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European cinemas are seeing hope for a post-pandemic box office rebound as moviegoers in France and the U.K. — Europe’s top two theater markets — come back in droves.
The British box office roared back to life this past weekend with the release of F9, the latest in Universal’s high-octane auto action franchise, which grossed $8.3 million in the UK & Ireland, the best opening weekend in the territory since Sam Mendes’ 1917 (in January 2020). It’s a particularly impressive figure given COVID-19 safety restrictions mean most cinemas in the U.K. are operating at or below 50 percent capacity.
“Those are pre-pandemic numbers, and they could only be achieved if many cinemas are being at capacity, or at the capacity they are allowed at the moment,” says Phil Clapp, CEO of the U.K. Cinema Association. “So I’ve got no doubt that money is being left on the table: that if cinemas had been able to accommodate more guests, we would have generated more box office than even these very high numbers.”
In France, the numbers have been even more impressive, with 1.7 million cinema admissions over the five-day weekend frame of June 23-27. That’s a 10.2 percent jump on the previous frame, and the biggest box office take since French cinemas reopened May 19, according to figures from Comscore, which compiles theater revenue data worldwide.
“Last year, I remember saying that things will be back to normal [at the French box office] when we get between 1.5 million and 2 million admissions again. Well, that’s where we are now,” says Eric Marti, general manager of Comscore France.
The French audience has turned up for pretty much everything on offer, from family-friendly fare (Cruella, Tom and Jerry) to horror (The Conjuring 3, A Quiet Place 2); from mainstream French comedies (Bye Bye Morons, Un tour chez ma fille), to more arthouse fare including Oscar-winners Nomadland, The Father, and Another Round.
“What’s surprised, even shocked me, was the diversity of the films that did well,” says Marti. “All the audience has come back: older, younger — every demographic.”
The French bounceback is substantially stronger than at this time last year, with a million more admissions than between June 24-28, 2020 — the initial “reopening weekend” after France’s first COVID-19 lockdown.
France has been leading the way, but as theaters across Europe reopen, box office returns have been similarly encouraging.
“Everyone’s very, very happy with what we’ve seen in France, those images of people queuing up at eight in the morning to watch movies,” notes Laura Houlgatte Abbott, CEO of European cinemas group UNIC. “But we’ve also seen strong numbers from Denmark, from the Netherlands, from Estonia, Poland, and Spain. All in all, it’s been a real feel-good story.”
From Wednesday, France will lift all capacity restrictions on theaters, just in time for the five-day Fête du Cinéma, an annual promotional event (canceled last year due to COVID) where cinema chains nationwide offer film fans discounted tickets to help launch the summer season.
This year the Fête will feed directly into that other annual Gallic cinema celebration, the Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off July 6 with wall-to-wall coverage in the French media.
If that weren’t enough to supercharge the local box office, F9 drops in France on July 14 following its red-carpet premiere in Cannes.
“It’s going to be tremendous,” says Marti of Comscore about summer box office prospects in France.
The next major test will be Germany — where most theaters are set to reopen on July 1. In the U.K., exhibitors are eying July 19: the date the government has set to loosen social distancing requirements and thus boost capacity limits.
Encouraging signs — declining COVID-19 infection rates combined with rising vaccination numbers — are balanced by concerns over the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. But perhaps the biggest unknown is consumer confidence.
The staggered rollout of F9 in Europe — bowing July 2 in Spain, July 14 in France, Germany July 15 and Aug. 18 in Italy — suggests Universal is still adjusting to local conditions and taking a bespoke approach with its tentpoles. Disney — which drops its new Marvel title Black Widow across most of the world, including all of Europe, July 7-9 — looks more bullish. (Though the studio had few alternatives, given piracy concerns amid its day-and-date release of the title on Disney+).
“There are still capacity limitations in place in many territories, so mathematical effects will make it difficult for theaters to reach figures seen before the pandemic,” admits Houlgatte Abbott of UNIC. “But we are confident because we have the content — the right mix of Hollywood and local content, and we have the audience, like in France, that can’t wait to go back to cinemas. We’re confident we are going to have a great summer.”
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