Kate Andrews

Can cinemas survive a year of Covid restrictions?

Can cinemas survive a year of Covid restrictions?
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Cineworld is to close its 128 cinemas - saying that the Covid restrictions have made its business "unviable". It's terrible to see that word applied to the cinema industry - and even worse to think of the 5,500 jobs this will impact. But the truth is that many businesses can’t survive what will be a year’s worth of restrictions - based on PM’s timeline where he's talking about some kind of scientific breakthrough by Easter.

The final straw for Cineworld was the delay of the new 007 film No Time to Die, now due out next April on the logic that this would maximise takings. 

But how many cinemas will still be around then to show this film - or any others?  According to the Sunday Times, Cineworld's bosses are writing to the Prime Minister to explain why his restrictions have forced them under - and the risk facing the UK's £6 billion film industry.

Cineworld falls into a long line of businesses having to to scale back and possibly make redundancies. But the full closure of all its UK film theatres serve as a stark reminder of how badly hospitality and leisure industries have been impacted by measures brought in to respond to the pandemic. And Hollywood hasn't helped either: Wonder Woman 2 has been delayed on the same logic. Other than Christopher Nolan's Tenent, cinemas have not had much to work with. Disney's Mulan went straight to streaming - and a new £20 watch-it-at-home charge. Much of what is being shown in cinemas now are repeats of films viewers can watch at home. 

If, as the Prime Minister laid out weeks ago, the current restrictions are expected to last for another six months we're looking at businesses being shut - or dealing with reduced capacity - for at least a year. If big firms like Cineworld are struggling with funding – taking a £1.3bn hit in the last three months – smaller venues will stand little chance of making it through to 2021.

And what if that six-month timeline is extended? On today’s Marr show, Boris Johnson said he hopes and believes ‘that in the course of the next weeks and months, the scientific equation will change and we will start to see progress, whether it is on vaccines or on testing, that will enable us to take a different approach.’ 

These are optimistic scenarios – but ones that have no guarantee of succeeding. A similar optimism was put forward by Oxford professor Sarah Gilbert, head of one of the teams developing the vaccine, at the start of the pandemic, suggesting we could have a vaccine in September. But September has come and gone, and the timeline has moved to spring 2021 – at the earliest. Meanwhile, 'operation moonshot' – the plan for 10 million Covid tests to be carried out each day – remains a mere pipeline dream, as demands for tests last month meant reverting to specific eligibility to get one. 

Cineworld hopes it can reopen its doors next year, and rehire the staff it will have to make redundant now. If the Prime Minister’s hopes and beliefs turn into reality, there’s a good chance it will. But if the current set of rules and restrictions are, according to Johnson, 'the line we have to follow' until then, it's near impossible to see anything but a grim winter - with many more horrible updates to come.