Major European Markets Set to Reopen Cinemas With New Movies and New Headaches

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Three of Europe’s major film markets — France, Italy and the U.K. — are reopening doors for theatrical releases after an erratic year of high hopes and false starts. But the pipeline of new movies will enter a landscape forever altered by the pandemic.

If you ask Tim Richards, CEO of European cinema giant Vue, about the greatest sea change in exhibition over the last 12 months, he points to the theatrical release window. Variety can reveal that the company, which has already begun re-opening cinemas in Denmark and Lithuania, is getting ready to deploy the 45-day release window trialled by Cineworld Group in a deal with Warner Bros.

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“We have a new model that we’re very close to signing up to with the studios, and I think it’s a very exciting model, based around a 45-day window. It’s for the U.K. and most likely most markets in Europe,” Richards told Variety.

In Europe, Vue operates across the U.K. (90 cinemas), Poland and the Baltics (45), Italy (36), Germany (31), the Netherlands (19) and Denmark (3).

“It’s something that’s going to be very, very interesting in terms of the number of movies that are playing,” added the executive, who highlights that the shorter theatrical window will help more movies hit screens in a jam-packed year.

And there’s no shortage of movies, which span awards season re-releases, new domestic titles and a slew of Hollywood tentpoles.

France, which boasts Europe’s biggest theatrical market in terms of admissions, will reopen its cinemas on May 19 with an audience capacity of 35%, a 9 p.m. curfew and more than 20 releases in the pipeline. The breadth of the offer underscores French distributors’ eagerness to jump back in after a near seven-month shutdown, and also reflects the extent of a 400-plus movie backlog.

The first week’s lineup comprises roughly 10 fresh releases, and as many re-releases of movies that were briefly in theaters. Distributors are looking to bank on French titles that scored during awards season, starting with Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-winning “Another Round,” which was in theaters for two weeks prior to the lockdown, and was an instant foreign-language hit. Haut et Court will roll out the Danish movie in theaters on May 19.

Meanwhile, Gaumont will also re-release Albert Dupontel’s “Bye Bye Morons,” which swept seven Cesar Awards; and Le Pacte will take the same route with Maiwenn’s Cannes 2020 movie “DNA.” “Bye Bye Morons” and “DNA” were in cinemas for nine and two days, respectively.

Starting June 9 — when the 9 p.m. curfew rolls over to 11p.m. and the seating capacity grows to 65% — the volume of releases will increase every week through the summer, with several U.S. blockbusters lined up, including Disney’s “Cruella” on June 23, a week before the curfew and seating limitation are lifted altogether.

“At least during the first few months, we’re not anticipating a traffic jam in theaters. In normal times, there are between 12 to 20 films coming out every week. We can expect that only a few distributors will be dealing with twice as many releases as usual, but only a fraction of these represent high stakes, so they’ll have to strategize accordingly,” said Eric Marti at Comscore France.

Plans to have distributors in France coordinate their releases hit a dead end earlier this week after the biggest companies — from Gaumont, Pathe to Studiocanal — and U.S. studios declined to take part in the initiative.

Across the channel in the U.K., the backlog is a comparatively modest 200 films. The week of May 17, when cinemas reopen, will see 24 titles, a mix of new and re-releases. These include Sony Pictures Releasing’s “Peter Rabbit 2” and “The Unholy”; Warner Bros’ Angelina Jolie starrer “Those Who Wish Me Dead”; Zee Studio International’s Salman Khan vehicle “Radhe: The Most Wanted Bhai”; in addition to “Nomadland” from Disney and “The Sound of Metal” from Vertigo Releasing.

“We are all delighted that cinemas in the U.K. are finally able to reopen and cinemagoers are in for a real feast of films over the coming months and beyond,” Andy Leyshon, CEO of the Film Distributors’ Association told Variety.

Leyshon talks up award winners “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “The Father and “Another Round”; sequels “Peter Rabbit 2” and “A Quiet Place Part II”; anticipated crowd pleasers “Cruella” and “In The Heights”; and global box office smash “Demon Slayer.”

