Setting the Sails and Other Ways to Beat the Cinema Slump

by Elisabeth Sereda July 23, 2020
Parisians watch Paris Plages' "Le Cinema Sur L'Eau"

Parisians watch Paris Plages' "Le Cinema Sur L'Eau", a floating cinema at La Villette on July 18, 2020 in Paris, France

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In the US, only 30% of moviegoers are comfortable with the idea of going back to the cinema; in most European countries, the percentage is even less; and as far as Asia and Australia are concerned, in a lot of areas stricter regulations prevent them from opening altogether – for now.

Regular movie theaters, that is. As summer has descended on the Northern Hemisphere, desperate cinema owners have gotten creative. What, for instance, could be safer than floating in a boat on the water with your family or best friends while staring at a huge screen? Nothing, as the mayor of Paris, was told; and so the French were the first to open their 19th edition of the annual Paris Plages (beaches) celebration on the Seine on July 18th. The showing? A French film, of course, Le Grand Bain, flickered across a screen in the Bassin de la Villette. The 2018 comedy by Gilles Lellouche tells the story of a group of well-fed, middle-aged friends who decide to try synchronized swimming with rather bad, albeit hilarious, results. The audience was delighted – and not just because they enjoyed the film.

"It's been years, we're creating operations to take the cinema out of the cinema rooms as a promotion tool, and after the few months of confinement, we thought we needed a way to tell the people and to tell the world that cinemas are open in Paris, that Paris is one of the worldwide capital of cinema, while also creating at the same time a way for people to enjoy a magnificent night with their families,” said Elisha Karmitz, CEO of MK2 Cinemas, the company that partnered with the city of Paris to make it all happen. The boats were electric, the picnics homemade, as audience members brought their own food and wine. 150 guests in 38 boats, ranging in capacity from two, four, or six persons. The ice cream was complimentary and was handed out before patrons boarded the boats. For the premiere event, the seats were complimentary, too, and whoever could not get onto the water had the chance to sit in one of the 150 deck chairs on the riverbank.

Since the event was such a success, the organizers, who also own two regular cinemas, are planning to make it a daily summer showing. How much they will charge, and if it will be more expensive than the usual movie ticket, is not currently known. But other European cities, such as Munich and Vienna, are considering similar ways of getting out of the cinema slump: both cities, like Paris, already have river beaches, Munich on the Isar and Vienna on the Danube Canal. In addition, Vienna, Rome, and a few others already have open-air theaters that aren’t drive-ins. If the weather holds, this is a good alternative.

On a smaller level, Americans have jumped on board of the floating experience too: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, all in Ohio, Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have listed dates in September of this year, but with only 12-24 boats available per location: the showings won’t be as grand as in the European version, and it remains to be seen if a theater chain can recover financially from selling just a handful of tickets. “We may as well just stick with social distancing in our already existing theaters, sell only 25% of the seats and hope for the best”, says the owner of a local chain who asked to remain anonymous. In recent years, cinemas have already faced stiff competition from the rise of streaming, faced corporate acquisitions and now Covid-19, and many were briefly rumored to be bought, as AMC has been rumored to be on the point of being bought by Amazon – although in this particular case it turned out to be just that, a rumor. There are, however, rumblings about theater chains actively pursuing buyers. And as David Craig from the USC Annenberg School notes: “People still want to be social. They don’t go to the movies just for content, they can watch that on here [their smart phones]”, he says. That feeling is a global one.

Meanwhile, not only in the US but all over the world, the good old drive-in has seen a major revival as the spread of the virus can be contained if you just hang out in your own car. The big question that remains is what will happen when the temperatures get colder and sitting in a freezing car or on the frozen Seine won’t be quite as comfortable.