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Virus could keep theaters shut for a year, producers warn

Fiachra Gibbons

Agence France-Presse

Paris  /  Thu, May 7, 2020  /  09:07 am
Virus could keep theaters shut for a year, producers warn

Theater-goers for an evening show of Les Miserables at Queen's Theatér on March 12, 2020 in the theaters and restaurants district of West End in London. (AFP/Isabel Infantes)

To reopen, or not to reopen with social distancing? That is the question haunting theaters and cinemas that were shuttered overnight by coronavirus lockdowns. 

Theatrical impresario Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary British producer behind a half century of hit shows from "Cats" to "Hamilton", said it could be next year before the lights go back on in New York's Broadway and London's West End. 

With British actor Stephen Fry warning that it could be as far off as next April, Mackintosh said it was impossible for theaters to open their doors again while social distancing measures were still in force.

With some out-of-work actors and musicians on Broadway telling AFP that were considering changing careers, French star Isabelle Adjani said Tuesday it would be curtains unless governments "declare a cultural emergency".

"We are going to be the last to go back," Mackintosh told BBC radio. "The truth is until social distancing doesn't exist any more, we can't even plan to reopen."

Commercial theater depends on shows being at least two-thirds full as a rule of thumb to keep ticking over.

With people meant to sit up to two metres (over six feet) apart, that would mean at least two empty seats around each masked audience member, official French official guidelines recommended Monday.

'It's black and white'  

Such restrictions were socially and economically impossible, producers insisted.

Even in the US state of Texas, whose governor Greg Abbott has been gung-ho about lifting restrictions, only a tiny number of cinemas grabbed the chance to reopen at the weekend. 

Few cinemagoers were tempted to brave the temperature checks at the door, with their screening rooms allowed to be no more than a quarter full.

"We either reopen completely or we don't at all. It's black and white," said French theatrical tycoon Jean-Marc Dumontet, who owns six Paris theaters.

People simply "will not want to go back to the theater if they feel it is dangerous," he told AFP.

Stephen Fry agreed, saying distancing restrictions go against the whole theatrical experience.

"The very quality that makes theater so thrilling  -- the united presence of an audience clustered together to experience live performance -- is what makes the enterprise so unsuited in a period of necessary social distancing," he said.

Hollywood too is sceptical about a quick return to normal despite US President Donald Trump saying he wanted American cinemas to reopen as soon as possible.

Blockbusters put back 

Studios have pushed back the release of most of their big budget "tent-pole" blockbusters until August or later, reluctant to risk them on a still jittery public.

Even so, some Czech cinemas will open next week and German industry body HDF Kino is lobbying for a July restart, saying the lockdown has already cost them 186 million euros ($201 million).

Some cinema chains in the UK -- which has been hit much harder by the virus -- also want to open in July, although neighboring Ireland is not contemplating a return until mid-August.

While the outlook is bleak for live theater, the major US chain Cinemark believes cinemas can weather the storm -- and any recession that might follow.

"Historically the exhibition industry has been recession-resilient and we believe it will rebound and benefit from pent-up demand as home sheltering subsides and people seek a communal experience," it said in a note to investors.

However, it warned that any return to normal "may span multiple months" because of "lingering social distancing" and consumer discomfort with public gatherings.

Despite everything, Cinemark said many cinemas could still make a profit even when two-thirds empty.

'All a bit hopeless'

Theaters do not have that luxury. With dire warnings of venues going dark and shows closing forever, French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to announce a bail-out for the country's live entertainment sector Wednesday.

In Britain, where theater plays an even bigger role in country's cultural and economic life, the government has so far been silent despite a growing clamor for aid.

While there is no question of theaters being allowed to open yet in Austria, companies will be allowed to rehearse again from May 18 for one-man shows, and from early June for shows involving more than one actor.

Broadway, however, will remain firmly in lockdown, and with little hope of state aid, the outlook is bleak.

"I think we're all a bit hopeless," violinist Maxim Moston, who is in the orchestra of the musical "Moulin Rouge", told AFP.

"I think a lot of people are thinking about other careers at this point."

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