Berlin: Germany Unveils Plan to Reopen Cinemas but Uncertainty Remains

Cinemas in Germany
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Movie theaters have been shut across the country since it went into its second lockdown in November.

Late Wednesday night there was a sliver of good news for the German film industry — and for anyone trying to sell films into Germany at this week's virtual European Film Market: Germany plans to reopen cinemas. Sort of.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government, and representatives of Germany's states, have agreed to a "five-step" program to take the country out of lockdown, including plans to reopen movie theaters, which have been shuttered since November —in the country's second coronavirus lockdown.

Under the plan, Germany is set to remain under lockdown until at least March 28, but some businesses will be allowed to open and operate, under hygienic conditions, depending on the infection levels in individual cities and regions. The five steps in the plan refer to infection levels — the number of registered COVID-19 infections per 100,000 population — with restrictions easing at each step. Cinemas won't be allowed to open until step 4 is reached: where infection rates remain below 50 new infections per 100,000. This will be measured on a regional basis, so it is possible that theaters in Berlin could be allowed to reopen, while those in Munich or Hamburg remain shut. At the moment, of Germany's major cities, only Munich, with an infection rate of just below 40, would meet the stage 4 criteria.

"At least there is some perspective but linking opening theaters only to the incident number per 100k is wrong," says Martin Moskowicz, executive chairman of German mini-major Constantin Film. "Incidents will remain high for the foreseeable future — especially when widespread testing is implemented. Big releases need a certain capacity. We hope that a fund (similar to the Ausfallfonds for productions) will be established to reduce the risk for distributors."

Even regions where COVID-19 rates are low will not reopen right away. The plan laid out late Wednesday requires each new step to be taken in turn. Step 4, to reopen cinemas, only comes into effect in a city or region 14 days after the area has gone into Step 3 and only if the infection rate remains low throughout that period. The earliest any German theaters could reopen is March 22.

With infection rates still sky-high in many parts of the country, and with COVID-19 vaccinations lagging — most experts put the level of vaccination required for effective herd immunity at 60 to 70 percent, but to date just over 5 percent of the German population has received a coronavirus jab — things still look bleak for the German film industry.

Even plans by the Berlin Film Festival to hold an in-person event in the German capital in June — a virtual version of the Berlinale and accompanying European Film Market are running online-only this week — look uncertain. Without a steep rise in vaccinations and without a steep fall in COVID-19 infection, German cinemas could stay shut well into the summer.