Cinema Elvire Popesco, en plein air: a discussion with Ioana Dragomirescu

25 June, 2020

The Elvire Popesco cinema is the first cinema hall in Bucharest to reopen after the post-lockdown relaxation. Working under the title of “Cinema Elvire Popesco en plein air” (Cinema Elvire Popesco in open air), the hall resumed its activity on the 13th of June (exactly three months to the date of its closure), using means adapted to the current situation: one in which the indoor halls are still closed and social distancing is mandatory, but also a time in which when no distribution company has taken upon itself, for the time being, to launch a new film onto the market. Taking these facts into account, the team behind the cinema has designed a selection composed exclusively out of French films, comprising both relatively recent titles (whose posters stand at the entrance to the hall – films such as Doubles Vies, Les Miserables and Dalida) and classical films, which are projected simultaneously on two screens installed in the courtyard of the French Institute: the first screen occupies the outer wall of the cinema, while the second screen is installed on the terrace “Le Bistrot Social”, the Institute’s café.

Taking into account the distance measures, the two screens bring together around 50 people every evening, starting from 9 PM, and the tickets have been sold-out since the very first event, a screening of the classic musical Les Paraplulies de Cherbourg. Although the return to a “normal” course of activity is still unforeseeable, the cinema’s team already has plans for the next month: from July onwards, they aim to expand their offer of films by resuming titles whose distribution was stopped in March, on the one hand, as well as launching the program “Cinema Elvire Popesco – Hors les murs”, through which they will distribute films from the cinema’s catalog in other halls across the country. It’s a plan that matches the ambitions of the most popular independent cinema in Romania – a few days ago, a ranking of the National Cinema Center (CNC) indicated that it has rounded up 75,000 spectators in 2019, making it the single most visited single-screen cinema in the country.

We discussed the reopening of the cinema with Ioana Dragomirescu, who is in charge of the Elvire Popesco cinema since 2018, talking about aspects of their behind-the-scenes work, about the particular curatorship of the current program of and, last but not least, about the spectators that have been courageous enough to attend screenings in the past two weeks.

Imagini de la redeschiderea cinematografului Elvire Popesco. Credit: Dan Lupu
Credit: Dan Lupu

What was the exact moment when you realized that you could reopen the cinema, by converting it to an outdoor screening format? How did you plan the reopening and how did you consider the space that you had at your disposal?

Even as early as the 15th of May, when it was easy to foresee that outdoor events would be the first ones to be resumed, there was already a lot of talk behind the scenes about a government ordinance – which went on to become that joint order of the Ministry of Culture and Health. However, it was delayed for quite some time, and by the time it was finally published, that is, on a Saturday night, the measures were already coming into force on Monday. After reading the ordinance, we realized that, at least in theory, we could apply it. The regulations were likely to greatly diminish our audience, but still, we had thought about the fact that we could start organizing screenings nonetheless, and that’s when we started working to achieve this end. We had about two weeks of intensive preparations. On the one hand, logistical preparations – buying thermometers, disinfectants, pillows, measuring the distance between chairs, and so on. On the other hand, with the help of colleagues from the „Le Bistro Social” terrace, which also mobilized its strengths and reopened at the same time as we did, we were able to offer this double-screen format that maximized our capacity, as well as the food and drink menu, which, in our opinion, is part of the DNA of an outdoor projection. Okay, by doing so we were affecting “the pure quality” of the screening, although the viewing conditions are decent, it still doesn’t compare to the cinema hall, and we’re incidentally decreasing the viewer’s comfort because not all seats are positioned equally in regards to the screen, or that the rain can suddenly start, but instead we are offering something that can’t be consumed inside our hall – meaning, a  snack or a glass of wine.

