After the worst crisis in their history, cinemas are not seeing a rebound in attendance and fear they will never return to pre-Covid levels.
Will the cinema recover from the Covid? After going through the worst crisis in its history, the sector now finds itself in a paradoxical situation, as the Cannes Film Festival opens. First, because despite months of administrative closure, reopenings with strict health rules, health passes, attendance at half mast, the operators have not, so to speak, deplored any bankruptcy.
The “whatever the cost” as well as sectoral aid measures implemented by the CNC (National Cinema Center) for a total amount of 300 million euros have enabled the sector not to collapse . And it is the operators who have benefited from the bulk of the aid with 210 million out of the 300 of the total.
Operators who even believed that the page was definitively turned at the end of last year. With 20.4 million admissions to theaters in December, the sector was back to levels comparable to before the crisis (22.7 million in December 2019). Attendance notably driven by the immense success of Spider-Man: No Way Home from Marvel Studios, which alone made more than 7.3 million admissions.
Top Gun and Avatar to the rescue
Problem: if 2021 ended in euphoria, 2022 seems to be marking time again. Month after month, attendance disappoints operators. Between January and April, cinemas in France recorded 50.7 million admissions according to the CNC compared to 77 million over the same period in 2019 and even nearly 80 million in 2018. A drop of around 35% which begins to worry about.
What if the spectators had taken on new habits and never returned? A fear that sweeps Alain Le Diberder, specialist in the sector.
“The crisis of the last two years was a considerable event, never seen in 120 years of cinema, he recalls. People today have a catastrophic vision of the situation but it must be tempered. “A crisis takes as long to resolve as it lasted. It would have been miraculous if it resolved immediately.”
Because the Covid crisis has not only affected cinemas, but also film production. Suspended filming, postponed releases, frozen projects… The Covid has reduced the offer of films and in particular American films, the weight of which in attendance reached a low of 27.3% over the first four months of the year. Unheard of for decades. Fewer films, therefore fewer admissions.
But the next few months, American cinema will come back in force. Already in May, Marvel’s Dr Strange 2 was a hit at the box office with more than 1.4 million admissions in the first week. At the end of the month, it’s the long-awaited Top Gun: Maverick with Tom Cruise which should fly away at the box office. The sequel to the 80s blockbuster is the most symptomatic of “Covid films”. Initially scheduled for 2019, the release was postponed four times by its producer Paramount.
But it is above all the release of Avatar 2 in December that gives hope to the sector. The sequel to the greatest success in the history of cinema (2.85 billion dollars in revenue, 14.8 million admissions in France) has been expected since 2015! The return of James Cameron’s science fiction saga will also be preceded by the release of the first part on September 23.
But will these few very big blockbusters be enough to find past dating? Probably not. Because the fear is no longer the Covid, but the streaming platforms. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ are capturing a growing share of films that would previously have been released in the exhibitor circuit. It is in particular Disney who is singled out.
The entertainment giant has been both a theatrical film supplier studio and an SVOD platform since the launch of Disney+. If the American has reassured the exhibitors by releasing some of these last big productions like his animated film Encantoits Marvel like The Eternals or films by star directors (The Last Duel by Ridley Scott and West Side Story by Steven Spielberg), its catalog of theatrical films has nevertheless decreased.
The sector has seen worse
“Disney was 39% of the box office in France in 2019, recalls Alain Le Diberder. If he reserves a quarter of his line up at Disney+, its share drops to 30%. And this is what we observe. Overall, the decrease in the offer of all the studios causes a 25% drop in cinema attendance. From 200 million admissions in 2019, we could structurally fall to 150 million.
A phenomenon of falling attendance which the sector had been confronted with in the 1980s. In 10 years, attendance at French cinemas had collapsed by 42% to reach a low of 115 million in 1992. Equipment of homes with televisions colours, the generalization of video recorders had diverted the French from dark rooms. Especially since the price of tickets had continued to swell over the period to reach a record of 7.50 euros in 1992 taking inflation into account (6.70 euros today according to the CNC).
Before a spectacular rebound in the following decade. Digital technology, which made it possible to reduce production costs, the arrival of large multiplex theaters on the outskirts and the launch of subscription cards at the turn of the 2000s had once again attracted the French to dark rooms.
Innovations that are now widely used.
“French cinemas are the most modern and comfortable in the world after the Chinese ones, witness Alain Le Diberder. There are some innovations like Pathé which does 4DX, networks like MK2 which offers shops, there may be things with virtual reality but there are no more great revolutions to expect.”
Competition from hobbies like gaming and streaming platforms may never be overcome by cinema. This is even the scenario favored today by observers.
400 million euros less in the coffers
But can a sector that makes 150-160 million admissions be viable when it made 213 million at its peak in 2019? With an average price of 7 euros per seat, this represents a shortfall of around 400 million euros.
“There is no threat of collapse of the network, believes Alain Le Diberder. The big networks like Pathé or CGR are very profitable, they make 90% of their profits with confectionery for example. And the arts and testing circuits are fragile but very helped and have lower costs.”
With the digitization of movie theatres, operating costs have fallen significantly over the past 20 years. More projectionists, fewer checkouts with the purchase of tickets online… Exhibitors can afford to make a little less admissions.
The risk, on the other hand, concerns the production of films. Fewer admissions means less money for studios and film funders in the broad sense.
“Artist cinema, for example, needs big comedies that stain and superheroes to finance themselves, recalls Alain Le Diberder. You should know that two films that make 2 million admissions each actually make it possible to make 6 million admissions in total. Because viewers see trailers and visit theaters more afterward. So fewer films coming out means fewer admissions, less revenue for producers and therefore fewer films…”
It is this vicious circle that the profession fears.
But the president of the CNC, Dominique Boutonnat, wants to be reassuring. In an interview at World, the funder of French cinema recalls that the sector has seen others and that the country has already taken steps to charge the platforms as before with Canal +.
“There is no fatality, he believes. Historically, answers have been found for each crisis. After the war, the financing of French cinema was ensured thanks to the reopening of our theaters to American films, thereby feeding the CNC support fund created for the occasion. At the end of the 1980s, when attendance was at its lowest, televisions, and Canal+ in the first place, were called upon to contribute through investment bonds, to renewing the offer of films and boosting attendance.And the modernization of theaters in the early 2000s, with the help of the CNC, gave new impetus.Today, the platforms provide funding watched with interest by many countries.”
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