Cinema: The COVID effect

By Caitlin Bardsley

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to anything and everything worldwide. For over a year the world was on and off. Many businesses unfortunately didn’t survive the continuous lockdowns the UK went through and were forced to close their doors forever. 

Cinemas took a massive hit when the lockdowns came into effect, with new releases being pushed back due to uncertainty about the pandemic. James Bond: No Time to Die, was the first cinema release to be affected by COVID. The release of the film was pushed back 3 times before it’ s release at the back end of 2021.

Many directors, during this time, had to think about if it was worth it to wait for a cinema release or if to send it straight to DVD or streaming platforms. One of the top streaming platforms Disney+ came about before the first ever UK lockdown, at the time, it wasn’t known that, that platform would get people through the uncertainty. For an additional fee on £20 on top of the subscription fee, you could watch these new releases from home as the cinemas were still closed.

Whilst some directors held off and wanted to wait for a theatrical release, some just sent straight to streaming platforms, knowing that would be the best financial move for them and they would walk away with a profit. For example, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre film (2022) was released under Netflix. Some think that this move was because this generation won’t be lining up in cinema to watch but would happily watch it at home on a whim.

Another example is The Irishman by Martin Scorsese. The director made the decision to release it on Netflix as the streaming platform offered the filmmakers the budget and resources to be able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

Empty cinema foyer

Before, during and after Covid

Eventually the cinemas began to open, but the days were slow. Anya Keleher, a customer assistant cinema worker in Leeds, talks about what the cinema was like before COVID, “We’re in the city centre so there used to be a constant stream of people. During the week it was usually slow because people were at work or school or university, but there was always something to be doing, there was always a customer to be serving.”

“Fast forward to, how long has it been? Nearly 2 years? People in work are struggling for hours. Only being given one shift a week. It’s not fair, but we know it can’t be helped. Most of the staff working here are students or recent graduates. We still have bills to pay, we still need to eat. It’s definitely made me more conscious when it comes to money.”

She then went on to say, that it’s not all bad as it is a very flexible workplace, where you can pick up shifts and give them away if needed.

“When it’s the school holidays like Easter, the hours are pretty good, and everyone is happy. Also, when there’s a popular release like a Marvel film, you know for the next few weeks you’re guaranteed a good set of shifts, possibly overtime too.”

Before COVID, depending on where you went, cinema tickets could range from £4.99 up to the £15 mark. That’s just for tickets. Regulars to the cinema have noticed a ticket price change and have wondered if that was the pandemics doing.

“We don’t get told ourselves when prices are changing. We log onto our till and have to notice and figure it out ourselves. Sometimes there not a massive change, but there are times we have to have a mess around for a few minutes to get a hang of it.”

“Even though we have staff discount, we still understand a rise in prices is going to cause people to complain or stop coming to the cinema all together. But at the end of the day, we’re not the one in control of our prices. Customers know this, but it still doesn’t stop a select few thinking that it’s my fault.” 

Ben & Jerrys stand

Buying snacks at the cinema has always been universally known as a ‘rip off’ but that doesn’t stop people from coming in early to purchase their snacks. Some still try sneak snacks in, not knowing that you don’t need to be secretive and that it’s not illegal to do so.

“There have been a few times where I’ve seen people’s bag’s bulging with snacks and trying to cover them with a jacket. We don’t care, we know ourselves how expensive cinema snacks are, and how expensive a cinema trip can be. I think to deny someone from bringing their own drinks and snacks to watch a 2 hour plus film is cruel, but I think every, if not most, cinemas allow outside snacks.”

sweet, salt or mixed?

As the lockdowns are over and COVID has essentially ‘gone away’ to some, that still doesn’t stop people from choosing to watch the new releases from the comfort of their own home. During the lockdowns when places were opening and closing every other month, cinemas followed the recommended guidelines of keeping a metre distance between each customer. This also applied when sitting in the screens, so there was limited space and tickets available. 

At the same time whilst films were being released in cinema, they were also being released on Disney+. Some you had to pay for or wait a few months to watch for free, and sometimes they were available straight away. Whilst the film Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds, hit cinemas, it wasn’t long before it was available on Disney+ for free at the same time. It’s a no brainer that people would rather stay home and watch it.