“Distributors are chomping at the bit to get their films back on the big screen and exhibitors are looking to welcome back returning cinemagoers with open arms,” Leyshon adds.

A glut of product, especially high-profile Hollywood fare, could be a blessing.

Many distributors in France have decided to wait for the fall to release their high-profile titles, out of concern that this summer will be heavily dominated by U.S. tentpoles as is traditionally the case in France. But Comscore’s Marti says this summer could prove to be a game-changer for indie players.

“Those big U.S. movies will drive up the box office this summer and lure people back in theaters; and local distributors should jump on the bandwagon and take the opportunity to release their movies then, instead of the fall,” said Marti.

As in France, theater capacity is a factor in the U.K. as well, at least until June 21 when rules are expected to be relaxed. An expected 50% capacity cap in England means each cinema will need to work creatively to ensure it can meet what’s expected to be unprecedented demand for cinema seats.

Meanwhile, Italy, which was the first European country massively hit by COVID-19 in 2020, is now among the first to reopen movie theaters, albeit via a slow and gradual process.

After moviegoing started up again on April 26, the country now has only 460 screens open for business, in mostly arthouse venues, while the bulk of the country’s more than 3,500 screens remain shuttered.

The Vue group is targeting a May 20 reopening for its Italian cinemas, with the expectation that they can open with concessions from June. UCI Cinemas, Italy’s top exhibitor, has announced they will be back in business mid-May, though a re-opening date has not been set yet.

Last weekend — the frame ending on May 2 — “Nomadland” became Italy’s top theatrical draw, pulling €429,000 ($516,000) from 137 screens, for a €3,122 ($3,761) per screen average, which was also the best Italian per screen result. “Nomadland,” which is also screening on Disney Plus in Italy, scored more than 62,000 admissions, which is not bad considering that theaters are operating with a limited seating capacity due to social distancing and a 10 p.m. curfew reduces showtimes. There is also mandatory mask-wearing inside the venues, and no popcorn.

“Minari” weighed-in a distant second drawing €79,000 ($95,000) from 74 screens, while Wong Kar-Wai’s restored cult classic “In The Mood for Love” was third with €31,000 ($37,000) from 32 screens.

In this sluggish scenario, experts say the biggest sore spot is that Italian producers and distributors are unwilling to take the theatrical plunge with strong local product that could act as a magnet to get people back in front of the big screen.

Italy’s national exhibitors organization ANEC is up in arms against Aurelio De Laurentiis’ production-distribution shingle Filmauro for releasing comic hitmaker Carlo Verdone’s new comedy “You Only Live Once” in just a handful of Rome venues, which it owns, and only for three days (April 26-29), before launching the hotly anticipated local title on Amazon Prime Video.

But the problem isn’t limited to one Italian player.

“I really hope Italian distributors decide to make a greater effort,” Piera Detassis, president of Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, told Variety. She regrets that fresh Italian movies, “which are crucial for Italy’s identity and for the industry’s solidity, [are] hesitating to come out on the big screen.”

RAI Cinema’s 01 Distribution unit, which is Italy’s top local distributor, has announced the May 20 launch of new Italian drama “The Bad Poet,” by Gianluca Jodice, starring Sergio Castellitto, and on June 20 of Gabriele Salvatores’ “Clowns,” which was shot during the pandemic. Neither pic is expected to move the needle much.

As for Hollywood product, Warner Bros., which handles Sony titles in Italy, has announced the May 20 local release of “The Unholy.” Disney’s live action “Cruella” will be out on May 28, and also bow on Disney Plus, just like Disney’s “Black Widow,” which has a July 9 Italy playdate; Universal’s “Fast & Furious” is due in cinemas on July 12; and “The Suicide Squad” from Warner Bros., on August 5.

While the strong release slate harks to normalcy, it will take some time to achieve. “It’s going to take us at least 18-24 months to get back to where we were in 2019,” said Vue boss Tim Richards.

“The expectation is that at the end of 2023, we’ll be back to 2019 levels. It shows the impact this pandemic has had on our business: you’re losing 3-4 years to get back to the same place.”

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