Special Report: with social distancing rules in place we report on three Nordic countries strategies on getting the public back into cinemas.
After Sweden, cinemas in Iceland and Norway are now partly operational, trying to keep afloat while hoping for a full cinema kickstart mid-July when Christopher Nolan's $200m Warner Bros film is scheduled to be released.
We take stock of the situation in the three Nordic countries, as Danish and Finnish cinemas are still waiting for a re-opening in June.
While the country’s unique approach of staying open unlike the rest of Europe has drawn worldwide attention, the AMC-controlled largest chain Filmstaden (264 screens/38 cinemas) decided to shut down starting March 18.
The second largest circuit Svenska Bio, minority-owned by Filmstaden (200 screens/35 cinemas) kept two venues open - the Grand and Victoria in Stockholm with regular programming - while applying the 50 people maximum capacity per auditorium.
Peter Fornstam, head of the Swedish exhibitors’ Association and of the Svenska Bio chain said his remaining cinemas have been converted into ‘Bio on Demand’ (cinema on demand), for gamers or people wanting to rent a venue for private screenings of a film in Svenska Bio’s server. “We’ve had over 600 bookings so far,” he told nordicfilmandtvnews.com. “We make enough money to cater for our staff, but we’re nowhere near the normal BO receipts. We do this to keep cinemas in people’ s mind during this down period and to keep the staff excited and employed."
As well as Svenska Bio, few independent cinemas are also open, such as the Capitol and Zita cinemas in Stockholm and some of Folkets Bio’s 19 cinemas spread across the country.
“Maybe 70 out of a total of 800 screens in Sweden are semi-operational today,” stated Fornstam.
Katrina Mathsson, head of marketing and distribution at Folkets Bio noted that Swedes have kept away from the silver screens. “There has been far from 50 people at each screening - more like 5 at the most,” she commented.
Folkets Bio’s arthouse distribution arm has “spent time trying to get support, planning for the future, as well as releasing content as much as possible on VOD platforms,” said Mathsson. “We are working on getting our catalogue out, but have postponed larger titles for the re-opening, which we hope will be around August,” she said. Films currently screening include A White, White Day, Portrait of a Woman and The Bait.
Other players such as Jakob Abrahamsson-owner of Stockholm’s prestige arthouse Capitol cinema and head of NonStop Entertainment Distribution, has also used the cinema on demand model and launched some new films simultaneously in cinemas and on VOD (Pablo Larrains’ Ema, Michael Winterbottom’s A Trip to Greece) next to normal cinema releases.
To support the industry impacted by Covid-19 between March 12-May 31, the Swedish Film Institute has just granted SEK 50 million (€4.7m), including around SEK 33.7 million (€3.1m) for cinemas and SEK 15.7 million (€1.4m) for distributors.
Filmstaden and Svenska Bio received the lion-share of cinema grants with SEK 10 million each, although Fornstam said this is far from enough, citing the low number of tickets sold in April (24,950) compared to 643,844 in April 2019.
Filmstaden’s precarious financial state (linked to AMC’s rumours of bankruptcy) is another major threat for the entire Swedish film industry.
Meanwhile Fornstam is waiting for Hollywood’s first summer tentpole film-Christopher Noland’s Tenet (scheduled for a July 17 release) to boost cinemagoing again. “I pray that he [Nolan] will be there for us! he said.
Last weekend, the top selling film at the Swedish top 10 was Disney’s Onward that added 704 admissions from 38 screens (50,7743 total admissions after 11 weeks). The Swedish film My Father Marianne (Nordisk Film) was number 3, with an extra 367 admissions from 17 screens. Total admissions after 12 weeks on screens are 212,584. At number 9, SF Studios’ JerryMaya’s Detective Agency-The Mystery of the Train Robber sold an extra 182 tickets from 16 screens, with cumulated admissions reaching 177,212 after 15 weeks.
