Survey: How did the reopening of Romanian cinemas look like?

8 October, 2020

Starting with the 1st of September, cinemas in Romania could reopen (at half capacity) for the first time since lockdown was instated in March – even though, in practice, the vast majority of cinemas could only reopen starting with the second week of the month. On the other hand, the common order of the Culture and Health Ministries, which regulated the reopenings, stipulated that local authorities had the right to close cinemas (and theaters) again should there be more than 1.5 cases / 1000 citizens – which has already happened in Iași (on the 5th of October) and Bucharest (on the 6th).

We wanted to discover how cinemas across the country managed during the time in which they were closed down, and to see how each of them implemented the safety measures outlined in the government policy, as well as to gauge how the audience reacted to the reopenings. What we found out was that each particular cinema had a unique approach – and not just because many couldn’t open at 50% capacity because of social distancing concerns, but also because each particular institution had its own specific measures; at the same time, the number of spectators seems to fluctuate in regards to particular circumstances – from special events hosted at the cinemas to the number of cases in their city.

We discussed these issues with cinema managers from Bucharest, Cluj, Arad, and Sfântu Gheorghe and asked them to make a preditction at the end regarding the future of their trade. While we were working on this article, a wave of new restrictions led to the shuttering of three of the cinemas in this survey, even though no single Sars-CoV-2 hotspot could be linked to any cinema at the moment – we decided to keep the testimonials of their managers nonetheless, in spite of their closures.

Cinema Eforie. Foto via Libertatea
Cinema Eforie. Photo via Libertatea

The Romanian Cinematheque – Eforie and Union Cinemas, Bucharest

Although they did not find ways to relocate their activity outdoors during the state of emergency and the summer, the Romanian Cinematheque launched the program Cinemateca Online during the restriction period. The Union Cinema resumed its activity in September, which largely took over the cinematheque programming. On the other hand, as an apparent consequence of the incident in March, when a piece of the building façade collapsed (an incident which was discussed at length by Calin Boto here), Eforie Cinema remained closed until the 6th of October – which appears to be the only day that it was open, screening two films – I Vitteloni, by Frederico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Pierrot le  Fou – given the new restrictions imposed by the Bucharest Prefecture.

Viorica Radu, director of the National Film Archive, which manages the two halls of the Cinematheques, spoke with us as a representative of the institution.

Why did Cinema Eforie open later than Union Cinema?

We had a problem at Eforie this year with the terraces… meaning, there is a plaster terrace above the entrance to the cinema… which was damaged. And only now have we been able to make a system to ensure that spectators that enter the building would be safe doing so. But tomorrow we will also open Cinema Eforie. So far, we’ve been operating with both our programs at Union, ever since cinemas could be opened.

So Eforie will take over the cinematheque program and Union will screen premieres – as it has been so far before the pandemic, right?

Yes, new movies – we have some partnerships with distributors. And Eforie will showcase our archive program.

What safety measures have you implemented so far?

Well, all of them, we have some internal guidelines which were created on the basis of the rules from the ministry – you know that a joint order was given by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Culture, by which we were informed of all the mandatory measures. We’ve established a number of 60 seats at Union, with distancing, we have a temperature-taking machine at the entrance… all measures that are common in this period. With the wearing masks, with markings, with surveillance, that’s it.

How many chairs will be available at Eforie?

75.

Do you have any statistics on the number of viewers who have visited Union Cinema since its reopening?

Yes, at first there was a wave of spectators – we even had shows with 30 spectators, The Oak even had 60. But… now they’ve come in the same numbers as before the pandemic. This weekend we had 20-30 spectators, overall. One screening had six spectators.

From what you’ve learned so far, do they follow the safety rules?

Yes, so far we haven’t had any incidents. People understand that it is what it is, and we haven’t had any cases of people not wearing masks inside the theater hall.

What are your predictions, given that the epidemiological situation has worsened? Do you think a return of restrictions is possible?

We hope to continue to operate our halls, although we are also concerned about the number of cases. In Bucharest, we see that we are approaching that 1.5 percentile, but we hope things will return to calm.

If cinemas were closed again, what effect would that have on the halls of the Romanian Cinematheque?

It would affect us, primarily because we could no longer carry out an important activity of our own, which is exploiting films through the Romanian Cinematheque. And it would also affect our own income – we have a quota to achieve within our budget, which depends on the sale of tickets and subscriptions. And as a consequence, we have to diminish our expenditures. We have tried to carry on with our activity through Cinemateca Online, but we are still working on the development of this project.

