EXCLUSIVE: This weekend saw Norway become one of the first European countries to allow cinemas to re-open after it began to lift its coronavirus lockdown. Eager eyes were trailed on the Scandi nation, with exhibitors keen to find out if audiences would return, or if virus safety measures would prove off-putting. The news, it turns out, was largely positive. As Deadline revealed yesterday, while only 15% of cinemas in the country decided to open doors, there were reports of strong audience appetite and a healthy number of tickets sold.
One standout example was the Ringen Kino in capital city Oslo, which is operated by the country’s largest exhibitor Nordisk Film Kino. The venue reported it had sold 96% of available tickets (taking into account restrictions allowing a maximum of 50 seats to be sold per screen) and recorded more than 1,000 admissions across the weekend. Disney’s Onward was the top grossing title, while Bloodshot, The Gentleman, Parasite and local titles Klovn 3: the Final and Flukten Ver Grensen also performed well. A glance at the venue’s website shows that tonight and tomorrow’s screenings of Parasite are sold out, as are several other titles this week.
So, how did they do it? How did sales compare to a normal weekend? Was popcorn on offer? What titles are they releasing next? We caught up with Jannicke Haugen, CEO of Nordisk Film Kino, and Christin Berg, Director of Programming, to find out.
DEADLINE: It was great to read about cinemas reopening in Norway. Overall, how did the first weekend go?
HAUGEN & BERG: It exceeded our expectations. We were nearly sold out Saturday and Sunday – with limited occupancy of course.
DEADLINE: I understand that you sold 96% of available tickets (with limited occupancy) and had more than 1,000 admissions – how does that compare to a normal weekend?
HAUGEN & BERG: The occupancy rate is much higher because of the lower capacity, our average occupancy rate in 2019 for Ringen cinema was around 52% on the weekends. Admissions-wise, it is around half of what our average weekend is for Ringen; on average we had around 2,300 visitors at the cinema in 2019. In total, we’ve sold 1,850 tickets so far including advance sales for Wednesday and Thursday.
DEADLINE: What protocols did you use to open your venues safely?
HAUGEN & BERG: The Norwegian government has decided to allow gatherings of up to 50 people if social distancing, sanitation and health guidelines are followed. This means that we can have up to 50 guests in our larger screening rooms, while we run lower capacity in smaller screening rooms to ensure safety and distancing. We decided to start with one cinema in Oslo – Ringen Kino – to ensure that all procedures are followed.
We limit the amount of shows per day and do not run at full capacity. We also ensure that guests are seated at least one meter apart [not including members of the same household who can sit together]. We have used the last couple of months to prepare safety measures and information so that our employees were 100% confident and ready to greet our guests in accordance with all health regulations. Guests are given thorough information both online and in the cinema. There are signs and floor markings in place to ensure space and a safe flow when in the screening rooms, foyer and concession shops. We also have extensive continuous cleaning of all premises. It is important for us that our guests feel safe when visiting our cinemas.
DEADLINE: Were the safety guidelines ratified by the government?
HAUGEN & BERG: We follow the authority’s guidelines and have made extensive planning and arrangements in the cinemas and trained of our staff so that they can adhere to all health and safety regulations. We have opened in such a way that we are on the safe side with a good margin.
DEADLINE: How did you approach selling concessions such as popcorn and drinks? Were they available and if so how did this differ from normal?
HAUGEN & BERG: We are selling concessions as normal, but we encourage our guests to not touch items they are not buying. The local infection control authorities have communicated that the virus does not infect via food. The popcorn cups are filled in advance in a safe and clean environment and placed in closed heat lockers with space between the popcorn cups. If our guest are buying coffee, they get the cups from our employees in the register, they are not placed freely around the coffee machine. In addition to this we only allow a certain number of guests in the concessions shop at a time and have clearly marked signs imploring the guest to keep distance and be safe.
DEADLINE: Did you stagger film start times to avoid having too many people in the venue at any one time?