Cinemas that closed March 23, have reopened May 4, with a 50 people per screen maximum capacity and 2 meters between people and families, forcing smaller auditoriums to sell between 15- 30 tickets maximum, with three seats left empty between different groups/individuals.
So far only 3 out of 7 cinemas in Reykjavik are open, with 14 screens total, and in the countryside, only one cinema (out of 9) is open, with 2 screens out of 13.
The government is set to ease social distancing rules May 25.
In terms of concessions, pick & mix is closed, but the rest is authorised, with the 2-meter distance rule applied.
According to Þorvaldur Árnason, managing director of the major distribution outfit Samfilm (distribution arm of Samfilm cinemas), representing several US studios such as Disney and Warner Bros, cinemas have played a mix of repertoire titles, and films that were on screens when cinemas closed. Few new films have been programmed.
Last weekend’s new releases included the US biopic Capone, number 2 at the Top 10 with 335 tickets from 3 screens, Just Mercy (Samfilm’s Warner Bros release that had been on hold), number 4 with 262 tickets, and the German animated film Birds of a Feather (Myndform), number 5 with 205 tickets sold from 3 screens. The top selling film was the local comedy The Last Fishing Trip by Thorkell Hardarson and Örn Marino Arnarson with an extra 760 admissions from 4 screens for a total of 16,116 after 11 weeks.
Árnason said the cinema sector is waiting for two Hollywood tentpoles to kick start cinema-going this summer: Mulan - confirmed by Disney, and Tenet. "We need to keep the few cinemas that are open afloat until we get some studio product by mid-July,” he said.
Besides support to furlough, the government allocated a rescue package of ISK120m (€756,000) towards development, promotion and low budget films, administered by the Icelandic Film centre.
Closed since March 12, cinemas reopened May 7, with restrictions including 50 people maximum per screen capacity and 1-meter space between people. Cinemas have to use every other row and leave 2 seats empty between customers from different households. Concessions are sold as normal, although popcorn mugs are filled in advance.
Film & Kino, the national cinema association reported a ‘soft-opening' the first week, but as of May 21, 107 cinemas (out of 211) are open across the nation, including 12 (out of 21) from the second cinema chain Nordisk Film Kino, while most of Odeon’s 13 cinemas remain closed, waiting for the Hollywood blockbusters.
Among the 107 cinemas are four drive-in cinemas, including Oslo’s Telenor Arena, run with Filmweb, Nordisk Film and Rema 1000.
Jørgen Stensland, head of department at Film & Kino says the drive-in cinemas where good venues during cinemas’ lockdown, in the darker winter days, but now only the indoor venues-such as the Telenor-Arena are really worthwhile he said.
Nordisk Film Distribution’s managing director Morten Christoffersen concurs with Stensland: “Drive-in cinemas was just a way to make some screenings during the shutdown. It was close to zero business for us,” he said.
For Stensland, supply of fresh films is crucial to attract cinema-goers. A survey conducted by Film & Kino before the reopening of cinemas, showed that 82% of interviewees put the type of films playing as first criteria to go back to the cinemas, while 44% valued health control measures.
Stensland said having access to big local titles is particularly important. “Every year, Norway has 2-3 local films at the top 10, notably family movies or disaster movies. We are negotiating with Nordic distributors to get them to move their big local films earlier in the summer, instead of having them in the fall where it will be ‘dog eat dog’. There is space now for local films as several Hollywood films have been pushed to later in the year or 2021, and we’re willing to give distributors better deals in terms of screen time and number of sites. We need blockbusters to fill the cinemas,” he urged.
Large Nordic distributors are also carefully assessing the cinema market situation across the Nordics.
SF Studios’ Pia Grünler, Nordic Head of Theatrical told nordicfilmandtvnews.com: “We have films, both local and international pick-ups, in our theatrical line-up ready to be launched as soon as we know that the cinemas are opening up. However, we need the commitment from the cinema owners that they can offer us enough capacity across the country so that we have the possibility to reach our expectations,” she said.