Cinema Arta Cluj. Fotografie din arhiva personală
Cinema Arta Cluj. Personal archive photo

ARTA Cinema, Cluj-Napoca

After several years of suspended activity (it being, at the time, the oldest cinema in Romania) and multiple campaigns that strived to reactivate the space, Arta Cinema in Cluj-Napoca was forced to close its doors again after its reopening last year, after renovation works and the opening of a café in the foyer of the cinema. It is the only non-multiplex cinema in Cluj that has not yet resumed its activity, but which continues to present art films through its program Arta Online.

We talked to Monica Sebestyen, the cinema manager, about the particular situation of the cinema and its online programs.

Arta Cinema launched an online streaming program during the lockdown – how did you work on implementing this idea?

We launched the online program during quarantine, which we are still continuing. We wanted to remain in touch with the public and to find a way to continue our work. Now… of course, we don’t think that the experience of watching a film in a cinema can ever be replaced, the collective experience of it. Being an arthouse cinema, we always encourage interaction between people, the idea of togetherness – which is something that the online space cannot offer, but it was, somehow, a way we could offer something to the audience. At the time, there were not that many platforms doing this kind of thing.

How come you haven’t taken the decision to reopen the cinema yet?

There’s two reasons why we haven’t reopened yet: on the one hand, it is still an uncertain period, because cases are still growing, very much so. Somehow, because there is this possibility of restrictions returning, we preferred to continue other types of activities because, in the field of cinema, we also have other cultural or educational projects that could be continued online.

Do you think it’s possible to reopen the cinema soon, or do you prefer not to make any predictions?

We’re not considering reopening the cinema at the moment. Now, in general, related to the pandemic – there are still some uncertainties about the number of cases, there’s the possibility of restrictions returning and, finally, there is a certain responsibility that we have towards spectators on the one hand, but we must also consider the high costs of operating the hall at a reduced capacity and under adequate sanitary conditions. The other reason is related to the specifics of the cinema itself. Arta is a totally independent cinema and we are taking advantage of this period to continue some renovation work.

We also have various cultural projects that we are working on right now, apart from the film screenings themselves. We have an educational project in progress, so we are currently working on preparing the educational materials, but we are also working on a history of the cinema itself. These are things that we can also do online.

Returning to online screenings – how many viewers did your streaming platform have?

I don’t know exactly how many people used it, but it’s a very small number. You just can’t compare online audiences with an actual cinema. Now, of course, the number of spectators fluctuated quite a lot – during the lockdown, which was when we started, we had more spectators, but the number slowly decreased in the summertime. But now they’re starting to grow back a little bit, maybe also because it’s getting cold outside. These were trends that are also related to the spectators’ wish to have a varied offer of films: after all, there are not that many films on our platform, so we have a fairly limited offer and some are already available on other platforms. There are many factors that are at play, so it’s hard to draw a very clear conclusion about our online presence.

Cinema Elvire Popesco. Foto via Facebook
Cinema Elvire Popesco. Photo via Facebook

Elvire Popesco Cinema, Bucharest

At the time of its closure on the 7th of October, Elvire Popesco Cinema was the most active movie theater in Bucharest, due to the outdoor screenings it hosted in the courtyard of the French Institute, and particularly to the festivals they hosted during the summertime – amongst, them One World Romania and the French Film Festival. Simultaneously, it seems that at the time of the closure they had one of the most comprehensive plans to protect its spectators.

On behalf of the Elvire Popesco Cinema, Ioana Dragomirescu spoke with us about the measures that the cinema had undertaken (shortly before the new wave of restrictions was announced). She also talked to us in June about the En Plein Air program.

The cinema opened on the 14th of September. How did you implement the safety measures imposed by the government?

As a first step, we decided to mix indoors and outdoors screenings, once a day, by taking advantage of the good weather. We realized that this was also something that the audience wanted because there is a subset of spectators who do not feel safe inside yet, no matter how many steps we would undertake, so they would prefer to come to our outdoor screenings, even if the weather was no longer that friendly – but overall, in September it was quite warm and dry. So we continued the outdoor screenings due to these two reasons: firstly, they were going well and we already had the experience of a well-established and functional health protocol, and secondly, because of this part of the audience that preferred to watch films outside.