Put together, all of these things created a concept that worked – I was a bit anxious when we launched the programming. We announced it on a Tuesday, the 9th of June, and on Saturday, the 13th, the first screening was scheduled to take place – exactly 3 months to the date we closed the cinema. We had a full house at our relaunching event – which was surprising, as tickets had been put on sale just three days before the event because we had to arrange a lot of unknown variables before we could be able to do so. We wanted to open with a program of French cinema which would be running throughout June, which turned out to be a good idea: on the one hand, people have returned to some fundamental milestones, since our audience expects to see French film at our cinema. On the other hand, this has allowed me to have a broader hand in film programming. We relied on slightly older French films, which had been distributed in Romania, such as Olivier Assayas’ Double Vies – from Transylvania Film, Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables – from Independenta Film, Amanda by Mikhael Hers and Laurent Cantet’s L’Atelier – from Bad Unicorn, and so on. We thus created a mini-catalog of French cinema, which we have completed off with a few films whose screening rights are held by the French Institute, which were already subtitled beforehand (we no longer have time to subtitle a film in three days) and available on Blu-Ray so that they can be compatible with the projectors that we use during this period. We also intentionally introduced classical films into our selection, because we thought it was a strategy aimed at a wider audience – which was seen in their beautiful response. The film we opened with was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (r. Jacques Demy). After all, we wanted to laugh and to make fun of all the trouble with the weather because our reopening coincided with all these weather alerts. There’s been no day without rain in the last two weeks, but we’ve only managed to cancel one screening so far, which we’ve rescheduled for the 29th. But even so, it was pretty much on the edge – we were announced on Facebook a few hours before the screening if the weather was good enough to still organize it. Only once did it rain torrentially – during the screening of Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’ete – but, to our surprise, the people still stayed around – and even so, only one person left the audience.

How did you implement the protection measures, as well as the logistical ones? Before the interview, you told me that you had merged several types of legal provisions to be able to reopen the cinema.

The two things that we had to take into account are, on the one hand, the Government Decision on the activity of the terraces, with “Le Bistro Social” being an authorized terrace, and, on the other hand, the famous Common Order of the two Ministries (the of Health and Culture ones) which regulates outdoor shows.

There still are a few points where things are a little unclear – we have identified three of them. First of all, the obligation to wear a mask – and this is also the one thing that viewers ask about most often, and for good reason. At outdoor shows, wearing a mask is mandatory throughout the show, while at the terraces it is not mandatory – you cannot wear it, because otherwise you cannot drink or eat. So, we thought we’d organize ourselves like this: after 9 p.m., when the film starts, the food can be served both on the terrace of “Le Bistro Social”, but also on “our side”, served in individual containers – as a kind of takeaway. Only burgers are served, and drinks are bought from the bar, many of which are served in closed bottles. This was the second point – at outdoor shows, it is only allowed to consume individually packaged food and bottled drinks. We then found this compromise by which we chose a menu – with the help of colleagues at Bistro, we did not intervene in their choices – which lends itself to these provisions. The third point is that any person that visits a terrace has to leave their data at the entrance, to investigate all attendants in case it turns out that a person who was there has become ill in the meantime. However, this is not mandatory at outdoor shows. So, the spectators who are seated on the terrace side have a register in which they write down their contact numbers, and in the case of those seated at the second screen, they are required to leave their numbers only if they buy something from the bar, but most do choose to order something during the film. However, we also have another way to trace contacts, namely through the Eventbook platform: most ticket sales take place online, almost 90%. When you buy your ticket, you automatically leave your name, email address, and phone number on the website. So we’re covered on this side too – just in case we have someone who, hypothetically speaking, would buy their ticket from the cashier and not consume anything from the bar, then they’d “sneak” through the system. The hardest measure for us – but the one we won’t budge on – was to keep chairs at a distance of two meters, which considerably lowers the number of people we can host. We only allow couples or groups of up to four people to be seated together. This means that we have around 50 to 55 seats in a best-case scenario, depending on how our spectators show up, and the tickets usually sell out a couple of days before the screening.

Somehow, my main concern is not to excessively police the audience, however. Going to the cinema must remain a pleasant, relaxing activity, and to be felt as such. All measures make this act feel almost like a medical one – of course we have to be careful and responsible, so that not just the spectators are safe, but also us, the employees, after all. But we’re trying to make all of these things take an acceptable shape – for example, we project the rules before we start the screening, such as the ban on moving chairs or pillows, but we strive to do it playfully.

Imagini de la redeschiderea cinematografului Elvire Popesco. Credit: Dan Lupu
Credit: Dan Lupu

Going back to the programming – in June you had a selection of French films, and from July onwards, you will resume screening some of the films whose distribution was stopped prematurely. But were there other considerations related to the artistic direction, the curatorship of the selection of films? And how did you approach the films that are managed by the French Institute – films by authors such as Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, Jacques Demy, and Godard?  Last but not least, what discussions did you have with film distributors?  

