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Cinemas in Kent struggle for survival as Disney moves Mulan to streaming service

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An independent cinema in Kent has been forced to remain closed for foreseeable future, as a lack of new film releases threatens the survival of the industry.

Owners of The Silver Screen, based in the Town Hall in Folkestone, made the difficult decision following Disney's move to forego cinemas and instead release the $200 million live-action remake Mulan on its new streaming service.

The main auditorium at the Silver Screen can only hold 100 people under social distancing guidelines
The main auditorium at the Silver Screen can only hold 100 people under social distancing guidelines

Chris Lightwing, manager and co-owner of the seaside town picturehouse, said the business had been relying on a slew of major releases to get their customers back in front of the screen once again.

He said: "We were planning to have a big re-opening scheduled for 28th August, so we were really counting on Tenet, followed by Mulan, Bill and Ted 3 and then Black Widow later in the year.

"Providing those releases hadn't changed at all, we thought we were going to be able to show those supplemented by older films.

"But we weren't going to be able to make ends meet opening and just showing old films."

A significant lack of confirmed new releases has meant the multiplexes operated by the likes of Vue, Odeon and Showcase have crammed their multiple auditoriums with screenings of classic films from across the decades.

Co-owner Chris Lightwing (left) and manager Ian Luck
Co-owner Chris Lightwing (left) and manager Ian Luck

Chris said: "We've only got two screens - our main screen has 400 seats, with social distancing and all the guidelines in place that immediately goes down to a maximum of 100 available seats.

"Our second screen only has 59 seats, and when we did an initial evaluation with the guidelines the number of seats went down to something ridiculous like 10.

"If you're a cinema with more screens then they're in a much better position to do it, but unfortunately looking at our cinema it's not feasible."

Cinemas were given the green light to fire up the projectors once again last month as the government began to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions and allowed non-essential businesses to reopen.

Major releases such as Paramount's Top Gun sequel and the latest Bond outing No Time To Die were also put on ice when the pandemic reared its head, and some still have no definitive release date.

The small screen would barely accommodate 10 people under Covid safety guidelines
The small screen would barely accommodate 10 people under Covid safety guidelines

Many Hollywood production studios are thought to be shelving their films until the US can reopen its cinemas again, instead of offering them to countries like the UK who are currently able to exhibit their films with social distancing measures in place.

The move has left independent exhibitors frustrated with production companies, after spending time and money making their screens safe for the return of their customers.

Chris added: "We've obviously invested a certain amount of expense because we were gearing up to reopen this month.

"Now we're wondering if that was a wasted expense - it's disappointing."

One cinema tried its luck and reopened in July, hoping customers would book tickets despite the lack of new releases.

Clare Ralph, manager of the New Century cinema in Sittingbourne, opened three weeks ago under Covid-safe guidelines, but has not yet had more than ten people attend screenings which can seat 80 under the new rules.

The cinema manager said: "We're not even hitting double figures - I'm sitting here for so long wondering if someone is going to come through the door, and I could be sat here 11am to 10pm and only one person will come in.

"It has been a real struggle."

Clare has resorted to showing films which were released just before the national lockdown started in March, such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Pixar's Onward.

Aside from a lack of new releases, she also believes customers are being put off by the recent updated coronavirus safety guidelines.

Socially-distanced seating at the New Century cinema in Sittingbourne
Socially-distanced seating at the New Century cinema in Sittingbourne

The rules now state customers must wear a mask inside the auditorium for the duration of the screening, but the business is still allowed to sell food and drinks.

Clare said: "We're classed as an eatery because we sell popcorn and snacks, so it's silly.

"The condition is if you buy something you don't have to wear your mask, because you obviously can't eat through your mask.

"I tell them if they don't buy anything they have to keep their mask on, but it's down to them if they keep it on in the screen, I can't police it."

Clare believes cinemas should be included on the exemption list for places you do not have to wear a mask, alongside restaurants and pubs.

"It has been a real struggle..."

One cinema in Broadstairs reached out to its audience directly to find out how they felt about plans to reopen.

The Palace Cinema, on Harbour Street, asked people to take part in a survey, of which 307 people responded.

According to the cinema's website, 70% wanted to see the cinema open following increased cleaning schedules and managing the entrances and exits of the small building.

One respondent wrote: "I would be happy to return to the cinema as long as I’m reassured that adequate precautions have taken place, I can see that everybody’s health is paramount and as long as I feel safe."

Even those currently open and welcoming customers are concerned with how long cinemas can feasibly hold on running at a significantly reduced capacity, whether or not major films begin getting released again.

Some days only one person has visited the New Century cinema
Some days only one person has visited the New Century cinema

The Independent Cinema Office conducted research across the UK, and found that most venues felt as if they could only survive for a maximum of three months with current social distancing measures in place.

Others are hopeful that audiences will seek out the big screen once again to see the latest films as they become available.

David Yard, head of marketing at the Gulbenkian in Canterbury, said: "Nobody knows what the longer term impact will be of the Covid-19 period.

"We believe that a visit to the cinema and enjoying a film as part of a live audience is very different to watching at home, and feedback from our audiences suggests that they agree and will return to when they feel safe to do so."

Head to our business page for all of the latest news about businesses in Kent.

Read more: All the latest news from Folkestone

Read more: All the latest news from Sittingbourne

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