Inside, we moved quite quickly, I would say – apart from the Happy Cinema multiplex, we were the first independent cinema in Bucharest to reopen. We counted on one occupied seat and then a free one, which in our hall means 91 seats that are available to the public. We thought of a system to lock the chairs that were not usable, by creating blockers would make it impossible to raise the adjacent seat – because we realized that even though people don’t actually sit on those chairs, they put their clothes or bags on them, they touch them, etc. It’s not like they don’t use them at all. So we’ve been thinking about these systems that won’t let you unfold the chair. We have also placed distancing markers on the ground, including on the alley leading to the cinema, we have separated the cashier from the regular line to avoid the formation of queues, and we created a whole system that signals these rules: posters, pictograms (which are also shown on the screen) and even a voice message that we run before the screening, which reminds the audience that they must wear a mask, to disinfect their hands at the entrance, to leave the cinema in an orderly fashion. We were lucky that our ventilation system is the kind that extracts air.

And between screenings we switch the seats – those who come to the second screening of the day do not sit on the same chairs, since we move the blockers onto the other seats that were used just before. We have marked the seats very clearly, we call them the “red and black seats” – basically, we put some black covers over half of the seats, and for the first screening we use the red ones, while for the second screening, we use the black ones; between the screenings we disinfect the seat handles. And in the morning the whole room is disinfected. And, of course, we also take the temperature of everyone who enters not just the cinema, but the whole French Institute, directly at the entrance, where we have a thermometer that automatically takes your temperature when you sit in front of it. Last but not least, it’s very important for us to have the contacts of all the people who visit us – it’s easy through the Eventbook ticketing platform, because most people get tickets online, so we have their contacts in case of an emergency, and those who buy them from the counter also leave their data to the cashier.

How many spectators have you had so far and what was their response?

Because we have the French Film Festival during this period, it has been hard for us to estimate the extent to which spectators came because they trust us or because they wanted to watch the films in the festival. At the first few screenings we organized inside the cinema, a lot of people came, and that probably was the combined effect of curiosity and longing, but very soon after, the festival started. It’s true that we had a full house many times during the festival – I can’t say it was like in previous years, not even close to it – but we had five or six screenings that had all 91 seats occupied. And people kept coming in large numbers.

Now that the festival is over, we see a clear decrease in numbers – the figures we had during weekends cannot compare to those that we had during the festival, even when the screenings were held in the middle of the week. We feel that the reason is not so much due to the rules, as it is due to the constant increase in cases in Bucharest, which makes people fearful. We have no way of clearly estimating these things, but what we see in our figures is a decreasing trend, especially in the case of films that we expected to have a large audience – such as Babyteeth, the winner of the Transilvania Trophy, or Corpus Christi.

Where do you feel the current situation is headed? As we can see, the halls were already closed in Iași yesterday evening. What happens if the cinema closes again?

Frankly, I think that cinemas getting closed in Bucharest won’t necessarily be imminent, as just very soon. For now, local authorities are debating whether or not 1.5 cases per thousand inhabitants percentile has been reached. The debate is actually in regards to the real population figure of Bucharest, because depending on which statistical institute you ask, the figure has either already been reached, or it’s on the very edge. The law stipulates that if the number is reached, the authorities may take restrictive measures, but that is strictly at their discretion if they close cinemas or not. We’re after the local elections, the new teams haven’t been installed yet, and probably no one wants to take this responsibility onto themselves, I guess. But we see that in Bucharest things have not yet been announced – it seems that today a series of restrictions would be announced, but we do not know whether it will include cinemas or not.

The only thing that we can do is to plan our schedule for the short term – that is, not to publish our programming in advance, over the course of 3 weeks, but keep working on the festivals that will take place soon, and here I am referring especially to Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest, which should start on the 23rd. But, given the way things are going at the moment, I don’t know if they’re going to catch the cinemas open when they should kick off. I hope with all of my heart that it will be possible, but it’s out of our hands. And given the cold and rainy weather, the outdoor screenings are no longer feasible. So if the “order from the commanders” will come, we have no choice but to close and wait.

Cinema Arta Sfântu Gheorghe. Foto via weradio.ro
Cinema Arta Sfântu Gheorghe. Photo via weradio.ro

Arta/Művész Mozi Cinema, Sfântu Gheorghe

In Sfantu Gheorghe, the local cinema has a special status, under the hybrid management of the town hall through the “Kónya Ádám” Cultural House, as well as the Cityplex network, so it runs both blockbusters and art films in its programme. During the summer, they organized outdoor screenings, including a series of “floating” screenings on the lake near the Arcuş/Árkos Castle.

We spoke with the cinema manager, Endre Lázár-Prezsmer, about the cinema’s reopening and its summer programs.

I understand that you carried out outdoor activities during the summer under the umbrella of the Arta Cinema – a project called Floating Cinema.

