The cinema is making a comeback, but will it recover fast enough?

Cinemas seem to be gradually leaving corona behind, thanks to box office successes such as Top Gun: Maverick. But new challenges make recovery more difficult.

Lieven Triangle

As busy as it is these days on terraces, beaches and festival grounds, the cinemas are so deserted. The continuous heat is anything but a gift to cinema owners. Still, cinema seems to be making a comeback. After two pandemic years, 2022 will finally be a ‘normal’ year again without mandatory closures, and there were already many positive signals in the first half of the year. Top Gun: Maverick went wild at the box office through the wall of sound, and with worldwide revenue of nearly $2 billion was Spider Man: No Way Home the first post-corona title to enter the top 10 most profitable films of all time.

The American research firm Gower Street calculated that July 2022 was the best month for cinemas worldwide since the start of the pandemic: In all countries together, tickets were sold for 3.37 billion dollars. This is 61 percent more than the previous year, and “just” 17 percent below the July average for the last three years before the pandemic (2017-2019). In America, the results are even closer to normal levels, where the deficit was only 8 percent in July from the normal average. So it seems cinemas are slowly but surely moving towards recovery.

What about in our country? Answering that question is a difficult exercise. The country’s largest cinema chain Kinepolis does not want to comment for the time being, because the group presents its half-yearly figures on Thursday. Doing the math yourself is no small feat, because unlike in America or our neighboring countries, visitor figures are not published in Belgium.

Fortunately, a round of calls provides some clarification. “At the end of the first half of 2022, we in Belgium were still around 20 percent below the average for the years 2016 to 2019,” says Stephan De Potter, co-CEO of film distributor Cineart. A result that is therefore completely in line with the global average.

However, there are large differences below the global figure. For example, there is great satisfaction in the more commercial circuit. Bert Hermans, director of UGC Turnhout, says that this year his cinema is only 6 percent behind the result of 2019. Also Anny Schmit, CEO of Sony Pictures Releasing (which this year has been successful Spider Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion shared), sees the situation as rosy. “Big blockbusters are doing very well. It is sometimes written that the cinema is dead, but that is absolutely not the case. On the contrary: there have already been weeks this year when we have done more compared to before the pandemic. Spider Man: No Way Home has even become the fourth most successful film of all time in Belgian cinemas. These are very positive signs.”

Dispute in the market

Cinemas that have to do without American blockbusters sound a different story. “There is disagreement in the market,” says Alexander Vandeputte, co-founder of cinema group Lumière, which operates four Flemish city cinemas. “The multiplexes are up and running again, but the arthouse segment is struggling even more. Our cinemas are operating at about 40 percent this year.” Patrick Deboes from Ghent’s arthouse cinema Sphinx also mentions 30 to 40 percent fewer visitors than before corona.

Vandeputte explains this, among other things, because arthouse cinemas have a somewhat older target audience. “Some of those people still haven’t returned. Younger people, on the other hand, haven’t been able to cultivate the habit of going to the cinema because of the pandemic. My own son was 16 when corona started: in his formative years he wasn’t able to go to the cinema. It’s a point of attention for the whole sector.”

Streaming platforms also gained enormous popularity during the pandemic, and the “window” in which a film is shown exclusively in the cinema before it can also be ordered in the living room has shrunk further. “If films can be seen everywhere more quickly, people will mainly go to the cinema for films they have been looking forward to for a long time,” says Vandeputte. “They are going to look more eventful, which means that fewer and fewer films sell more and more tickets. Titles with less to do are left behind.”

Besides, the world in 2022 is no longer the one in 2019 anyway – virus or not. “The war in Ukraine, the increase in energy and food prices, the increasingly extreme weather… All this also affects cinemas”, says Patrick Deboes of Sphinx. “There needs to be a lot more consultation in the sector about how we can get things right together, because I don’t think it’s just going to get better on its own.”

“The trend is positive”, concludes Alexander Vandeputte, “but the recovery is slower than we had hoped. If it continues at this pace for a long time, there will be chunks. Because the bills and salaries just have to be paid. But I remain optimistic: To in the autumn there will be a lot of quality films ready, and if the distributors link them to inspired promo campaigns, I think we will automatically get back into a good flow. This is now the most important thing: A positive atmosphere must be created around the cinema again.”

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