EXCLUSIVE: After being closed for over five months, Cineworld reopened about 200 of its Regal Cinemas in the U.S. this past weekend. Health and safety measures — which required an investment in the millions across the parent company’s full estate — were part of the equation, and the response from audiences was “encouraging,” says Cineworld Group CEO Mooky Greidinger, who nevertheless is eager for New York and California to get the greenlight to resume operations.
Theaters in Cineworld’s offshore markets were reopened previously, including beginning July 31 in the UK where Greidinger tells Deadline that moviegoers “are becoming more confident.” A real test will be Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which launches Wednesday in several international markets. In the UK, Griedinger says there is “huge demand” for the film in special formats like Imax, with some sold-out performances.
Along with discussing the reopening process in the U.S. and abroad, Greidinger in a Q&A with Deadline also addressed Disney’s move to put Mulan on its Disney+ service where available as well as the overall windows question. He remains bullish on theatrical, “The industry is not going to give up a business which generated in 2019 $43 billion,” he said.
DEADLINE: How did Regal’s reopening go in the States this weekend?
MOOKY GREIDINGER: We got a very warm welcome in the places where we opened. We opened close to 200 cinemas and we were encouraged by the results. Naturally, Unhinged played in the No. 1 position being the new movie. But people were enthusiastic and also chose the older movies. There were a lot of questions about when Tenet will open, but people were happy to be back to the cinema. I heard they were very impressed by the safety protocols and rules. We are adding another 100 cinemas this weekend and we are eagerly awaiting a greenlight from New York and California — both of which we need.
We hope this is really strong start. COVID numbers are decreasing and we believe that restrictions will be relaxed in certain places once we show that everything is safe and sound.
DEADLINE: How well sold was the weekend? Were the rooms as full as they could have been given the capacity and social distancing restrictions?
GREIDINGER: One conclusion from this weekend is it’s clear that our customers have missed the cinemas; they were very eager to go back. Saying that, it is very difficult to analyze the numbers because there are different capacity and social distancing restrictions. In some places it’s 25% capacity, some 50% and in some places they have other rules of measurement. Each cinema itself is 100% aware and is selling of course according to the regulations. We had quite a lot of sold-out shows, meaning not the capacity of the hall, but what we were allowed to sell. We are very satisfied with the turnout of customers.
What we see in Europe is the governments are relaxing the restrictions once they see that everything is progressing well. Cinemas all over Europe and now in the U.S. have done an amazing job with safety and are really taking care of how the cinemas are being operated. Everybody that visits the cinemas is really very impressed.
DEADLINE: What are the protocols you’ve installed?
GREIDINGER: Everyone is wearing masks domestically and internationally. We are cleaning between the screenings and we have extra manpower for this. The restrooms are also being cleaned more often. Everywhere in places where people can gather, we are putting special attention there to ensure social distancing measures are in place. Many people have booked in advance.
At Regal in the U.S., we have developed a new app which you can use to order goods from the concessions and they will be waiting for you in a certain corner of the lobby. So, if you don’t feel like queueing, although it is safe because there are social distancing measures in place, you can use the app and pick up your concession purchases and then head to the hall.
DEADLINE: Are there concessions being sold in all markets?
GREIDINGER: Yes, we are selling food in every market. How can you see a movie without popcorn?!
DEADLINE: How expensive has the whole process been?
GREIDINGER: You don’t want to know… We have really invested millions of dollars in learning the issues and working on the protocols. There is then the ongoing costs which include more manpower, although in such a period you want less manpower, increased levels of cleaning and sanitizing and there are many other costs. Safety is the first priority and then the second is of course to be the right cinema experience for people to spend a good two hours in the dark, to sit and forget all the crazy issues that are going on around the world. This is our commitment to our customers and to our teams.
DEADLINE: Are you doing reduced screenings because of the extra time required for cleaning?
