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After a year in which it was postponed and then canceled altogether due to the pandemic, the physical edition of the CineEurope trade show in Spain is back. Among the execs who will be hitting the halls of the Barcelona International Convention Centre in early October is Phil Clapp, a hugely respected figure who sits as head of the U.K. Cinema Association and president of Europe’s International Union of Cinemas. It’s been an almost indescribably tough 18 months for the exhibition world, but in discussing the U.K. experience since theaters reopened, Clapp offers a very welcome voice of hope. Not only did the crisis not lead to the existential threat so many were first fearing, he tells THR, but admissions are creeping back up to pre-COVID levels and, with No Time to Die opening to hugely impressive box office figures, exhibitors may finally see the incremental improvement over the past few months turn into a full-blown recovery.
Cinemas in the U.K. have been back open for several months. What’s the situation looking like now?
I think it all looks very positive. Cinemas across the U.K. were able to open from early May onward. The fact that cinemas had to operate under social distancing and face covering and other restrictions meant that admissions were positive but not as high as we’d like them to be. And then from the middle of July onward, when restrictions in most of the U.K. were removed, and as the slate continues to strengthen further, I think what we’ve seen is a gradual but definite improvement in terms of admissions and box office.
How has it been across Europe?
In those territories where there are high levels of vaccination, they’re following the same trajectory as the U.K. In a number of European territories where the government has introduced COVID passports — France, Italy and Germany — that has undoubtedly had a negative effect on cinema admissions. It’s a consequence of cinema being a spontaneous activity. But that now is starting to stabilize. And everyone is on a positive trajectory.
Has the existential crisis the industry was facing in 2020 ended?
I think there’s no doubt amongst anyone that we’re going to come out of this. But I think the experience of the last 18 months means it would be foolish to start celebrating. It’s all looking positive, but I don’t think we should pretend there won’t be challenges.
There were some tensions between exhibitors and studios last year about putting several big films — particularly Mulan — on streaming platforms. Has that relationship improved since?
One thing I would say is, actually, when you look at it on paper, a comparatively small number of major titles did go to streaming. Clearly, when they did, a great deal was made of it, but the overwhelming majority of films that were due for release in the period from March 2020 through to May 2021 are now being released in cinemas. That said, I think there is and there was an understanding that, just as cinemas had to find a way to manage and maintain some kind of income during the lockdown, so, too, did the studios and distributors.
We’ve recently seen box office success with Free Guy and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, with Disney now promising a cinema-first release for major titles for the rest of 2021. Is this a reason for the industry to celebrate?
We’re pleased, obviously, that theatrical exclusivity has found favor with Disney. Would we have liked them to have come to that conclusion sooner? Of course. But there’s no sense of victory or crowing from our side. Part of the job of people on the cinema side is to continue not just to argue but to prove that both in terms of the experience and the economics for significant film titles, nothing beats being in the cinema.
Just how important is No Time to Die going to be?
[James] Bond, particularly in recent years, is a big film in any year. But there’s a danger of seeing it as the be-all and end-all in the recovery of the sector. The thing I will say about Bond is that in any year, it is the film which attracts people who don’t typically go to the cinema often and it gets older audiences back. All the industry surveys we’ve seen suggest that those who are currently holding back from going to the cinema are overwhelmingly holding back not because they have any concerns around the experience, but because they’re waiting for the right film. We very much hope that Bond is that right film.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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