July 13, 2020 1.38 pm This story is over 45 months old

Richard Hall: Saturday night at the movies? Think again

“It’s nowhere near safe enough yet to be going to the cinema.”

Like other parts of the economy, cinemas are reopening. This will be welcomed by many, not least the industry which, according to some reports, has lost up to an estimated £900m in revenue during lockdown, the worst figures for a quarter of a century. The UK Cinema Association has issued a set of recommendations for a safe return, developed with the BFI, unions and Health and Safety Executive among others, which cinemas will be expected to follow. But is opening the right thing to do and what are the implications for cinemas, audiences and the Lincoln Film Society?

Significant changes are proposed. Responsibility for safety lies squarely with the cinemas and their staff. Risk assessments must be completed. To ensure maximum cleanliness and hygiene, staff will be encouraged to use PPE. There will be new procedures to avoid queuing outside and inside theatres. To allow for frequent cleaning, showings may be reduced in number, start times staggered and one-way traffic flows introduced for entering and leaving. Protective screens are recommended at concessions and pick and mix snacks are banned (popcorn only will be available). Seating will be reduced and allocated (probably via pre-booking) to create safe spaces between individuals and groups. Astonishingly, wearing masks is not obligatory for staff or customers.

Let’s unpack this a bit. From the outset, the advice was that the virus could be spread easily among groups of people via airborne droplets in the breath and touching contaminated surfaces, hence the need to keep 2m from one another and wash hands frequently with soap and water. And during April and May, many people did. However, because government messaging has been confusing, contradictory, and misleading — epitomised by a certain trip to Barnard Castle —  many have decided the pandemic is to all intents and purposes over and life can go back to ‘normal.’ 

Frankly, the government’s decision is irresponsible nonsense. Parents are refusing to send their children back to school because they don’t think it’s safe; theatres and concert halls aren’t allowed to reopen; football matches have to be played behind closed doors. Where is the logic that says cinemas are different? Things may not be as bad as they were, but watching a film with over 100 other people for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breathing one another’s air and doing so without masks before mixing with others outside looks dangerous; and, as we see with Boris Johnson’s recent assertion that some care homes bore responsibility for the death toll by ‘not following procedures’, cinema chains are recognising they will likely be blamed if people fall ill and staging their reopening gradually.

Why are government doing it? Medical experts on SAGE say the threat of a 2nd wave of the virus is serious. The World Health Organisation is also warning the ‘worst is yet to come’. Covid is obviously still circulating so surely every measure should be taken to stop it spreading. I get that the film industry is in crisis. I understand the government wants to get the economy moving. I know people are fed up with restrictions on their lives, but a bit of realism is surely needed. A cynic might just conclude the government’s political and economic calculation is that 44,500 dead, well over a thousand still in hospital, a fatality rate of 14%  and hundreds of new infections a day can’t damage them.

If the health risks don’t discourage people, operational changes might. Those who assume they can just walk in as they used to won’t like the inconvenience. Don’t be surprised either to find tickets costing more — a big problem to those on furlough or who have lost jobs — to cover the loss of revenue from installing safety precautions and reduced seating capacity and ticket sales. This all points to cinema audiences being slow to return, confirmed by an IPSOS Mori poll last week revealing that 59% people are very reluctant to do so, 

Our Lincoln Film Society members are very wary. They tend to be in the most vulnerable age groups and I am aware from comments they’ve made that – though keen to resume their film-going — they are nervous of the risks. We are taking it steady. 

As we are based at The Venue, who have to work out their own response, we cannot see ourselves starting  in September, as we usually do; we are thinking about returning in January, as most of our community cinema and film society colleagues are considering (though we won’t if the level of risk is too high); we may well abandon next season completely. 

Shouty slogans might make good soundbites, but to me — and to many others, it seems —  it’s nowhere near safe enough yet to be going to the cinema.

— Richard Hall is the chair of the Lincoln Film Society.

Once a teacher, now retired. Involved with Lincoln Film Society for more than 30 years and a committed cinephile: first, last, always.