Sinking back into a socially-distanced leather seat at a safe distance from other customers and having to slip off your mask to tuck into the popcorn: going to the pictures is certainly different post-lockdown.
At the Vue cinema in the Westfield shopping centre in west London, film fans are greeted by a masked staff member and ushered towards a hand-sanitiser.
The usual bustle is absent, but there’s still a crackle of excitement in the air over Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s impenetrable timewarp action movie, the first postpandemic blockbuster.
Post-pandemic blockbuster: Tenet stars Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington
Tim Richards, 61, the Canadianborn founder of the Vue International chain, has seen the film several times and admits he still doesn’t understand it.
But whether or not Tenet is to your taste – or even whether you have the faintest idea what’s going on – the film is an acid test for cinemas in the time of Covid-19.
Will film fans flock back to the movie theatres, or will they stay on their sofas, indulging the streaming habit they acquired whilst housebound?
Many critics believe Disney’s decision to have a digital premiere for its new release Mulan – about a female Chinese warrior – instead of launching it in the cinema, was a sign the pandemic has changed the industry forever.
Richards, however, says the move was down to issues specific to Disney. ‘They were sitting on some very bad news, particularly on the theme park side,’ he says.
‘This was a nice cushion to a lot of bad news and their stock price went up 11 per cent that day.’
Early indications on Tenet are encouraging: it is performing at similar levels to Nolan’s previous movies, Inception and Interstellar.
But a lot is at stake. Already under threat from streaming services such as Netflix, traditional cinemas have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Richards, who worked as a Wall Street lawyer and movie industry executive before founding Vue in 2003, has had a white-knuckle ride to equal anything on his super-size screens, as the pandemic threatened to destroy the business he has built over two decades.
‘It took me 17 years to build this company, we have 230 cinemas and three weeks later we were closed. Unbelievable. It was really apocalyptic looking back on it,’ he says.
‘We had modelled for bad situations. You would model a big Hollywood movie not performing to expectations.
‘You would model somebody building across the street from one of your most successful cinemas,’ he says.
‘But modelling every single one of your cinemas closed was not something we’d even wildly contemplated.’
Before the pandemic, Richards and the two Canadian private equity funds that hold a majority stake – the Alberta Investment Management Corporation and Omers, an Ontario-based pension fund manager – had been looking at a possible stock market float or a sale, possibly to new private equity investors.
Aspirations for a listing or a sale have been put on hold, however, and are unlikely to be revived until 2022.
But Richards expects a return to normality for the business within six months. Even star-studded red carpet premieres will soon be back, he says. ‘It will be challenging but star power doesn’t change. Premieres will come back in a small way this year and the big Leicester Square ones by next year,’ he predicts.
Richards gave up a job as a Warner Brothers executive in Hollywood to set up his own chain here in the UK, working at first out of his garage, then a rented office above a Greek restaurant in Chiswick, west London.
In charge: Tim Richards founded Vue in 2003
Now he has 230 cinemas in ten countries and last year nearly 100m people visited. The Vue chain operates about 90 cinemas in the UK and has around 9,500 staff around Europe, none of whom have been laid off.
The company is reported to be lining up an extra £100m of debt finance to help weather the pandemic.
‘To maintain the flexibility of continuing to invest confidently and prudently for the long term, we are reviewing all our options,’ Richards says.
The business’s turnover was nearly £850m last year but it made a pre-tax loss of £54m because of investment in the chain.
Richards says the first ominous signs of how harmful Covid-19 would be to the business came from Asia.
‘We have an operation in Taiwan, and we knew something big was coming.’
In the early days of the virus spreading, managers of various countries ‘had a call every morning at 7.30am, seven days a week, to discuss what was going on – it went downhill very quickly after that,’ he says. He adds: ‘Two months ago we stopped having daily calls about death and infection rates and started talking about opening.’
His cinemas are now up and running again and taking advantage of pent up demand, even with no new movies to show.
‘We still managed at 50 per cent run rate with classic movies, that were not only already available on streaming services but on terrestrial television as well,’ he says. ‘People just wanted to get out of their homes.
‘We will have a decent, even good autumn. There will be a bumpy road but we expect a return to normality in six months.’
Inside the cinema, it does feel safe, if rather different, from a pre-pandemic visit to the flicks.
There are no jostling crowds in the queue or in the foyer.
Vue uses computer programming to make sure individuals, couples and groups can be seated in socially-contained bubbles.
‘Our system will put a cocoon round you.
‘We lose 50 per cent of seats that way, but in any case we run on 20 per cent occupancy over the course of a year,’ Richards says.
The company has been has been using artificial intelligence to fine tune the timing of screenings so the maximum number of people can see a film under safe conditions. Movies are also being shown for longer runs.
Richards, who also sits on the board of the British Film Institute added that he expects customers will spread out their cinema trips through the day, rather than just going in the evenings.
‘We believe we are going to be doing pre-Covid-level box office, but we’re going to be doing it in a different way,’ he says.
Not everyone believes Tenet is the best film to pull people back into the picture houses.
It has a baffling and improbable plot and is so noisy the seats literally shook.
Not to everyone’s taste, then – but as Richards says, it is a movie that absolutely has to be watched on the big screen.
As for the long-term future, he is bullish. ‘I have been in this industry for 39 years and its demise has been predicted very definitively five or six times, every time there is a new technology,’ he says.
‘I have spent six months trying to survive, but my belief in the industry has never been as strong.’