“Looking at the result from Norway where cinemas opened up, with the same kind of restrictions on May 7, we feel positive. We can work with the crowd limitations, but we need to have the majority of exhibitors in Sweden - Filmstaden and Svenska Bio - with us for those launches. At this point, we are working towards a soft opening during June and a broader opening during July, if nothing extra ordinary should occur.”
Asked if she would consider moving bigger local films to an early summer release, she said: “Yes that is something we are looking into. The US major studios’ move of blockbuster films towards the end of the year or the beginning of 2021, gives us some new opportunities with our local films to be launched without heavy competition,” she stated, adding: “We know from recently made surveys, that the audience is longing to go back to the cinemas again, and 75% of the general audience say that they want to go to the cinemas again as soon as the cinemas open up - as long as they feel secure and there is some new and big films to see. So even with the restrictions in crowd-size, we see an opportunity to open our local films earlier since those restrictions can be compensated for by more screens and more starting times at the cinemas. Therefore all these factors, and the possibility for a longer run without heavy competition for a film, should give our local films a good opportunity to reach expectations, even if it will take longer under these circumstances,” she said.
As of May 18, SF Studios has lined up for a July opening the Swedish family film Rymdresan starring Robert Gustafsson, and the local comedy Bert by Michael Lindgren produced by FLX.
Nordisk Film Distribution’s head of local acquisitions Rasmus Krogh said he is “looking at all options to boost cinema-going again”, while trying to “find the right dates” for all of Nordisk’s films across the Nordics.
“Many of the films we have slated for the autumn release are still in post and/or have been impacted by the Covid-19 situation and can’t be released earlier (i.e. during the summer). However, we are very aware of the fact that we as a business need to boost cinema-going again, and that the cinemas need fresh product on the shelf, so to speak. We’ve been in a dialogue with the major cinema chains offering them local and international films for the re-openings. They include films, whose tails were cut short by the closures, but we are also bringing new Nordic titles to the market. Captain Sabertooth and the Magic Diamond in Denmark and Sweden, Klown-the final in Norway (premiered already) and My Father Marianne in Finland to name a few.”
Meanwhile Scanbox has just released the Danish WW2 film Into the Darkness by Anders Refn in Norway (via Norsk Filmdistribusjon). The Swedish launch is set for May 25.
Merete Christensen, Scanbox Head of Theatrical said the distribution group’s other anticipated Danish film - Wildland starring Sidse Babett Knudsen which was scheduled to open March 12, will now premiere “as soon as Danish cinemas reopen”. “We have had to push all our Q2 releases and do not have a full overview yet of how our line-up will look like. This also means that we are now looking more into buying titles for 2022,” she said.
Positive outlook for cinemas
Asked about the overall potential lasting effect of Covid-19 on theatrical releases and windowing strategies, all distributors and exhibitors interviewed remained optimistic for the future of the silver screen. “We believe the audience will come back to the cinemas in full force,” asserted Krogh. “We believe a lasting positive effect of the Covid-19 crisis relating to distribution and consumption of film will be that the audience is more attuned to consuming films in the digital home entertainment window. During the Covid lockdowns, we’ve seen a massive spike in the consumption of EST (Electronic Sell Through) and TVOD and we believe that this trend will continue on the other side of the crisis,” he said.
Grünler concurred with him: “In the long run we don’t think it [Covid-19] will affect the audience’s interest and willingness to go to the cinemas. It might have an effect on their choice of what films to see on the big screen and what film to see at home. But we think, (and surveys confirm this) that in general, they love that theatrical experience and long for it."
Mathsson added that hopefully, after Covid-19, “the audience will have acquired a taste for meaningful content online, and also a hunger for a mutual film experience, unique for the cinema.“ She goes on: “In the best-case scenario, smaller intimate arthouse venues with a curated content will fill that need. The difference between arthouse and blockbuster is becoming exceedingly polarised and hopefully the audience will see the difference and the necessity of both,” she said.