GREIDINGER: It depends on the length of the movie, but we will be losing screenings here and there. Shows will not start at the same time. There will be gaps of 15-30 minutes and in the big cinemas we are also looking at the map of the cinema — let’s say we have two screens that are supposed to start the big movies like Tenet at 4 p.m. and another at 4:15 p.m., one will be on the right wing of the cinema and the other one will be on the left wing of the cinema, so we are really trying to limit as much as we can the number of people that will be, even with social distancing, close to one another.
DEADLINE: Have you had inspections?
GREIDINGER: On Thursday last week, we had two unannounced checks by the authorities in two of our cinemas in the UK and both inspectors were very impressed. They didn’t say this in so many words, but the cinemas seemed to have exceeded their expectations in regards to the planning, processes and health and safety measures we have put in place.
I don’t have to tell you that there are some places that are not taking the restrictions seriously. However, if you look at the cinemas and the social distancing and sanitary precautions we are taking, along with the requirement of masks and the basic fact that when you sit in a cinema hall, everybody faces the screen and people are not talking to one another, they are sitting through the whole of the show in their seats — it’s a much safer environment than many other places that we go.
It’s not a competition, but the cinemas are much safer than other places where you need to move around all of the time and have people moving around you. In the cinema, once you’re in, and through the socially distanced measures in the lobby, you sit in your seat and are separated from the others. Other than families/groups that have booked together, nobody sits in the seat next to you.
People should feel good and safe. We see that in Central Europe, numbers are progressing nicely. I believe the UK will be on track this week with Tenet opening and we see a lot of enthusiasm from our customers. We see great numbers on sales for Tenet, which is also very encouraging, and so I think in general, people have missed the cinemas and look forward to going back. Really what we need is to get the states that we are still missing in the U.S., New York and California, as they are very important for our industry. I hope this will be moving forward. I was encouraged by the statement of [New York] Governor Cuomo who recently said, “Movie theaters, I think, are next.”
But, it’s a little bit of the case of the chicken and the egg — studios want to see that they have a very wide range of cinemas and we need the movies.
DEADLINE: Looking to the future, let’s say cases go down, New York and Los Angeles reopen, there’s a vaccine or the numbers stabilize… Do you think any of the measures that have been put in place throughout the reopening process may become standard going forward?
GREIDINGER: I don’t think so. A vaccination for me means life back to normal, just like a vaccination against any other disease that we have known in history. So once there is a solution, there will not be a need for any precautions or restrictions. I would say that we always take care of the safety of our customers, we always keep our cinemas clean and that doesn’t (historically) have anything to do with COVID. Now we are using more sanitizing products, but at the end of the day we believe in a big way if things are going back to normal, they will go back to normal. But of course we are not the experts and whatever the authorities decide is what we will do.
DEADLINE: At the beginning of COVID, you and I discussed how it would be difficult for the studios to release big movies internationally without domestic if there was a long time in between. Disney sometimes has released a Marvel movie overseas early by a week or so, but that’s outside the crisis period. So what do you think of Warner Bros being the ones to bite the bullet and get the first major tentpole out, even if it’s before domestic — and without New York and L.A.?
GREIDINGER: First of all, I think Warners was really amazing in supporting the theatrical venue and release all the way. The proof is here, Tenet is the first big movie which is opening and I think it should be appreciated.
Saying that, as you said, it’s not the first time that a movie is going internationally a week or two weeks before the domestic release. In this case we are talking about 10 days difference. I think it is the right decision because Europe was more ready for the release. Of course there cannot be a huge gap. In the same way that the U.S. cannot open in the world of today and international follow two months later, it cannot happen the other way.
DEADLINE: I’ve been encouraged by increasing numbers in some of the international markets, including in the UK since you reopened on July 31. Do you think the progression has to do with public confidence being built back up?
GREIDINGER: For sure people are becoming more confident. Also the news that the cinemas are open — it’s not that everyone is reading about it, but people are talking about it. We see good progress. On one hand, we had a weekend in the UK that was extremely hot, so we suffered, but not because of COVID. We need to see the market coming back with a big movies and once Tenet is released, we will know.