HAUGEN & BERG: Yes, we schedule show times to avoid guests congregating in the lobby, and through our booking system we can control seating and the amount of visitors present in the cinema at every given time.
DEADLINE: What was the general reaction like from visitors? Were they glad to get back to cinemas? Did anyone react negatively to the safety precautions?
HAUGEN & BERG: Guests have reacted in a very positive way. We only started online ticket sales last Wednesday and quickly many shows were sold out. Guests feel safe and they have really been looking forward to going to the cinema again. Our staff gets a lot of smiles and positive remarks. We haven’t had any negative reactions, I think guests fully understand and appreciate all the safety precautions we are taking.
DEADLINE: How has Monday and Tuesday been – are people still coming?
HAUGEN & BERG: There has been a slight dip for Monday and Tuesday, but that is expected considering more of Norway has been re-opened including schools and we usually have less admissions in the daytime. We have a good occupancy rate at around 37% for Monday and Tuesday. For the evening screenings from 5.00PM we have sold 70% of available capacity.
DEADLINE: When are you opening further venues?
HAUGEN & BERG: We will now open an additional 11 cinemas. From May 15th we will open two more in Oslo, The Colosseum cinema [the largest cinema in Northern Europe] and Vika cinema. Outside of Oslo we are opening our theaters in 10 cities (Asker, Askim, Bergen, Drammen, Halden, Horten, Hønefoss, Tønsberg (Kilden), Kristiansund, Verdal) out of the 14 Norwegian cities where we have cinemas.
DEADLINE: How supportive have distributors been? What discussions have taken place regarding the films that you will have available in the coming weeks?
HAUGEN & BERG: The collaboration with the distributors is close and we have the same understanding regarding the situation. Some smaller films are ready for release in the upcoming weeks, but we are eager to see some bigger ones have their releases this summer as well.
DEADLINE: The film slate in your cinemas looks largely similar to when they were closed – Onward, Bloodshot etc – what are the keys titles coming up? Everyone is talking about Tenet but that’s not until mid-July (if Warner Bros holds its date) so you have a fair number of weeks to get through until then.
HAUGEN & BERG: I’m afraid that we have to wait for the tentpoles until July. We’re quite sure that some big children’s movies will surprise us by releasing early in July. In June we will see a number of small and semi-big movies, and we are also planning several special screenings of classic movies and pop-up festival weekends.
DEADLINE: A lot of movies have moved out the spring and summer calendars, with big titles pushed until the end of the year or even next year, are you concerned about a potential lack of available high profile films this year?
HAUGEN & BERG: We are not worried about there not being enough films for the future, but we could end up with a situation where the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 is totally packed with new films. So we urge distributors to release some of their bigger titles during summer to drive more guests to cinemas when we are opening again.
DEADLINE: Will you need to rely more on local films from the region?
HAUGEN & BERG: The local movies are struggling to find their release dates in the same way as the international ones. They have to ensure that they have enough capacity to reach their potential. We hopefully will be lucky to have a couple of local children’s movies this summer, we are planning this with the distributors as we speak.
DEADLINE: Do you think now that venues have re-opened fairly successfully that the public will have more confidence around returning to cinemas?
HAUGEN & BERG: I have no doubt that people will return to cinemas. It is a popular and sought after out-of-home experience and we all really miss going out, don’t we? And we can see when we ask our guests that a high percentage of them say that they are planning to go to the cinema just as often as before the COVID-19 closures.
DEADLINE: This is an unprecedented and fluid situation – now that you have had one weekend to trial the new setup, have you learned any initial lessons and are you making any changes at the venue this weekend?
HAUGEN & BERG: Actually we won’t change anything, it functioned very well at Ringen Kino last weekend.
DEADLINE: Do you have any sense of when you may be able to reduce the safety precautions in cinemas and return to more normal operations?
HAUGEN & BERG: It’s very hard to speculate. We follow guidance from authorities but we think it will take a while before we are 100% back to normal.