FNE Visegrad YR2021: Slovak Exhibition: Audiences Return to Cinemas

    Kino Lumière, Bratislava Kino Lumière, Bratislava credit: SITA

    BRATISLAVA: Cinemas in Slovakia remain open despite the rising numbers of Covid cases. They were allowed to restart operations, albeit under certain conditions, from 17 May 2021, according to a decree by the Slovak government, announced on 12 May this year.

    Measures being enforced in cinemas at the moment vary locally and depend on the epidemiological situation and vaccination in individual districts. Wearing a face mask indoors is mandatory throughout the country, but the number of visitors and the obligation to prove being vaccinated – by presenting a vaccination card or, even, a negative COVID-19 test - depends on a colour-coded framework called "COVID Automat".

    Slovakia has 159 cinemas with 261 screens, including four multiplexes, 22 miniplexes, 94 single screens, 29 open air theatres, three traveling theatres and two drive-in cinemas. The largest operator is CINEMAX, which operates 13 cinemas with 65 screens in 12 Slovak cities. The second largest is Cinema City, boasting three multiplexes in Bratislava. Ster Century Cinemas with four miniplexes in four cities is also one of the larger chains.

    Audiences are returning to the cinema gradually and it can be said with certainty that the numbers are growing. "Cinema attendance is constantly growing, and we are very happy about this; we firmly hope that the next wave of the pandemic will not affect us as seriously as the previous one. Large film titles such as the new Bond film, No Time to Die, the Marvel film, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the long-awaited Dune and Eternals also contributed significantly to the increase in attendance.“ Ľuboslava Kováčiková from Cinema City told FNE.

    This increase is happening despite a slow start in the second quarter, for, even though cinemas were allowed to reopen from 17 May, many delayed restarting operations due to the necessary preparation: Indeed, according to the Union of Film Distributors of the Slovak Republic, numbers were not high during the weekend of 27-30 May. The most popular films in cinemas were Tom and Jerry (with 2,932 admissions), Soul (2,095), Mortal Kombat (1,662), Nightlife (1,408) and Nomandland (1,186).

    Far Too Personal by Marta FerencováNevertheless, figures are bouncing back now. For instance, a total of 21,461 visitors came to the premiere weekend of Eternals on 4 - 7 November, according to the UFD. Dune had 7,361 admissions in its third weekend, and Addams Family Values racked up 5,812 admissions.

    “The results of and after the summer months are - from a preliminarily judgment - very optimistic. At the time of relaxed measures, cinema attendance was very satisfactory, and comparable to the years before the pandemic,“  Nataša Simonková from the Association of Cinema Operators told FNE.

    This is a marked improvement over last year, when the return of audiences to cinemas after the first closure was significantly slower. Total admissions in 2020 were 2,364,814, with a decrease of 63.78% compared to 2019, when the total admissions had been 6,529,320. Total gross revenue in 2020 was 13,996,458 EUR, with a decrease of 62.43% compared to 2019, according to official statistics.

    The Association of Independent Producers initiated a campaign in July 2020 under the title I am going to the cinema / Idem do kina, to bring viewers and Slovak films back. This campaign, supported by the Slovak Audiovisual Fund, was created to help cinema operators, distributors and producers to deal with losses caused by the pandemic. 

    However, even these figures are largely due to a very successful start in 2020, when Slovak minority production Far Too Personal / Príliš osobná známosť by Marta Ferencová, produced by the Czech Joy Department, in coproduction with Slovak NUNEZ NFE and Trinity Pictures, topped the Slovak weekend box office (with 70,712 admissions) during its opening in January. Moreover, the political thriller, Scumbag / Sviňa, directed and produced by Mariana Čengel Solčanská and Rudolf Biermann, a coproduction between Slovak CinemArt SK, Czech IN Film Praha and Magic Seven Slovakia, became, just four weeks after its premiere, the second most successful film in the era of Slovakia's independence, according to the Annual Report from the Slovak Film Institute, registering 389,358 admissions in the first month of release.

    In 2020 cinemas were closed several times over the course of the year. In the first wave of the pandemic, they were closed from 10 March to 19 May 2020. The second wave brought restrictions in early October and cinemas were closed again on 15 October 2020. It was possible to reopen cinemas at half of their capacity on 16 November, but from the end of 2020 restrictions were re-imposed and people were not allowed to go to the cinema. In total, cinemas were officially closed for 116 days in 2020, although, in reality, they shut their doors for longer, since it was not always possible to reopen them immediately. This situation was exacerbated because government decisions to open or close cinemas usually came unexpectedly, sometimes irrationally, and the rules were often not clearly worded, so cinema operators were clueless in many situations.

    For example, when cinemas were allowed to reopen for the third time in 2020, on 16 November, just a month after the government had unexpectedly banned them, world premieres were suspended and mainstream cinemas had no new titles to attract new audiences. In response to the unexpected government decision, the Cinema Operators Association and the Slovak Union of Film Distributors issued a statement expressing their concern: “Since the lock-down of the country had been discussed a few days before this decision, we were surprised by the change in the situation and we are afraid that it also indicates ignorance of how the film industry works. In other circumstances, we would be happy to reopen, but as the trend is opposite and cinemas are gradually closing in other countries, the worldwide dates of distribution premieres are shifting.“

    While some smaller cinemas and arthouses were more flexible towards changes, opening under these conditions was unprofitable for larger cinemas. In the case of multi-screen cinemas, not only was the shift of premieres crucial, but the consumption of food and drink - a substantial part of these operators‘ profit – was restricted. The statement confirmed these challenges: “The combination of the ban on the sale of refreshments and the lack of strong premiere titles could be destructive for many cinemas, especially those which are not supported by the municipality or the state institutions. After the spring wave of the pandemic, it took us several months to return at least to a somewhat normal, financially remunerative mode of operation.“

    To mitigate these issues, an initiative for support was presented to the Ministry of Culture in June 2020 by the Slovak Audiovisual Fund as well as cinema associations and distributors. In August 2020, the Minister informed the state Fund that it had managed to obtain extraordinary resources, and the AVF announced a call. Cinemas responded with 57 complete requests, and all were supported.

    For cinemas that missed the September deadline, the fund prepared another call. In the second round, the Slovak Audiovisual Fund supported another 11 cinemas. The total number of supported cinemas thus increased to 187 (68 cinema operators), which represents almost 85% of all standard cinemas in Slovakia. The fund decided to allot 500,000 EUR from the 700,000 EUR support it received from the Ministry of Culture, and another 39,800 EUR were provided by the fund from its own resources. 

    Scumbag by Mariana Čengel Solčanská and Rudolf BiermannHowever, large multiplexes only had to settle for state support for companies, which helped them maintain jobs, but did not cover the huge losses caused by the closure of cinemas.

    Today, as 2021 comes to a close, the losses resulting from the closure of cinemas are still huge, but cinemas are still fighting, trying to attract viewers and convince them of the uniqueness of the cinema experience.

    "The decline in sales in Slovakia is still in the tens of percent compared to 2019. We need to restore the general public's trust in mass events. We received support to maintain jobs, but unfortunately, it did not cover our losses from the complete closure of cinemas at all. We believe that the situation will gradually improve. Cinema is a cultural and social experience that cannot be had at home, so we are preparing a number of interesting activities and projects to improve the cinema experience." Luboslava Kováčiková from Cinema City told FNE.

    Sources: Creative Europe Desk Slovakia, Union of Film Distributors of the Slovak Republic