In March 2020, cinemas across the capital closed their doors and the British film industry came to a grinding halt.
Three years on, the wounds wrought upon London’s cinemas by the coronavirus remain clearly visible and new questions over its long-term future have emerged.
Will the film industry ever fully recover from the impact of the pandemic and return to its pre-pandemic state?
Furthermore, in light of the significant rise in streaming services, how has this affected Londoner’s desire to visit the cinema and what does it mean for the future of London’s cinema industry, as well as for the wider film industry in the UK?
How We Got Here
2020 saw UK cinema admissions fall to an all-time low, crashing from 176 million in 2019 – comfortably the highest admission numbers since 2013 – to just 44 million, according to the British Film Institute.
This drop-off was clearly mirrored in London’s numbers, with admissions falling from 40.2 million in 2019 and just over 10 million in 2020.
These numbers are to be expected, the capital’s cinemas had less than six months of open doors to attract visitors, and for at least half of this period seating and ticket sales were restricted and new film releases were understandably hard to come by due to Covid-19 halting almost all film production.
These issues continued throughout the following year.
Despite many locations opening their doors once again, admissions remained substantially lower than before the outbreak of Covid-19, rising only slightly to 16.9 million in London.
During this time, moviegoers found other ways to satiate their appetite for the medium, as Covid-19 lockdowns accelerated the average viewer’s transition from the cinema to at-home streaming.
According to research by KPMG, the pandemic rapidly accelerated the already expected adoption of streaming services, with Disney’s own platform, Disney+, reaching its goal of 90 million global subscribers four years ahead of schedule.
In all, the years of 2020 and 2021 were almost terminal for the capital’s cinemas, from all-time low admissions to massive chains such as Cineworld facing closures, things were not looking good as London finally emerged from two years of lockdown.
The state of play: how London’s cinemas began the long road to recovery
As of 2022, London’s cinemas remain in a precarious position, but industry experts see light at the end of the tunnel.
Admissions are up, more so than many expected, with numbers rising both nationally, to 177 million, and in the city, to 26.9 million, according to the BFI.
Several releases that outperformed industry expectations, most notably Top Gun: Maverick, the latest blockbuster offering from Tom Cruise, fuelled this growth.
Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, told the Londoners: “With the arrival in cinemas of a large number of titles held over during the Covid period, we saw exceptionally strong audiences for films like No Time to Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Top Gun: Maverick.
“Since then, the slate has, if anything strengthened, and we are about to enter a period when major new titles are going to hit cinemas on an almost weekly basis right until the end of the summer.
“Add to that the continued public desire for entertainment and escapism and the sector looks to the future with great optimism, with a hope that in the next year or two we might match or even surpass the strong performance seen in the two years pre-Covid, the strongest for our sector since 1970.”
Clapp believes we may also be seeing a reverse in general attitudes toward streaming.
“We have seen a definite switch in public attitudes, with many choosing to watch more films on the big screen,” he said.
However, the future of London’s cinemas will undoubtedly look different to its past, he noted.
He pointed to the rise of A24, a production company producing high-quality independent cinema as an example of the change in audiences’ appetites post-Covid.
He said: “Reaching and surpassing the level of admissions we saw in 2018 and 2019 is certainly seen by most as an achievable aim, but won’t be achieved overnight.
“It will rely both on continued investment in the cinema infrastructure, so the refurbishing of existing cinemas as well as the opening of new ones, as well as a continued supply of strong and varied film content not just from the established studios, but also from new entrants to the cinema market such as the streamers mentioned above, and exciting new players such as A24, whose recent films have included Everything, Everywhere All at Once and The Whale.”
However, the road to recovery has not, and will likely not, be smooth sailing.
According to BFI data the number of cinemas across the country is down and is set to fall father.
The closing of several Cineworld and Picturehouse venues has fuelled this.
On top of this, streaming has continued to dominate cultural conversations regarding film and television.
In all, London’s cinema industry is on its way back after a period that threatened to mark its end.
As a result of new audience preferences and a slew of independent films massively outperforming expectations, things look bright for the future.
But the industry will need to be smart, remain adaptable and continue to innovate if it wants to return to the numbers we were seeing before the pandemic.