By opting to schedule only French films, I consulted myself with my assistant, Ioana Florescu, and some other members of the team, to find certain parameters that would guide our selection. First of all, we’ve been looking for films that already have subtitles in Romanian, because it’s too much of an effort to subtitle an entire movie for just one outdoor screening – there are too little people in the audience for this to be cost-effective. Secondly, we looked for films that are not suitable for an outdoor screening, where we have to keep the sound relatively low, so as not to disturb the cinema’s neighbors – automatically which excluded immersive films where the soundtrack plays an important role, such as Gaspar Noe’s Climax.  So, we’ve been looking for movies that are accessible and not very long, which are available on Blu-Ray, because there’s no way to use our DCP system outdoors, we only use typical video projectors for the time being.

We will still have an important part of the program centered on French cinema after the 1st of July because there are still very few distribution companies that want to launch a film right now. The cinemas are not yet open, so there is no point in launching a new title. At the same time, on the Romanian film market, TIFF matters a lot as a launching platform – even if just for the journalists who will write about the films that are part of the festival’s selection, and for those who will read about them. So, the premieres (especially the Romanian ones) usually take place at TIFF, and so before the festival, we will be in a kind of no man’s land, where the premieres scheduled for this time of the year have been canceled and no festival will take place before August. So, in July, until we are allowed to reopen the cinema (hopefully!), we will keep on focusing on French films, with some punctual interventions, which we already know:  Ken Loach’s  Sorry We Missed You,  Ivana the Terrible,  which is still requested by the public,  and collective,  which even though it’s available on HBO Go, will certainly have people who wish to see it on a big screen. We will also try to resume relatively recent films that have caught on well to the public, but there is also another element at play: the size of the distribution company and our proximity to it. From a certain point of view, it’s not even marketable to give us a Blu-Ray for an audience of just 40 people, because what we could offer them financially would be very meager. It’s a screening that functions as a social event rather than a marketable one, so at least we’re trying to offer something when nothing else can be, by anybody else – at least in this context.

Come autumn, there will be a big problem in regards to the scheduling of festivals – it will be a big, big problem because there is no room left. It’s going to be a very crazy autumn and I’m afraid to think about what’s going to be released on top of it all – at least at “Elvira”, every day we have in our calendar is occupied by a festival. We made a conscious choice to support local festivals because a “sunken” edition of a festival can also put an end to it. This will be detrimental to the classical circuit of film distribution since we will no longer have any time slots left for them. We have advised the distributors that we work with to place their films in festivals as much as they can because otherwise, they will have no other options.

There have been all sorts of discussions about the future of cinemas and streaming in recent months, many of them very categorical in tone. That the pandemic either proved the strength of the VOD platforms or, conversely, that it revealed everything that they are lacking, especially concerning festivals. How do you think these issues were reflected in the attitude of the audience that did come to the cinema?

I wouldn’t know how to answer precisely, because I didn’t get to speak to the audience in detail, and they didn’t mention anything about it either. We decided to reopen after also thinking about the fact that we will schedule films that are already available online – such as Amanda and  L’Atelier, which can be seen on the Vimeo page of Bad Unicorn – but we have not seen any difference in attendance, in regards to the number of spectators. It was the same thing. Another example: we opened the series with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg  (r. Jacques Demy), which available on YouTube in its entirety, even with subtitles, but the people still showed up. I think what our viewers lacked, considering also the speed with which tickets are sold (which is not to say that the 60 people, relative to the population of Bucharest, are highly representative), was the big screen and the idea of attending an event. I had the impression that I was under siege by the sheer volume of everything available online; there were so many things to see that one got the feeling that you were bombarded with content. You now could see ten films a day, but in the end, you wouldn’t end up seeing a single one – at least that was my experience. I saw very few films during this time because I couldn’t decide what to choose, so in the end, I didn’t watch almost anything.

We tried to redirect the audience towards online cinema resources through our Facebook page during the pandemic – other cinematheques, online festivals, MUBI. That was our first reflex, especially because we couldn’t offer anything else at the time, but I noticed that along the way people were already getting into some kind of routine and were not reacting to these things anymore. Instead, the announcement that we are reopening the cinema with Les Parapleies de Cherbourg had 400 likes in just two hours (which was probably the most successful post in the history of our page, that has over 20,000 followers) and tickets sold out the same evening! The initiative was welcomed with open arms by our loyal spectators as well as by the general public.

It is also a time when a lot of people have set out to watch classics and to consolidate their cinephile ABCs.