DEADLINE: How is Tenet doing in pre-sales in the UK?
GREDINGER: They are very encouraging. We see huge demand for the special formats like Imax. We have some sold-out performances in Imax already. The awareness for the movie is huge. Chris Nolan’s new movies are always a big event and we can always be optimistic. We need a relatively quiet time from the point of view of new cases and we will make it. It will take more time to do the money because of the restrictions, since we cannot sell to capacity. Due to this, the movie will need more time to reach its full potential.
DEADLINE: Some overseas markets came back strong and then saw new closures in certain areas because of a rise in cases. I know it’s impossible to predict, but do you feel there’s a possibility that there may be a backslide and that we will see major closures again? Or do you think once this confidence takes hold and if people aren’t getting sick at movie theaters, they will continue to open?
GREIDINGER: I believe that it will need a really, really extreme situation in order to close again. It’s a very strong mover of the economy. A lot of people cannot earn their living if everything is closed. I’m not talking about cinemas only, but it’s a very difficult decision. Saying that, the health and safety of the public comes first and if there will be a deterioration, I’m sure the governments will know what to do.
My feeling is that we have a good chance to have at the end of this year or early next year, a vaccination which will end this sad story. Again nobody can say when, but I think this is a positive sign. It cannot be that humanity in the year 2020 will not be able to find a solution to this.
Once this will be the case, we’ll really be back, full steam on track. Until then, we need really to take care of the safety within our cinemas and also to take care of the business and our team. Within the unprecedented challenges that COVID presented following the closure of our cinemas, we faced a number of hardship cases from individuals within our teams. We saw it close to home because we had to support a lot of our employees in special circumstances and people with special needs and people in special situations, and all that we had to do shows how fragile everything is. I hope that very soon, all of this will be behind us.
DEADLINE: What did you think of Disney’s decision to move Mulan to Disney+ in the markets where it’s available? You’ll still have it in you Central Europe markets…
GREIDINGER: For sure we are very sorry to miss a big movie like Mulan in the cinemas. Disney has a lot of angles in their business and the way they are making their decisions. I personally think they lost income by bypassing the cinemas in the Disney+ territories. On the other hand, I think in the other territories where they will be releasing in the full window, they will do good business. China, Central Europe and many other countries where Disney+ is not available. But of course we are sorry to miss it in the U.S. and the UK.
DEADLINE: What about the piracy issue?
GREDINGER: Piracy is always a problem. For sure it is much more accessible once it is goes onto streaming and this is something that the studios need to take into consideration. I think in this case, because of the proximity of the dates and because of the local-language versions that will be shown in cinemas, we will suffer from this less. But of course in the future it needs to be taken into consideration.
DEADLINE: Are you worried about more of this kind of thing in terms of windows going forward?
GREIDINGER: On one hand, my job is to be worried, so to tell you that I am just ignoring it, I’m not. I’m confident in the theatrical business model and I am sure that once we are back on track, things will go back to normal. Whether there will be a change here and there in the window in terms of days, this might happen. But going into a day and date or into a 17-day window, this is not going to happen. The industry is not going to give up a business which generated in 2019 $43 billlion.
DEADLINE: Has there been a lesson during the course of reopening or anything that has surprised you?
GREIDINGER: I cannot think of something that really surprised us. We corrected some small things, but I think we were very well prepared — unfortunately, we had a really long time to prepare ourselves but we really gave it a lot of thought and attention. I think that on the positive side, apart from the fact that we are really being embraced by our customers, we need to remember that in the U.S., across the whole exhibition industry, I believe that there were about 1 million people [workers] sitting at home before the cinemas reopened. Now, every cinema is calling back 20, 30, 50 people to work who are direct employees. Then on top of that, there are the security companies, the cleaning companies and the small suppliers. We are a very big industry and our opening, I think, is also positive in reviving the economy around us. The coffee shop that is neighboring the cinema will now have better business and the local shops possibly too. It’s all one thing leads to another, it’s not something we invented, but I think it is a strong message.
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