Cineworld and Odeon plan to reopen cinemas by July – but is it the right call?

We weigh up the pros and the cons of reopening the cinemas in time for summer blockbuster season

Europe’s most famous cinema, London’s ODEON Luxe Leicester Square, has reopened to the capital’s film fans following an 11 month, multi-million-pound Luxe refurbishment that has transformed the UK’s ‘home of the premiere’ back into a global icon in the heart of London’s West End.

ODEON Luxe Leicester Square - the UK's first Dolby cinema - is the flagship cinema for ODEON Cinemas Group, Europe’s largest cinema operator.

At the start of 2020, I set myself the ambitious target of watching 100 films in the cinema before the year was out. It was a lofty goal, no doubt, but I found myself confident that I’d be able to get myself to the pictures twice a week throughout the year and treat myself to a mixture of both big blockbusters and more independent minded fare.

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In the early months of the project it was looking good. Before the end of February I’d found myself moved to tears by A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, been left a nervous wreck by Uncut Gems and been overawed by the sheer brilliance of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winner Parasite, in addition to enjoying all manner of other films from around the world. All this is to say that I love the cinematic experience more than just about anything – for me nothing can beat the joys of sitting in a packed, dark room and watching exciting action or mesmerising drama unfold on the biggest screen possible.

Alas, in mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc upon my plans (as it did, of course, with everyone’s). The closure of cinemas around the world caused me to abandon the project having only made an underwhelming 19 cinema trips. So much for that century!

Surely, then, I should wholeheartedly welcome the news that both Cineworld and Odeon have announced tentative plans to open their cinemas by July, government restrictions permitting. Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Cineworld announced their reopening plans today, saying,  “Cineworld currently anticipates that government restrictions related to cinemas will be lifted in each of its territories by July. Subject to this and confirmation of the schedule for film releases, Cineworld anticipates the reopening of all of its cinemas in July.”

Shortly afterwards, Odeon followed suit, declaring that it would be “ready to welcome guests back from early July”.

Now my initial reaction of course was one of happiness – a July reopening would mean that Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated new film Tenet will be available on the big screen for it’s original release date, while a slew of other releases might not be subject to the delays that we had thought inevitable.

Furthermore the cinema industry, like many others, has been profoundly hit by the crisis – with its income having all but dried up as a result – and so the possibility of an imminent reopening would undoubtedly mean a substantial boost to their floundering finances, even if packed screens are still some way off.

The problem is I just can’t shake the feeling that this opening all seems rather rushed, as if the decision is being taken with Summer blockbuster season in mind rather than public health. Of course, it has been stated that the opening is contingent on restrictions having been lifted, while the chains have made assurances that a number of safety measures will be taken – but despite this, something just doesn’t quite sit right.

The reopening strikes me as a business decision first and foremost – a feeling vindicated by the fact that Cineworld shares rose 25 per cent shortly after the announcement was made. And while I understand the reasons for making that decision, given the current dire financial climate, I remain unconvinced that it’s not still a little too soon for people to be flocking back to the big screen, even with reduced capacity.

My reaction to this is tempered by the fact that I am a former employee of both Cineworld and Odeon, having worked at the two chains for a cumulative total of a little under two years from 2015 to 2017. Now, if I was still working in that job today, I can’t help but imagine that I’d feel uncomfortable about being forced back into work with a global pandemic still ongoing, especially given that we live in a country with one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, and the fact a second peak is a distinct possibility. Furthermore different cinemas of different sizes will have their own unique problems – socially distanced queuing simply wouldn’t work in the tiny foyer of the Edinburgh Odeon I used to work in, for example, and so the universal opening of all cinemas seems to me somewhat ill-thought-out.

I believe that as much as possible should be done to support our cinemas (especially those which aren’t part of the big chains) at this difficult time – the cinematic experience is an absolutely vital part of our culture and I’m as worried as the next person about the long-term effect the crisis might have on the industry.

But that doesn’t mean we should take these steps before safety is absolutely assured – and while I have no doubt Cineworld and Odeon will do their best to make sure that is the case, I can’t pretend that I don’t feel a little uneasy about the re-opening. And so, if the cinemas do open in July I may well exercise caution and stay away for a little while longer. Perhaps I’ll reach the 100 film target in 2021…

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