Pandemic at the pictures: can social distancing work in cinemas?

Odeon, Cineworld and Vue have all announced plans to reopen in July, but the viability of social distancing guidelines remains unclear. Toby Earle asks industry figures what to expect

Walking into an empty cinema and discovering you have the place to yourself has always been a rare treat. When multiplexes reopen next month, rows of vacant seats won’t be so unusual. At best, film fans will be scattered about the theatre, like small islands in an archipelago.

Three and a half months after lockdown forced the hospitality industry to temporarily close, Odeon, Cineworld, and Vue have announced plans to reopen in certain areas of the UK next month – and will implement the government’s guidelines on health and safety. The full requirements are, at the time of writing, unclear, but what is clear is the impact of social distancing measures on independent cinemas.

Coronavirus Cinemas
UK cinemas are looking to reopen next month. Credit: Krists Luhaers on Unsplash


The results of a survey conducted by the Independent Cinema Office signal a troubling future for independent venues across the country. Social distancing measures require a reduced seating capacity and lower footfall puts many smaller businesses on a knife-edge. Out of nearly 500 cinemas consulted, 41% said they wouldn’t be able to enforce social distancing requirements and would therefore be unable to open.

For the 59% of independent cinemas who believe they would be able to introduce social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure staff and customer safety, the outcome is little better. The halving of potential ticket sales and associate revenues leads these cinemas to believe they would only be able to operate for three months before staying open becomes financially unsustainable.

As the reopening of cinemas approaches – the first big money post-lockdown release is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, out on July 17 – we spoke to cinema operators, industry figures and those who keep our much-loved movie houses running to see if social distancing is actually viable at the cinema.

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ will be the first major blockbuster released post-coronavirus. Credit: Warner Bros.

“A lot of independent cinemas would have to reduce capacities to such an extent that they become non-viable businesses”

David Sin
Head of cinemas, Independent Cinema Office

Can social distancing work?


“For an out-and-out commercial cinema there’s a very strong commercial imperative for them to open as soon as possible. It’s much more nuanced for independent cinemas. The vast majority of community and smaller independent cinemas tend to have smaller capacity auditoriums and, unlike modern multiplexes, they tend to have smaller seats and narrower seat rows. Those physical factors mean a lot of those cinemas would have to reduce their capacities to such an extent to observe all the social distancing measures that they become non-viable businesses.”

Will people actually come?

“Even if cinemas are able to introduce all of those measures and enable audiences to come back at a relatively low risk, the problem is a lot of those measures suck the joy out of going to the cinema. If you’re a potential cinemagoer but then you consider you have to wear a face mask, buy the ticket online in advance, stay apart from everyone, and sit apart from everyone inside the cinema, you might just decide it’s too much hassle. You might choose to watch Netflix at home instead. That’s the existential threat to a lot of cinemas.”

Refreshments like popcorn will have to be sold in a way that fits in with social-distancing guidelines. Credit: Alamy

“Cinemas are going to look after their bottom dollar more than the safety of their staff”

Kevin Carson
Negotiations officer, BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union)

Can social distancing work?

“In cinemas, it’s the workers on the floor that are actually doing all of the cleaning because it has to be done continually throughout the day. It depends on the cinema, but there are screen-checks and toilet-checks every half hour. Before COVID-19 it was a check to see if things are tidy and clean; now, a whole cleaning regime has to be introduced to wipe down loads of surfaces. Will enough time be allowed to do that? We need to make sure cinemas are properly staffed – not with a skeleton staff – in order to actually clean it to a decent standard.”

“There’s speculation that the cinemas are going to look after their bottom dollar more than they’re going to look after the safety of their staff. That’s one of the comments [from industry workers] that I’ve received.”

Is it safe to open?

“I’ve had feedback, particularly from Odeon workers, who’ve said one of their top worries is you can social distance all you want, but what will be done to protect them if they have to clean rubbish left behind by someone who’s asymptomatic? Odeon has sent out a survey about staff concerns and they have left some text-boxes open for specific concerns, so they are asking those kinds of questions.”

“Some of the other feedback that I’m receiving is people are very nervous about going back. They don’t think the cinema industry needs to be at the forefront of businesses opening up. They feel cinemas should be learning from other businesses about what’s worked, what’s effective, and how to keep the risk low. This isn’t a universal opinion – I think there are some people wanting to get back to work, they’re just nervous about how they can do it safely.

London’s Peckhamplex is one of many independent cinemas forced to close by COVID-19. Credit: Alamy

“It sounds horrible, but it might be the only way”

John Reiss,
Chairman, Peckhamplex (London)

Is it safe to open?

“We will not even think about opening until we’re formally allowed to do so by government regulation and local authority regulation. Even then, we will only do so when we think it’s safe for our long-standing loyal staff and our customer base. Many of our customers have been coming for 20 years.”

Can social distancing work?

“Peckhamplex is on the footprint of a former Sainsbury’s. We’ve got six screens, so we can probably use the big ones and have people well-spaced out within them. Other measures might include staggered arrival times, online pre-purchased tickets only, and possibly pre-purchased concessions, so they’re already packed and ready for you to collect through a perspex screen. It sounds horrible, but it may be the only way.”

“We can also allow people to leave through the fire exits at the back of the building, so we can have people flowing one way, rather than bumping into each other in the foyer. We’ve yet to work out the details, but we don’t want to put our staff at risk, nor our customers.”

How has lockdown affected business?

“We actually had some savings set aside for a big refurbishment. That will have to be postponed, because we will have used up quite a lot of that cash for just surviving.”

Glasgow film theatre
Glasgow Film Theatre was first opened in 1939. Credit: Alamy

“We usually have 20 minutes of cleaning between screenings, but after lockdown we’ll probably allow between 50 and 70 minutes”

Allison Gardner
CEO, Glasgow Film Theatre

Is it safe to open?

“Any decision I make is based around three guiding principles: Is it safe for staff and audiences? Are we still engaging with our audiences? Are we going to be in a strong position when we are allowed to reopen?”

Can social distancing work?

“Once we are allowed to reopen, we’ll probably only have one fifth of the normal capacity when social distancing measures are put in place. Most of the staff are anxious to get back because they know we’ll do the right things. Nobody’s expressed any anxiety. We will have a social distancing plan, but we’ve yet to work out what that will look like, because we’re waiting for the guidance from the UK Cinema Association.”

“What will be the key factor for us is making sure there’s more time between shows so that we clean really thoroughly – all handrails, toilets, and those kinds of surfaces. You’ll need more staff in order to facilitate that type of regime. We usually have 20 minutes of cleaning between screenings, but we’ll probably allow anywhere between 50 and 70 minutes [post-lockdown].”

Odeon and Cineworld were contacted for comment during the writing of this article