It could be that, too! For us, it was a perfect opportunity to show some films that are usually impossible to program with a certain frequency under normal rules of scheduling, because you don’t have an audience for it. But in this kind of event-oriented programming, it fits much better, so we set out to screen two, even three classical films a week. And it’s been working very well! It certainly doesn’t perform worse than the more recent films, on the contrary – it’s interesting for people to see such films.

Imagini de la redeschiderea cinematografului Elvire Popesco. Credit: Dan Lupu
Credit: Dan Lupu

Regarding the public, how has it behaved since you returned? Were they enthusiastic or rather more cautious?

Frankly, it’s harder to measure caution, since the cautious ones aren’t necessarily the ones who react to these kinds of events. When we started about the event, we encountered a great enthusiasm, in which people told us that they were looking forward to and how much they were happy, but on the other hand, we also had to answer many questions about what events would look like – with a mask or without a mask, et cetera. We also quickly published that set of rules that we adopted, both on Facebook and Eventbook, and we redirect to it whenever we have the opportunity, including projecting it onscreen. But, specifically, on the spot we had no problems, apart from the “normal” ones: like attempts to have a better place, to prevent moving between seats, we had no major problems. And people are understanding. I think they are aware that we are doing these things for the good of all and that we are not trying to be more Catholic than the Pope. What’s right, with wearing masks we have a problem, because from the moment I understand that I can take them off to consume something at the bar, I don’t put them back and the idea of intervening and forcing them to put their masks back on throughout the film was from the very beginning one that I was terrified of. We tell them, they write everywhere, but it would be more than dubious to do it during the screening, disturbing.

What plans do you have from July onwards, in addition to the Hors le murs program,  considering the unpredictability of the situation? Not only from an epidemiological point of view but also the fact that the measures are announced relatively late, shortly. Are you enthusiastic or cautious, too?

We’re trying to be somewhere in the middle. I have followed the reports issued by Europa Cinemas, UNIC, and other organizations, which are summarizing the measures taken across European countries – in most of the states, cinemas are opening up this week, and Romania is among the last countries that have yet to announce a concrete date. It’s true that the cases are on the rise in the past couple of days and that the general trend is pointing upwards, which is troublesome not just for us, but to everyone. We may not necessarily see a return to some restrictions, but at the very least there will be a postponement of certain measures of relaxation. We are prepared for all of these scenarios and we try not to have any illusions, to think that things will be simple. One of the main reasons we turned to outdoor projections, beyond the fact that we had no other choice, was that people still feel safer when they’re spending time in open spaces. It’s safer for all of us, and after three months where most of us stayed indoors, there was also a need to spend time outside and to socialize, to rediscover a common space. However, the big question is how many of our spectators will feel safe enough to stay between four walls again.

So, on the one hand, we have this unknown variable, namely the reaction of the audience, which we have no way of measuring until we organize the first screenings indoors, and I think that the very enthusiastic reaction that they had in regards to outdoor projections is not necessarily translatable concerning the cinema itself. A Cinemagia poll that asked people “If cinemas reopened tomorrow, would you go to the movies?” had a 50/50 response rate.

It’s something that also has to do with the demographic sectors that go to the cinema, I suppose. We know that an important part of the audience in the cinemas is made up of elderly citizens.

Exactly, it’s senior citizens – which is true for our projections. It’s related both to the neighborhood, but also to their habits and their available time. Our plan – given that we already anticipate certain rules – is to be more cautious than the law itself. So, if the law will say that we can fill up to 50% of the capacity of the hall, we will try to focus on a one-row free-one row occupied kind of setting, rather than just filling up 50% of the seats, regardless. There will be some challenges, for sure: people who come in groups have to be seated, so we will need more concierges.  And rules such as the one to disinfect all chairs after each screening will not be simple. At the same time, there may be some problems even with the air conditioning, if it’s the kind that recycles air – and to be honest, I don’t even know what kind of system our air conditioner has, because I’ve never been in the position to consider it! But in that case, we would have to opt for a way to ventilate the cinema mechanically. In any case, we will have to rely on the public’s understanding and cooperation – Elvira is famous for the long queues in the lobby, but it will be no longer possible for a time. The audience will hopefully understand that we’re doing everything that we can, but that it’s a stressful time for the team too – the evenings are ending late, our events are not necessarily financially cost-effective, and all things we used to do back when things were normal to have to be rethought. But let’s hope for the best!

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.