All eyes are on Britain’s deserted cinemas as they prepare for the first release of a Hollywood film since March, with the industry expecting its worst year at box office in three decades amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi film Tenet – starring David John Washington and Robert Pattinson – will hit the big screen on Wednesday, signalling the first test of whether film fanatics are ready to return to cinemas.
But cinemas across Britain remain eerily empty as film fans shun theatres up and down the country, plunging the industry further into crisis.
Car parks are deserted and row upon row of seats unfilled as cinemas refuse to serve pick’n’mix amid strict safety measures.
A member of staff at the Watford Vue Cinema told MailOnline that they had only managed to sell four tickets today.
At the Vue Cinema in Watford, the foyer remained practically deserted as film fanatics opted to stay at home, despite PPE-wearing staff stationed behind plastic screens and one-way traffic systems in place.
Elsewhere, residents in the North East braved the big screen as they visited the Odeon cinema at Silverlink Retail Park, in North Tyneside.
Among them was Sarah Anderson, 35, from Ashington in Northumberland. The mum-of-three described a recent visit to the Vue Cinema in Cramlington, Northumberland, to see ‘Unhinged’ with her partner Josh Skipper.
The full-time mum said: ‘Normally I would go in and get loads of food but this time I went in, watched the movie and left.
‘I would go back again, but I still probably wouldn’t get any food. I still don’t think I’d be taking the kids yet though due to the restrictions, we’ll wait a bit longer for that.’
Restaurant owner Omar Jaber and wife Susan recently took their three children to see the animated movie ‘Dreambuilders’ at the Odeon Silverlink and had no complaints with safety measures in place.
Omar, 43, from Jesmond said: ‘It was good, it was quiet – but I think if places are going to be quiet then you’re going to have a good experience. If it’s overcrowded then it won’t be the same and so there were no issues with social distancing.
The family were hoping to see a new film today, but decided against it given the lack of choice available. ‘With the cinema selection now I don’t think it will get busy for a while – there’s no new movies really.’
Susan, 42, added: ‘I’m really concerned about coronavirus and making sure everything is safe enough, but I think as long as you wear masks and keep your distance then it will be alright. The problem with the kids is you can’t keep them in forever.’
Joshua Giacomini took his younger brother to see an old Batman re-run when the cinema first reopened last month.
The 18-year-old restaurant worker from Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, said: ‘It was good, but I’m wondering when the new films are going to be released.
‘The experience itself was quite different because it was strange knowing you had to keep a distance in the seats. I felt safe enough, and it wasn’t very busy because I think people are still scared to go back, but it wouldn’t put me off going again.
Kyla Watkin was waiting to view ‘Onward’ with her two children Mase, 9, and Nei, 7, and her mother Jeanette, 56.
The 22-year-old nurse had already been prior to today, having felt safe enough to see ‘Sonic’.
She said: ‘It was really well organised – you would go in one way, watch the film and then exit through the back of the building. ‘I definitely felt safe and we’re going back today.
‘I went with my partner and when we went there was only us and another two people inside. If it was busy then it would possibly make us re-think whether or not we’d go, as there’s not much room. Then again, there’s a limit on how many people they can sell tickets to.
Jeanette said: ‘We’ve had to be shielding and my husband is actually in hospital at the moment, so this is our first time out in 14 days so it’s quite a nice experience.
‘It’s a shame because the kids really missed it as they like their trips to the cinemas normally, but obviously with what’s happening you have to be careful.
‘Now I feel safe enough to come. I think if it was full it would make a difference for me, but it’s not. I feel for the companies who aren’t taking in the money but it’s just the way it is at the minute.’
Caroline Bennett had just been to see ‘Trolls World Tour’ with three-year-old daughter Mia and partner Shaun Jordan and were relieved to see that it was quiet.
The 29-year-old retail worker from Wallsend, North Tyneside, said: ‘I personally found it very similar to as it was before. I didn’t find much of a difference, but we did have allocated seats and it was quite quiet.
‘There was about four or five families but we were all spread out and it was fine.’
Tenet is a spy organization that is established to prevent an apocalyptic third World War from breaking out.
The highly-anticipated film was slated for release in mid July, but its premier was postponed multiple times owing to coronavirus.
The industry has been struggling to return to pre-pandemic times since the government gave the go ahead for theatres to reopen last month.
An average week in the cinema pulls in around £24million, though this week the top 10 films in the UK and Ireland notched up just over £800,000, The Guardian reported.
Cinemas have had to rely on fan favourites including the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises to pull in customers.
