Polish Cinemas Appeal for Government Help as Eastern Europe Shuts Down

@Jaroslaw Sosinski, Naima Film
Polish film 'The Hater' went online shortly after its theatrical release due to the coronavirus shutdown.

The coronavirus crisis is sweeping across central and eastern Europe, with cinemas shutting shop and productions on hold.

Polish cinema operators, including national chains Helios, Multikino and Cinema City, have called for direct government help to prevent a wave of bankruptcies in the sector due to the coronavirus crisis.

In an open letter to the Polish ministry of development, the cinemas noted that theatrical exhibition is one “of the first industries severely affected by the epidemic. We are not able to generate any income, while bearing huge costs of loans, rent and employee salaries. We have no way of replacing current sources of income with others and our revenues are zero at this time.”

Cinemas across Poland were shut down March 12 by government decree, part of a move to restrict public gatherings in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

In the letter, the cinemas call for targeted government action, including wage subsidies for employees to limit layoffs and temporary reprieves on payments to Poland's national film production fund. 

Cinemas are shutting down, or are already closed, across central and eastern Europe, which has followed harder-hit countries such as Italy in introducing tight restrictions on social interaction in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

But even before the official closures, theater attendance had collapsed as coronavirus concerns kept audiences away. The Croatian box office fell nearly 90 percent for the weekend of March 13-15, with only Sony Pictures' Vin Diesel actioner Bloodshot and Dave Bautista action comedy My Spy attracting more than 1,000 spectators nationwide. Total box office, according to the Croatian Audiovisual Center, was $38,000 (€35,316) for the weekend, compared to $317,000 a month earlier. Exhibitors group the Croatian Independent Cinemas Network has estimated monthly losses of up to $155,000 as long as theaters stay shut.

The Serbian box office also plunged last weekend, with number one title, Bloodshot, selling just 1,121 tickets nationwide. The Serbian government declared a state of emergency on March 15 but did not specifically close cinemas. Exhibitors, however, have taken that step, with leading national chain Cineplexx shutting down all its theaters and such Belgrade-based cinemas as the Kombank Hall, Tuckwood Cineplex and Art Cinema Kolarac following suit.

Romania has seen a similar impact, with box office plunging from $1.34 million (€1.25 million) over the March 2-8 weekend to $297,000 (€276,000) for the corresponding March 9-15 period. Bloodshot, the only new release of the weekend, grossed just $57,000 for local distributor InterComFilm.

Aside from the box office impact, the coronavirus crisis has shut down production across Central and Eastern Europe, with local and international shoots on ice, and it's uncertain when work can begin again.

“As in the rest of Europe, all are postponed till further notice,” noted officials in Croatia, a regional production hub. In neighboring Serbia, Milica Bozanic from the Serbia Film Commission said that all international co-productions set for March or April start dates have been postponed. “At the moment it is very difficult to calculate possible financial losses,” she noted. Production on local-language thriller Penance from director Nemanja Ceranic, was stopped a day after shooting began on March 15. Producers Tracktor Film have said they hope to resume production as soon as possible.

“Everybody is aware that the implications [for the industry] might be severe,” Radoslaw Smigulski, director of the Polish Film Institute told The Hollywood Reporter, noting that all production, local and international, has shut down nationwide. Hotly anticipated Polish productions, including Aleksandra Terpinska's Warner Bros.-produced Other People and the HBO Europe crime series The Thaw, are among the titles affected.

Agora, owner of the Polish Helios theater chain, is one of the few companies to put a financial figure on the damage, projecting $2.2 million in lost revenue as a result of the enforced shutdown.

But Smigulski noted the crisis could simply “accelerate the technological changes that we have been observing on the market for several years.”

This week, Polish distributor Kino Swiat made The Hater, the new film from Oscar-nominee Jan Komasa (Corpus Christi) available on VOD, just 12 days after its theatrical premiere. It is the first time a major local release has collapsed the theatrical window in this way. Others are likely to follow.

The impact on international productions is likely to be less severe, as there are currently few major films or series shooting in the region. Millennium Films' The Asset, an action thriller by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell starring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Maggie Q and Li Gong, wrapped its shooting in Bucharest before the shutdown. Production on season 4 of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things has been put on hold because of coronavirus concerns but not before it wrapped its local shoot in Lithuania — filming at the 19th century Lukiskes Prison and other locations in the capital, Vilnius — on Feb. 14.

But a few international productions have been suspended, including Stampede Ventures' Clickbait, which had planned a six-week shoot at Romania's Castel Film Studios; and event TV series Around the World in 80 Days, starring David Tennant, which was schedule to shift from South Africa to Romania on April 27. The project is now on hiatus. “So many things are in the air right now," says Iuliana Tarnovetchi from Bucharest-based production group Alien Film Entertainment.

"All shoots have been suspended but I would not call it a hard hit,” noted Pavlina Zipkova, head of the Czech Film Commission. “Each one of us has to focus on our own health and safety in order to be able to come back to production as soon as the world heals."

Millennium Film's Jeffrey Greenstein noted that his and other companies working in the region are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We won’t really know the true impact for the next couple weeks,” he said in an email to The Hollywood Reporter. “Other than the damning chaos all of this is creating.”