We had two projects, in fact – the first was a project called Cinema Outdoors, which took place as part of the Cultural Park series of events. Next to the “Kónya Ádám” Cultural House, there is a small park where we organized both concerts and outdoor screenings, twice a week, starting in July and until mid-September. The screenings were successful, but since the beginning of September, when it started to get colder, fewer people came – 15 to 20 per screening.

The other project was only held in September, so on four occasions. We screened rare films that had not yet been distributed in cinemas, with the Floating Cinema and Theatre project. We had ten inflatable boats, from which you could watch the film by paddling closer to the screen, and whoever didn’t want tickets in the boat, could stay on the lakeside – where we had 30 seats. It was also a successful project, I believe – but because the weather got colder, at the last screening, only 4 of the 13 people who had bought tickets showed up. The temperature even dropped all the way down to 9 degrees Celsius by the end of the evening – but at the first screenings it was really good because it was still warm, it was nice to watch the movie from a boat.

You reopened the hall on September 11. How did you implement the safety measures in your cinema?

We implemented them according to the official regulations, namely, we kept an empty seat in between viewers, even in the case of couples. We have two halls – The Chaplin Hall, with 80 seats, and the Fellini Hall, with 76 seats, which now operate at half capacity: which means 40 and 38 seats, respectively.

How many spectators have you had since the reopening and what was their response?

In the first week, just a few of them came, but now more people have started to come to the movies. There are movies that are beloved – for example, The War With Grandpa went pretty well, now it’s going well with Mulan. The other films, the European ones, plus the ones from the French Film Festival didn’t really work out that well.

So people are more interested in blockbusters than in arthouse cinema.

Yes, but for example, Tenet didn’t have as many spectators as we expected it would, we thought it would be a smash hit, but there were very few people that showed up – we event had four or six at some point. Tenet had a huge hype, so we were surprised. I understand that it reached 25,000 spectators around the country, but it only had 90 admissions here, which is very low for a film of this kind. Bloodshot didn’t really go well either. We learn every day what works and what doesn’t, but this really took us by surprise.

So, since the 11th of September, we had 1006 spectators who paid for tickets, plus another 187 had free entrance – on special promotions or at the Hungarian film festival, Filmtettfest, where the screenings are free. And both halls are generally full during the festival. But that’s something particular to Sfantu Gheorghe, because when we screen Hungarian films, we have a lot of spectators coming in. And we also have some blockbusters that are dubbed in Hungarian, and that pretty makes the difference: we definitely have more people than we would if we only had subtitles.

What are your predictions about the future? If the cinema had to close again, how would the situation be like for you?

We are funded by the City Council, so we have a given budget. If they lock us up again, there’s nothing we can do. That would be bad. I don’t know, maybe we’ll be on unemployment benefits, I don’t know what we’re going to do. But I can see that people have become more “friendly” with the situation, and are starting to come in larger numbers. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. I hold onto hope, so we will do our best to bring the audience back to the cinema as much as possible. I don’t know what to predict – given the news in the media and the current situation, I don’t think anyone can say anything for sure.

Cinema Arta Arad. Foto via Facebook
Cinema Arta Arad. Photo via Facebook

Arta Cinema, Arad

Arta Cinema in Arad reopened its hall in September – but as a historic cinema that, at the time of its construction, was designed as to have an adjacent summer garden, it was able to organize outdoor screenings during the summer.

Ramona Vardasan, head of the cinema management office at Arad Town Hall, told us more about their current projects and situation.

What activities did you organize at the Arta Cinema before the restrictions on cinemas were lifted in September?

I would like to start with a clarification. Arad is one of the few cities in the country where the municipality has reopened three cinemas that have been taken over from RADEF and then has subsequently rehabilitated. The activity in cinemas was suspended from March to May, and starting with June we took advantage of the fact that the three cinemas in town also have summer gardens, and so we organized outdoor events. Solidaritatea Cinema and Gradiste Cinema, located in two large districts of Arad, hosted activities that were oriented towards very young audiences, so there we organized theatre performances and film screenings for children.

As for the Arta Cinema, it has a garden that can normally accommodate 400 spectators – at least, according to its original plans, in 1924. Since the beginning of June (i.e. from the 5th of June) we started organizing outdoor screenings in the garden. Out of 400 seats, as far as the garden initially allowed, to ensure the social distancing required by the regulations, we reached a capacity of 70 spectators. We held two screenings a week, on Fridays and Saturdays (sometimes also on Thursdays), because we studied the patterns in which people from Arad used to participate in cultural consumption, and we came to the conclusion that they prefer events during weekends. So we activated the summer gardens and used these spaces maybe even more than we would have, under normal circumstances.

