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Early returns out of Europe show hope for a box office rebound this summer.
France and the U.K. — the continent’s two largest theatrical territories — have roared back to life after cinemas reopened last week. Despite capacity restrictions and, in the case of France, a 9 p.m. curfew that prevents late showings, returns have been strong and bode well for the upcoming blockbuster season.
Admissions over the first six days in France, which re-opened cinemas May 19, have topped 2.1 million. When theaters reopened last June, in between the first and second wave of COVID-19 in France, it took 10 days to hit the one million admissions mark. Comscore France estimates 1.6 million tickets were sold on the first weekend, from Wednesday, May 19 through Sunday, May 23, down just 23 percent compared to an average May weekend over the pre-pandemic period between 2015 and 2019.
The French cinema rebound is all the more impressive given the current restrictions, which limit cinemas to 35 percent capacity, in addition to the evening curfew.
With few U.S. blockbusters currently on offer in France, home-grown titles reaped the re-opening rewards. Albert Dupontel’s Bye Bye Morons —the big winner of this year’s Cesar awards, topped the box office on its re-release by Gaumont. Japanese anime Demon Slayer: Mugen Train was number two, followed by Warner Bros. live-action/animation mix Tom & Jerry.
Several of last year’s festival favorites jumped into the French charts, including Quentin Dupieux’s Venice film Mandibles, Maiwenn’s Cannes 2020 title DNA and Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-winner Another Round.
“It’s gone really well,” says Laura Houlgatte, CEO of European exhibitors association UNIC. “We’ve even been helped by the not-so-great weather [in Europe]. People from all ages are coming back to the cinemas.”
Across the channel, the UK Cinema Association called the period from May 17, when the government allowed theaters to re-open, a “pretty extraordinary week.”
Box office in Britain topped £7 million ($10 million) with more than 1 million admissions, the best weekend result since theaters were forced to close in late March 2020 (the previous best weekend, March 6-8, grossed $12 million) and beating the various periods during the pandemic when cinemas were allowed to open.
Some 80 percent of sites across England, Scotland and Wales are in operation though capacity is restricted to 50 percent.
Sony’s family animation feature Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, which had been one of the first cinematic COVID-19 casualties after its original Easter 2020 release in the U.K. was pushed back in the wake of the initial lockdown, led the pack, earning $6.5 million in its opening frame.
Odeon, the U.K.’s biggest theater chain, said that it sold 300,000 tickets across the whole week since May 17, with around 60 percent of them for Peter Rabbit 2.
Hopping in behind were Disney’s multi-Oscar winner Nomadland — which has already been streaming on Disney+ for several weeks in Britain—with $1.2 million, and Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs Kong (also already out digitally in the territory) with $1.11 million. Lionsgate’s Spiral: From The Book of Saw scored $1.1 million in its opening weekend, with Sony’s The Unholy landing at $570,000.
“There’s a real enthusiasm — it’s almost hysterical,” says Clare Binns, joint managing director of the Cineworld-owned Picturehouse Cinemas chain, which she says took “three times” as many bookings last week than when it reopened for Tenet in August 2020.
“There’s a big difference this time around — it’s now been so long since people have been able to be together and to go into cinemas,” she notes. “And I think, honestly, streaming services were fine for a while. But everybody saw their favorite film, everybody saw the latest thing that came out on a Friday, and it just is not the same.”
Alongside its cinemas, Picturehouse operates the arthouse-driven Picturehouse Entertainment distribution arm, with upcoming releases including the Isabelle Huppert-starring Cannes title Frankie; Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, starring Jean Dujardin; Pirates, the feature debut from Brit TV presenter-turned-director Reggie Yates; and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II. Binns says she’s confident that there’s significant demand for these films to be watched on the big screen.
“During lockdown, we were busy buying and you don’t do that if you don’t think people want to come and see [films],” she says. “The cinema is a shopfront and while streaming has its pluses, without any doubt, the kinds of films we release get a much bigger profile by being in the cinemas, whereas they can often get buried on platforms where they disappear without a trace.”
Compared with the sunny prospects in Britain and France, the outlook across Europe has been more mixed.
Admissions in Spain, where cinemas began to reopen starting in April and where around 80 percent of theaters are now operating, are down 72 percent on 2019 levels. The drop in Italy is closer to 80 percent, as the bigger chains have been slow to reopen without bigger titles to draw in audiences. Italy is also held back by a 10 p.m. curfew.
Cinemas in Germany, Europe’s other big five territory, remain shut. But the country’s exhibitor and distributor associations last week have called for a national re-opening on July 1.
All in all, the signs are pointing to a summer rebound.
France is set to increase audience capacity to 65 percent on June 9 and allow 100 percent capacity in cinemas starting June 30. The national curfew will be pushed to 11 p.m. on June 9 and dropped altogether by the end of the month. Theaters in most European territories are already open, with capacity limits slowly expanding.
“We now have re-opening dates for most countries,” says UNIC’s Houlgatte. “While we won’t be back up to 100 percent it looks like this summer will be much more like a return to normal than last year. The big difference is this time we have the content — there are a lot of films on the shelves waiting to be released. And from our surveys, we know audiences feel cinemas are safe and they can’t wait to come back.”
Many of the bigger chains and more mainstream cinemas across the continent have been holding back for bigger titles, but those floodgates should soon open with studio titles including F9, Godzilla vs. Kong, A Quiet Place 2 and Black Widow set to roll out in several territories.
“The cinemas have been through a rough time, but they are excited and optimistic [about the summer season],” says Torkel Stal of the Swedish Film Institute. “This is what they have been waiting for for a long time.”
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