“Yeah, there has been a few times where were playing something that’s free to watch somewhere else. I feel like Disney+ has gotten in quite a bit of trouble during COVID for releasing things, but thankfully everything is back to normal and if you want to watch something you have to come to the cinema.”

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Did COVID kill cinema?

There has been debates that the pandemic has killed cinema or has sped up the death of it. Having new releases sent straight to streaming services has made people realise how much more convenient it is to watch at home, as well as how much cheaper it actually is. Being told to stay at home forced people to turn to streaming services, illegal and legal, to watch films that would usually be in cinemas.

Lawrie Lee, a cinema worker who has been there for 8+ years said, “Cinema is slowly dying. COVID definitely pushed that along, but with streaming services, cinema is bound to die out soon. I’m not talking next week or next year, but soon, directors are just going to be sending their films straight to platforms.”

“Working in the cinema before, during and after COVID, you can tell the difference. It was James Bond and the new Spiderman which got people back to the cinemas. I know if there’s a big release there will be big numbers because there are certain things that do need to be watched in cinema, but I know some people may not feel the same or care about where they watch a film.” 

“For some, sitting in a dark screen with a bunch of strangers all experiencing something for the first time is quite exciting.”

“I’ve worked here for long and have seen so many changes. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I don’t think people know how much the lockdowns affected cinema and the industry.”

Cinema worker Lawrie Lee

In 2020, the MPA, Motion Picture Association, released a report about the theatrical and home entertainment industry worldwide. According to their reports, “In 2020 the entire global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market totalled $80.8 billion, the lowest figure since 2016 and a decline of 18% from 2019. The sharpest decline was in theatrical revenue which dropped from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020. Theatrical entertainment accounted for only 15% of the total global entertainment venue, compared to 43% in 2019.”

There was no choice but to reply on home entertainment, but what would the figures be like if the pandemic never happened? 

The future of cinema

Trying to predict the fate of cinemas is near impossible. 2 years ago, if you would’ve told the world that they would be in the mist of a global pandemic which would change their entire way of living forever, guarantee they wouldn’t believe you. 

What’s to say something like COVID wouldn’t happen again. We’ve learnt from first-hand experience how uncertain the world is and that anything life changing could happen on a random weekday. If another pandemic was to happen, could that be the final straw for cinemas all over the world? There will always be a demand for cinema as it is a good pastime and a great place to make memories, but with streaming services, illegal and legal, being easily accessible, it’s understandable why people would rather stay at home. 

For some COVID has made them feel uncomfortable leaving the house. With government guidelines no more, places still encourage you to wear a mask, but as it’s not a requirement anymore, you cannot be made to. 

To make some customers feel more at ease, cinemas have kept up the plastic partition to try and protect its workers and the guests.

Partition between worker and customer

Even before COVID, people were slowing turning into home bodies, preferring to stay at home instead of venturing to the cinema. But with people being forced to stay at home, this has encouraged more people to stay in their ways even now that things have gotten back to normal. 

The appeal to stay at home and watch Netflix, Amazon Prime or Disney+ has only grown more since the latest releases of films have been above a certain age range. At home, no matter your age, you’re free to watch whatever film you please, but at the cinema, rules are rules. No ID. No entry.

“The new Batman film was a 15. We had to take it off our do it yourself screens because people were just getting sent back down for refunds due to them not having ID. I think the workers get kind of nervous when it’s a popular film, especially ones rated 15. It’s that age where the person could genuinely be 15 or 13, whereas with an 18 rated film, you have a better understanding if someone is of age,” says Lawrie.

“If I had a pound for every refund I’ve done relating to ID issues, I’d be set for life.”

Film age ratings & meanings

Having a drink is also an option people like to have when watching a film, but to continuously be leaving the screen to grab another drink is another reason people would prefer the streaming flatform route. If you need to grab or do anything, just pause.

Cinema’s alcohol policy

Whilst it doesn’t seem like cinema is going anywhere at the minuet, the continuous rise in ticket and snack prices could be pushing potential customers away. With new streaming platforms popping up every year with their competitive subscription price, it’s easy to see why staying at home is the desired choice.

Why would you pay nearly £10 for one singular ticket when you could subscribe to a streaming platform for less than that and have access to hundreds of films?