And earlier this month Disney pulled the eagerly expected Mulan from upcoming schedules, deciding instead to release it on streaming service Disney+.
But ticket sales for Tenet look promising, with industry experts claiming the rate of sales put it at a similar level to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, which took £50million.
Around 80% of all screens in the UK are expected to be open by next Wednesday.
Tenet is Nolan’s first film since his runaway success Dunkirk, and the $200million movie has already achieved an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The majority of feedback has been positive, including the Variety review which gushed: ‘The structural complications of Nolan’s storytelling are nifty enough, but it’s the muscular gusto of his filmmaking that inspires wonder.’
The thriller has led Tenet to be compared to the director’s 2010 release Inception starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard.
When the subject was broached to Tenet lead John David Washington in June he told Esquire the film was ‘an in-law to Inception.’
Cinemas have been able to open since lockdown restrictions were eased on July 4, however a large number of venues did not immediately do so.
Tim Richard, founder of Vue, told The Guardian: ‘We have done a staggered opening over three weeks to make sure we are game-ready when Tenet comes out. Pre-bookings now are really strong.
‘With Warner Bros’ marketing and promotion muscle behind it, expectations are that it’s going to do pretty close to pre-Covid levels of business.’
Social distancing measures mean customers will have to wear face masks throughout the duration of the film and cinemas are only able to run at 60% capacity.
Elsewhere, in Southampton, English language teacher Kevin Lovelock went to see Karate Kid at the Odeon cinema today.
Mr Lovelock, 44, who lives in the Hampshire city, said: ‘They’ve set up a one way system in the building and inside each screen they make sure people are not sat right next to each other – it’s all common sense really.
‘It felt entirely safe and it’s so quiet inside that I felt like the king of the cinema.
‘It’s mainly old films showing at the moment and I saw Karate Kid as a child in the 1980s but I wanted to get out and feel like I was living life again.’
University worker Gary Hedges and his dance teacher wife Caroline Hedges, both 43, saw three films on Friday and returned to the Odeon today to see Inception.
Mr Hedges said: ‘We have a huge film collection at home but it’s not the same as seeing it on the big screen. It all felt completely safe inside. There’s a lot of space in the communal areas and there are 13 screens so it feels very quiet inside – there were only six of us in a huge Imax which can probably seat around 400.
‘If you book together and you are from the same family they seat you together but they are ensuring there are spare seats between groups. All the staff and people going in are wearing masks. You can remove them once you are socially distanced inside the cinema itself.
‘We also saw about four hand sanitisers in the entrance to the building and they have also set them up in the food area and the corridors.
Shop worker Johann Sampson, 39, went to see Russell Crowe’s Unhinged last night at Southampton’s Showcase cinema and was off to see Inception there today.
Mr Sampson said: ‘Watching Unhinged felt entirely safe – there were only two other people in there. You have to wear a face mask to go into the building but I think it was optional to wear once inside the cinema itself. I believe the seating plan is all segregated as well, but it was so quiet it didn’t really matter.
‘I maybe wouldn’t come back if I felt it was going to be massively crowded but it’s so quiet at the moment it feels very safe.’
David Guy, 44, a trained hairdresser from Southampton, visited the Odeon to see Karate Kid having been back for the first time on Friday evening to see Empire Strikes Back.
Mr Guy said: ‘It’s great to see these old films in the cinema that I’ve only ever seen on TV before – it’s been 20 years since I saw Karate Kid and it was great.
‘The Odeon has created a one way system inside and on each row of seating there’s always at least two seats gap between you and the next person.
‘I felt entirely safe. There were only two of us in the cinema just now and at last night’s screening there was a maximum of 20 people.’
The government published a 29-page document with detailed guidelines on how cinemas can ensure safety for both staff and guests is achieved.
Guidance includes reducing the number of screenings and seats available in each screen to uphold safety.
High traffic areas such as toilets, escalators and life, should be regulated and one-way traffic systems throughout cinemas are recommended.
Coronavirus spreads by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking, which can also be picked up from surfaces if a person touches a surface and then their face without washing their hands first.
This is why social distancing, regular hand hygiene, and covering coughs and sneezes is integral in controlling the spread of the virus.
All cinema customers in England must wear a face covering during their visit, though they can remove masks for food and drink.
If Tenet does well then there are still plenty of box-office successes to be had this year.
Many studios now have a backlog of blockbusters slated for release, and other highly anticipated movies this year include Marvel’s Black Widow, the next installment in the Kingsman franchise and the latest Bond film, Never Say Die.