audiences to come back gradually, but then also be able to cope when they return in greater numbers. We also have five screens, which gives us greater seat numbers to play with and thus greater revenue potential.’ Business as usual, he adds, will not be an option. ‘We need to respect that people will be wary, and we need to ensure that they – and staff – feel safe within the building. It will be a new environment, and a period of adaptation will be vital.’
Kalmár, too, is mindful of how audiences will feel about ‘returning to the cinema in poorly ventilated, confined spaces’. While Wood is bullish about the impact increased online viewing might have on HOME’s future audience (‘The online experience has existed alongside the theatrical experience for at least five years… it has never affected our ticket income,’ he says), Kalmár wonders about changed viewing habits and ‘what the behaviour will be’ once cinemas begin to reopen. While expressing doubts about ‘the online frenzy that is happening right now’, his scepticism is tempered by the possibilities it offers. This summer, for example, the ICA will launch ‘Cinema 3’ on its website, offering two screenings a week, one of which will be from a filmmaker who, for political or cultural reasons, can’t show in their own country – thus, in theory at least, providing the opportunity for the film to be seen by viewers in that country.
Across the UK, the next year or so will be crushingly difficult for all aspects of cinema. But, while creating safe spaces for audiences will bring a financial burden that some will struggle to bear, Kalmár sounds ready for the challenge. ‘Nothing was ever invented by planning a financial return,’ he says. ‘Niche has always been the marketplace of the ICA.’
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