What safety measures have you implemented indoors? As I have noticed in discussions with some of your colleagues, the way they applied rules depended on the halls themselves, but also on the individual decisions of each manager.

As it happened with the outdoor screenings, for the indoor ones we also had to give up many seats in order to maintain the required distance; out of 199 seats, we allow only 59 spectators. In addition to leaving an empty seat next to each occupied place, as required by the rules, we have also left a free row after each occupied one. Because, when the cinema was built, it wasn’t designed in a way to keep a lot of distance between the rows. At the cinemas in malls, there is perhaps a distance of one meter between rows, but here it’s definitely smaller, so since we wanted to make sure that everything goes well and that we respect the safety measures, we have left a row free, alternating with a seated row. Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of seats, but for us, the safety of the spectators and our team is more important. In the event that there is a high demand for a particular film, there is also the possibility to program it several times.

This was the most important measure, in addition to those specified in the sanitary regulations: separate entrance and exit circuits, mats with disinfectant at the entrance, hand sanitizer, the obligation to wear the mask, and, last but not least, we do not allow access with food and drinks inside the hall. For example, the rules are not very clear in this regard – you have to wear a mask in the cinema, but you can still have the bistro/buffet space open… and this is a contradiction. But we were very firm and we decided to give up on our traditional popcorn. Last but not least, we don’t reuse brochures anymore. If a viewer has taken a brochure, they will not return it and the brochure will not be reused. Moreover, during this period we focused our attention on online promotion.

From what I’ve noticed – we reopened the hall with the fARAD Documentary Film Festival, which is at its 7th edition, and then we went on with the French Film Festival – people are cautious, civilized, and they follow the rules, so we had no problems. We have had situations where some people did indeed intend to remove their mask during the screening and we had to warn them not to do so, but these were isolated cases.

That would have been my next question – how many spectators have you had during this period and what was their response? A few of your colleagues have told me that after having a bigger wave at first, the numbers have dropped in the meantime.

No, we’ve had a relatively constant flux. In terms of outdoor screenings, the average was around 40-50 spectators per screening. Perhaps some viewers were hesitant to be indoors – however, the average viewership at each screening was between 35 and 40 viewers. So the number has decreased slightly compared to the ones that we recorded for the outdoor screenings, perhaps also because people that are over 60 are afraid to come indoors, which is something we completely understand – some told us that while they’re willing to attend screenings in the summer garden, they won’t come for the ones being held indoors.

On the other hand, we won over a lot of young spectators between the ages of 18 and 25. Statistics from social media networks allow us to see the profile of those who interact with our page, and many young people came to the screenings in the summer garden, where we had a lighter program, with many comedies in addition to our repertoire of arthouse film. These young people later came to the indoor screenings. So it was a relatively constant average, I can’t say there were any marked decreases, but anyway, considering that we can’t get more than 60 viewers, it’s very hard to say it’s an influx or that it’s sold out. We encourage online bookings so we can see when all seats have been sold at a screening.

What are your predictions for the coming months, given that the overall numbers are increasing, but it’s not the same everywhere around Romania? In the event of a new closure, how would this affect you?

Unfortunately, the situation is not looking very well in our municipality. Today we had a meeting of the County Emergency Committee, which examines the incidence of infection every 14 days. And yes, Arad is at 1.43. We have a little left until we reach that figure of 1.5 per 1000 inhabitants, which permits authorities to restrict the organization of public events. We remain cautious and attentive to the evolution of the epidemiological situation. But we’re still going on with our schedule – on Thursday we launch a cinematheque program, on Friday we have the premiere of Corpus Christi, and next week we have another premiere, Servants.

We continue our program – it is also true that it’s a very busy autumn because of the break we had for months, and so distributors are now releasing a lot of films. Of course, we are also prepared to suspend our activities at any given time, but on the other hand, we do not want to give up the program we have. And we’re being very careful because it’s the only thing we can do – to keep an eye on spectators to make sure they comply with all the rules. If we have to interrupt the screenings, of course, we will no longer be able to use the summer garden, because the temperatures are already very low, so we will have to take a break, as we had from March to June. However, we were in a happier situation than other cinemas, which only resumed their work in September or have not yet resumed at all. We hope we won’t need new restrictions, but we are looking very carefully at the figures – which, yes, unfortunately, are not very encouraging. But we think our viewers feel safe at Arta Cinema, which is what they told us themselves. 

At the time of publication, our attempts to contact Cinema Patria in Craiova, Cinema Bela Lugosi in Lugoj and Cinema Victoria in Cluj-Napoca were unsuccessful.

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.