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Cinemas across Europe are enjoying a box office bump thanks to the stellar performance of Spider-Man: No Way Home over the weekend but the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has many worried theaters could be in for a dark winter.
Governments in Denmark and The Netherlands closed all cinemas this past weekend in response to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew for theaters, bringing cinemas in line with coronavirus restrictions already in place there for bars and restaurants. The Dutch government plans to keep the country in lockdown until Jan. 14, Denmark’s new restrictions will keep theaters shut until Jan. 17.
The moves have sparked fears of a repeat of 2020 when surging COVID-19 infection rates shut down cinemas over most of the continent. Europe is a global hotspot for the coronavirus pandemic, with infection rates rising sharply in France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. and still near record levels in countries such as Germany and Poland.
At the moment, cinemas remain open in most countries and, despite capacity and other restrictions, business has been good. Spider-Man: No Way Home grossed a phenomenal $113 million in Western Europe over its first weekend led by a $42.3 million, five-day take in the U.K. the 4th highest opening of all time in the territory. The film’s performance in France ($19.2 million), Italy ($13 million), Germany ($11.4 million) and Spain ($10.4 million) was also blockbuster-worthy. Russia’s $17.9 million first weekend marked the 5th-best of all time in the territory.
In the Netherlands, Spider-Man: No Way Home swung to a $1.07 million weekend opening, the 4th highest this year in the territory, despite cinemas shutting down on Sunday and 5 p.m. evening curfews on Friday and Saturday.
There are worrying signs, however, that omicron could put an end to all that.
In the U.K., a shocking rise in COVID-19 cases — more than 82,000 daily new infections — has made stricter restrictions all but inevitable. British health minister Sajid Javid said Sunday that fresh COVID restrictions could be imposed before Christmas, with a decision planned in the coming days. In Germany, health minister Karl Lauterbach has explicitly ruled out a Dutch-style lockdown before Christmas but new measures, including shutting cinemas and other public venues, are looking increasingly likely after the German government’s expert panel on coronavirus this weekend called for further contact restrictions to prevent the health system being overwhelmed by omicron.
“The overall impact [of cinema closures] in Denmark and the Netherlands is not so great since they are not huge territories, but we expect other countries to follow,” says Rob Mitchell, director of theatrical insights at London-based box office analysts Gower Street. “The box office impact of one of the big six territories in Europe shutting down — the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain or Russia — would be much more severe.”
Mitchell says the new wave of shutdowns is “particularly frustrating” for European cinema owners, given the blockbuster success of Spider-Man. “Spider-Man showed clearly that, for the right film, audiences are ready to come back to cinemas,” he says. “In places like the Netherlands where theaters have shut, that audience has been lost.”
Despite this, many in the industry remain cautiously optimistic, noting that relatively high levels of vaccination across Europe and the experience gained from previous lockdowns make a repeat of late 2020 unlikely.
“Last year in December, where everything was shut, we had absolutely no idea when cinemas would reopen,” notes Laura Houlgatte, CEO of European exhibitors’ association UNIC. “The overall feeling amongst our members is that now we’re in a very different place compared to last year. People are vaccinated and across most of our territories, there’s no big desire to go through the big lockdowns or shutdowns of entire sections of the economy. In places where we have seen lockdowns — like Austria and Latvia — they have tended to be shorter, around two weeks, and then things opened up again.”
Christine Berg, head of HDF Kino, an exhibitors group representing German theaters, told The Hollywood Reporter another lockdown would be “devastating” for cinema owners who are still struggling nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic. She notes that existing restrictions in Germany, including requiring proof of vaccination or recovery from a COVID infection in order to enter cinemas, led to box office drops of “up to 60 percent.”
There are already signs that some distributors may be getting cold feet. While this winter’s biggest titles, including Spider-Man: No Way Home and Warner Bros. hotly anticipated The Matrix Resurrections are starting as planned, smaller local films, including German comedies Caveman and Liebesdings have pushed back their releases. In the U.K., as omicron cases spiked, Warners postponed the local release of its Colin Firth WWII Drama Operation Mincemeat.
Despite some clear hits since the pandemic — before Spider-Man, Warner Bros.’ Dune and Universal/MGM releases No Time to Die and House of Gucci brought European audiences back to theaters — box office overall is still significantly below pre-pandemic norms.
Figures released by Gower Street Monday estimated global box office for 2021 at $19.9 billion through Saturday, December 18, some 50 percent below the average of the last three pre-pandemic years (2017-2019), though 69 percent ahead of figures at this time last year. For Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), box office totals, per Gower, were $4.1 billion, 57 percent down on the 3-year pre-pandemic average and 33 percent up year-on-year.
“The market has been not bad. Not terrible at least. But not good either,” says Eric Marti, a European analyst for box office research group Comscore. “Something quite striking is that every week, you have one or two movies doing really well, but the rest are not. We are seeing that people will come out for a specific movie, but it isn’t a return to the same habit [of movie-going] they had pre-pandemic.”
Marti says Comscore’s figures show that all demographics — “kids, teenagers, older adults” — have come back but that they aren’t going to the movies as often as they used to.
“If, previously, they were going three times a month, now it’s maybe twice a month,” he says, “which makes a lot of difference in the numbers at the end of the day.”
Houlgatte of UNIC says the “mini-lockdowns” in territories such as Denmark and the Netherlands and restrictions including vaccine passports (now in place in most European territories, though not yet in England) represent “challenges” for cinemas but that the experience of the past year has shown “that cinemas are safe places and that they have gone the extra mile to ensure that audiences and their staff have a safe experience. We’ve been witnessing the progressive but confident return of audiences to the big screen.”
That confidence will be put to the test this coming weekend when The Matrix Resurrections hits theaters across most of Europe.
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