UNIC Interview Series: Gulian Nolthenius (Dutch Association of Cinemas) and Jorgen Stensland (Film & Kino)

As cinemas gradually reopen across Europe, UNIC is asking its members to share their stories about welcoming audiences back to their cinemas and adapting to the ongoing crisis in a new interview series. The series began with a discussion between UNIC and the Spanish cinema federation (FECE)’s Jaime Tarrazón and Mario Lorini, president of the Italian association of cinema operators (ANEC). In the series’ second entry, republished with permission, UNIC checks in with Gulian Nolthenius (Managing Director of the Dutch Association of Cinemas & Filmtheaters – NVBF) and Jorgen Stensland (Director of Consulting at Film & Kino, the Norwegian cinema association).

Norwegian cinemas were formally closed starting 12 March, with Dutch cinemas following a few days later on 15 March, as the vast majority of European cinemas closed on Week 11 of the 2020 calendar year. Norway was the first in the region to allow cinemas to re-open, with the first sites re-opening on 7 May. The recovery process has been particularly gradual in the country, also due to evolving distancing measures, which initially restricted occupancy to 50 percent and was before changing to 1/3 in mid-June.

In the Netherlands, almost all cinemas re-opened simultaneously on 1 June and have so far shown great signs of recovery, achieving box office results that could be compared to 30 percent to 60 percent of last year’s performances—taking into account that local cinemas could only welcome 30 visitors per room until 1 July and have since had to limit occupancy to approximately 30 percent per room to ensure a 1.5m safety distance at all time.

More details are included in UNIC’s regularly updated research into the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on the European cinema industry.

UNIC: How did you engage with your audience / local community during closure? Do you have any specific stories or initiatives that you would like to share?

Gulian Nolthenius: In this period, several press releases focused on the safety measures for visitors and employees in relation to the re-opening. At the same time, communication was focused on cinemas’ critical financial situation, from large chains to arthouses.

Jorgen Stensland: We were totally closed from 12 March to 7 May, when 104 (of 205) cinemas opened. From June I would say ¾ of cinemas had opened. From then, we were allowed to show films for groups of up to 50 people, with a rule of 1 meter between them. We interpreted this from nose to nose, meaning every other seat. From 1 June, we were allowed to up the number of people to 200, but the 1 meter rule was changed to mean armrest to armrest so that we could have people in every third seat. It’s still like that, and things were about to change but then the increase of infections rose again. So it’s still 200 people and every third seat, with the next evaluation on 1 October.

UNIC: How did you prepare for re-opening? We’d be very interested to hear about the drafting/implementation process of safety guidelines and on national re-opening campaigns and initiatives.

GN: As a branch organization, we worked for several months to develop a protocol for all members in Holland. In realizing this protocol, we have been working together with our members, the government, a union, and several other organizations, with the first version being published on 1 June followed by a second version on 1 July. Although there were several questions from our members about the protocol, the “overall” operation went very well and exceeded expectations.

JS: Film & Kino produced safety guidelines and communicated them to the Ministry of Culture. We used other businesses as an example but made our own, quite strict, list. We also made our own posters that cinemas can print or use digitally. We have also worked hard with the press and authorities in regard to the 1 meter rule to be able to sell every other seat in a theatre, as you can sit on every seat on the bus or in a plane.

GN: A re-opening campaign had been created called ganaardefilm.nl  (“Go to the Film.nl”), launched from August and to be continued in September and October. Two campaign videos were created and shown on TV and distributed online and on social media. In preparation for the campaign, a survey was launched asking active cinema-goers about how they got through the lockdown period without going to the cinema. Dutch cinema operators were then asked to share the survey with their audience, and a raffle will take place among respondents to win cinema vouchers.

JS: Together, the industry is launching a new campaign to get people to cinemas. The distributors and Film & Kino did this together in the beginning, and now the suppliers (especially movie advertising companies) are on board, along with the producers and the Norwegian Film Institute, in charge of funding. We have received 3.2 million NOK (€300,000) from them, in addition to our own financial means, and we hope to get a sponsor who can contribute as well. The campaign will be disseminated through cinemas and online, with a film being made to celebrate the cinema experience—connected to tentpole movies throughout the year. We haven’t started this yet, because there has only been one big film (Tenet). But we will try to do this when more films arrive, so that we can have a steady campaign where we can replace the titles with new ones with some regularity.

UNIC: Could you tell us a bit more about the first few weeks of re-opening? What type of content was programmed? What was the audience’s feedback?

GN:  The first weeks of re-opening were more or less a test period of about a month. The maximum capacity per screen was, at that time in June, only 30 visitors. Although 30 visitors was far too low for a profitable situation, this period was good to gauge whether the new protocol with safety measures would work in the right manner for visitors as well as for employees of the cinemas.

JS:  Programming was very sad at the beginning, with just old films. In fact, many cinemas waited to open because of the lack of new material. During lockdown, drive-in cinemas were popular, although after opening they died out. Some cinemas started to show trilogies and such—for example, the Nolan Batman trilogy—while from June we had some new independent films: The King of Staten Island, The Peanut Butter Falcon, etc. However, they didn’t bring a lot of people to the cinemas. In July, we got the first new Norwegian children’s film Knerten og Sjømonsteret, which did quite well with 120,000 admissions (the penultimate one had 150,000 admissions). Now, Tenet has opened very well with 86,869 admissions in 10 days, over two weekends.

UNIC: Have you had a chance to watch a film on the big screen yourself since cinemas have been able to re-open? What is the film you are most looking forward to in the coming months?

GN: Since re-opening, I have seen films like Gli Anni Piu Belli and The Gentlemen, the local film Alles is zoals het zou moeten zijn, and Tenet. I am also looking forward to No Time to Die.

JS: I’ve been to see several films during this period, including The King of Staten Island with my son, which we both enjoyed. The Fortress was claustrophobic and action packed, and Tenet was grand. I’m looking forward to Bond, of course, along with the Norwegian film Den største forbrytelsen—the first Norwegian Holocaust film.

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