Cineworld, the second-largest cinema chain in the world (behind AMC), the owner of Regal in the U.S. and the largest operator in the U.K. (where is also owns Picturehouse), was right on the entertainment industry’s front line when the novel coronavirus pandemic struck.
Even before the lockdown was initiated in the U.K. (where Cineworld, alongside other chains, shuttered its branches the week of March 16), the company had warned that a prolonged period of closure would cast serious doubt on its ability to carry on, sending its stock price into freefall.
Shortly after, the chain — which owns 518 screens across 790 sites in 11 countries — faced a backlash from staff following widespread layoffs, a decision made just a day before the British government introduced its job retention scheme, which Cineworld then quickly deployed after changing course.
Three months on, the company is now preparing for its grand post-lockdown reopening, having recently circled July 10 as the date in both the U.K. and U.S., just in time for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, CEO Mooky Greidinger explains why he’ll need his cinemas to be — at least — half full, yet won’t be insisting that customers wear face masks. He also stands by strong comments made following Universal’s decision to shift its Trolls World Tour release to premium VOD and why he’ll no longer be accepting any film that breaks the theatrical window. But perhaps most importantly, he offers up confidence about the future of cinema and how it has overcome every threat it’s come up against so far.
You’ve announced July 10 as your date for reopening. Will this be across all your U.K. sites, including Picturehouse?
Yes, all sites. And Picturehouse. Some of the smaller cinemas may have a week delay, but no more than that.
Have you been un-furloughing staff?
Not yet. We have to plan to call people back and we will be ready for the 10th.
What sort of measures are you putting in place across your cinemas?
We’ve increased the measures of cleaning and sanitizing. Every day our team will be tested [to see if they have] a fever, and will be wearing masks as long as it’s a requirement from the government. The timetable of the movies will also be planned in a way that the movies will be staggered, so there are not too many people in the lobby at any given time. This can be controlled to a certain extent. And with our software supplier, we’ve developed a social distancing option, so if a family comes, and of course they’ve come from the same home and in the same car, there’s no need to socially distance them.
And I think all the other things will be taken care of in the cinema with good cooperation from our customers. We need to remember that in cinemas, unlike other places, people are all facing the same direction. There is almost no talking through the movie here and they are facing the screen.
Will customers be required to wear face masks?
Not if it is not required by the government. [Since this interview took place, Cineworld’s Regal Cinemas in the U.S. reversed this decision]
There seems to be some uncertainty over the current two-meter distancing rule. If this were reduced, what sort of impact would it have on Cineworld and would it change your capacity plans?
Two meters is something that is still being discussed. Maybe it’s suitable for big open areas and public places, but not applicable for the cinema hall where people are sitting in their seat. I think it will be resolved shortly.
Do you have an idea of the capacity that you’re roughly looking at for your cinemas?
I guess it will be around 50 percent and more. Different countries have different rules and different calculations. In order for it to be a good operation for us, also from the financial point of view, we must have at least 50 percent capacity.
What plans do you have in place to achieve this? How are you going to encourage people to return?
The reaction from our members was really overwhelming, much more than we expected. We knew that people were missing the cinema, but people were really, really happy to get the news of the opening.
Other than that, we believe that first comers will be the younger audiences that are just begging for us to open cinemas. But we are sure that once people will see the measurements and once people will get more confident, on any way of life, they will go back to the cinema. We need to remember that cinema going is the most affordable entertainment. People will not be traveling long distances in the very close future, so going to the movies is a safe and affordable entertainment for everyone.
You must be looking at what’s been happening elsewhere in the world. Given what’s happened in China, are there fears that despite all the efforts to reopen you may have to close again?
The coronavirus is showing a lot of strange behavior, all kinds of ups and downs. But I believe that, in general, the pandemic is under control. Every new case is getting big headlines, but at the end of the day, if we look worldwide we’re in a positive direction. Each government of course is taking its own measurement and we cannot analyze every delay of one week or one week there. There are places in the world where cinemas are already working for three or four weeks. And there are places that it will take another three or four weeks.
When the crisis started, there were reports that Cineworld might not be able to survive a prolonged period of closure. As a business, are you out of the woods?
I don’t think we were in the woods. You know, it’s not so nice to say to people that are interviewing you from the media, but I guess you should not always believe what you read or hear in the media. Of course, it’s not been an easy time. It’s very complicated to have such a huge operation that really shuts down, with zero income. But we’re in a good way. And we’re getting out of this now. And if we need credit we can get it. Cineworld is in a good shape.
How important have the government initiatives been? You have said you are targeting to get $45 million through the U.K. government loan scheme and $25 million from the U.S. government’s CARES Act…
Until now, the main support from governments has been the furlough payments for our employees, which for us was a very, very important thing. The government took good care of this situation. Other than that, until today we didn’t get any government support. We are working through some channels. And we might get it or we might not. So I believe that the government should support businesses like us. And I hope this will be coming in a way.
Has the decision to cancel the acquisition of Canada’s Cineplex helped Cineworld’s situation? Is this a financially positive move, or does it actually put more pressure on you financially?
It was not done for financial reasons. There’s not anything else to add outside of our statement on the subject at the time.
When you first closed the doors of your U.K. cinemas in March, there was a lot of noise being made about redundancies at Cineworld, and this happening just days before the government put in place its furlough scheme. Do you have any regrets about how this was handled? Looking back, would you have done things differently?
I don’t think regrets is a word that is applicable here. I think that we had to take immediate measurements, and many companies that did not take these measurements took much more severe measurements three weeks later. It was our responsibility for the employees and for the company to take immediate measurements. We took them not knowing what was going to be the government’s plan. And then once the government thing was clear —and I must say that the British government issued a very good supportive plan — we got back all the people.
We even took care of people that had left Cineworld just weeks before the crisis. The rules allowed us to take them back and then allow them to be furloughed as Cineworld employees.
There was a noise around this. But I don’t think we did anything wrong and I think that the way that Cineworld has taken care of its team, in 10 territories, where we are talking about almost 40,000 employees, was, in general, good. Of course there are some exceptions here and there when you deal with such a huge number of people. We really hope to have our team back as early as possible.
Are you going to be starting up again with the same number of employees as before?
No. The cinemas will be starting with limited capacity, and we will need to see the customers coming back. But we are making an effort to call back as many people as we can. We need to remember that part of the nature of working in cinema is that we have a lot of hourly employees that are being called according to the number of admissions that we estimate for any given movie.
Speaking of noise, there was a lot of it made over Universal’s decision to release Trolls World Tour on VOD. At the time you said that Universal had taken advantage of the pandemic, and claimed that Cineworld would no longer show films that didn’t respect the theatrical window. Do you still stand by these comments?
Nothing has changed. We’re standing behind what we said. I think that the theatrical window is crucial for the cinema business. And I believe that Universal took a step that is not common, especially not when the industry is in such situation. But this is now behind us and our policy stays. We will show every movie that is respecting theatrical window in any of our territories.
So if, for example, Disney decided to release a major title day and date theatrically and on Disney+, you’d still adopt this policy and not take it?
Yes. We respect truly the decision of the studios. The movies belong to the studios. So if they feel that they want to stream a certain movie, it’s fine. And if they believe in the theatrical way, which I would say most of the movies and studios and talent prefer, we’re here. If they take a different decision, it’s not our movie.
You’re opening a couple of weeks before Tenet is released. What do you plan to show to attract people back to cinemas?
First of all, Mulan is also a huge movie, a blockbuster coming before Tenet. But there are good new movies on the 10th, like Unhinged with Russell Crowe. And some of the screens will be showing good classics and oldies. Warner Bros. is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Inception, which is obviously one of the biggest movies of Chris Nolan on the 17th of July, building up to the release of Tenet. But we’ll start with older movies mixed with new movies, and very soon all our screens will be, as always, showing new movies.
No disrespect to Mulan whatsoever, but Tenet has been put forward as the film to herald the return of cinemas. How important do you think it’s going to be at getting audiences back?
Every Chris Nolan film is an event in our industry. So we’re very excited towards the release. I haven’t seen more than the trailer, but we hear that Tenet is amazing, exceptionally good. We hope it’ll be a huge blockbuster.
Tenet has already been pushed back by two weeks. Any fears that Warner Bros. might postpone it again?
I think it needs to be something very extreme in order to move the date. We need to remember that the marketing campaigns of these big movies cost a fortune. And the money’s been spent and committed. After the coronavirus, we never say never. But it needs to be something very extreme in order to move, which I don’t see.
Finally, once the pandemic is behind us and we’re looking to the future, there’s been a lot of talk about the long-term impact of the crisis on the exhibition industry. Do you think it will return to how it was before March, or will there be some fundamental changes?
The pandemic is touching the health of the public. It is not a direct attack on the cinema business or any other business. I’m sure that once the lockdown will be over and there will hopefully be a vaccination, or whatever it will be, we will go back to normal. I’m not saying that everything will go back to the same place it was before, but I’m confident that the best way to watch a movie will be in the cinema.
Our company has just celebrated its 90th anniversary — it’s been 90 years since my grandfather opened his first cinema in Israel. In those 90 years, I think the threats to this industry were enormous. Everybody said it would not pass a big financial crisis, it will would not survive war, it would die when TV arrives, VOD, cable, whatever. Everybody, all the time, was saying cinemas were not going to survive. And the clear answer is that cinema has survived. And I’m confident if we, as long as we give the quality that we need to give to our customers, people will continue to go to the movies and will continue to meet people there. This is a big social event. Everybody knows that there is a huge difference between watching the movie in the cinema and watching the movie at home.