Since the number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases dwindled across most of Central and Southeast Europe, economies are slowly getting back to normal, or rather a “new normal” with a host of new restrictions in place. Shops and restaurants are reopening, albeit with additional hygiene and social distancing measures, and people are also looking to revive their cultural lives after weeks of lockdown.
Crowded indoor cinemas and theatres are clearly places where the virus could spread easily, so with the summer approaching there are initiatives across the region to set up open-air and drive-in cinemas for as long as the virus remains a threat.
“Europe’s cultural and creative sectors were among the first and hardest hit by the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. They will also be among the last [to recover],” said the International Union of Cinemas (Unic) on May 5. “Across Europe, almost all cultural activities have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely, while venues and retailers have closed with disastrous consequences for all creators’ and cultural and creative professionals’ livelihoods, as well as the ecosystem as a whole.” Even though this is starting to change in Central Europe, it will be a long time before things are fully back to normal.
Closed to most air traffic amid travel restrictions, an apron area at Vilnius International Airport opened as a drive-in cinema on April 29, and is open for most of this month as part of the Vilnius International Film Festival (Vilnius IFF). A huge screen that the organisers say is roughly the size of a five-storey building has been set up on the area where usually planes are parked, unloaded, refuelled and boarded.
“Vilnius International Airport has quietened down while waiting for international travel restrictions to be lifted. The organisers of Vilnius IFF saw this downtime as a brilliant opportunity to screen films while movie theatres are closed,” said a statement from the airport. Unlike indoor cinemas, they point out, the drive-in theatre — named the Aerocinema — “makes it easy to follow physical distancing guidelines and other necessary security measures”. No cash changes hands as tickets are only available online, and cars can have a maximum of two people in them.
“We want to create a unique experience. Going out onto an airport apron, which is usually only possible to access after check-in, is an exciting experience,” says Algirdas Ramaska, general director of Vilnius IFF. “I think these screenings will leave an impression on audiences that will last a lifetime."
The showings will run throughout May, after which the number of flights to and from Vilnius is likely to increase; the three Baltic states already opened their borders to each other in mid-May, creating a regional travel “bubble”, and will also allow travel to and from selected other states where outbreaks of the infection are also under control.
Croatia has been similarly effective in controlling the virus and is gradually easing restrictions. Drive-in cinemas have been opened in both the capital Zagreb and third-largest city Rijeka, one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture.
Two students from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art organised a weekend of locally made films on May 15 to 17 in a car park behind the Technical Museum in the capital. Marin Leo Jankovic and Sabrina Herak Smokovic, who together formed the Submarine production duo, launched the Drive-in culture project to remind people of the importance of art, while also raising money for students left financially distressed by the crisis.
Rijeka’s drive-in cinema, also in a car park, was organised by the local Art-kino company and the Filmaktiv association, and opened with a screening of Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni on May 9.
In the Czech Republic indoor cinemas were allowed to open from May 11, provided people sat two metres apart. This seemed a bit too early for some Czechs, who questioned why cinemas were allowed to open while school attendance was still voluntary.
The low number of admissions allowed also means that for smaller cinemas in particular opening under the current restrictions may not be economically viable; many decided not to reopen yet and those that did said demand was low. Masks are mandatory and no food or drink is allowed, cutting off another source of revenue.
Drive-in and open-air cinemas are therefore opening in the Czech Republic too. There are already several in the capital Prague that are popular with local hipsters in summer, as well as less trendy and more casual venues in other parts of the country. Now, the current crisis has seen new openings including new drive-ins — among them is the Art Parking project to turn the Nakladove nadrazi Zizkov railway station into a drive-in cinema and another at the airport in the spa resort of Karlovy Vary.
Poland shows its festive face
Poland is still reporting several hundred new coronavirus cases every day, but nonetheless has eased restrictions somewhat and starting May 18, open-air cinemas (including drive-in ones) are back, with viewers obliged to keep social distance.
Pre-crisis, open-air cinemas have been popular in Poland since the 1990s, but drive-in cinemas less so (although the first one opened in Poland in 1994 in Warsaw and was a smash hit). Now it's forecast drive-in cinemas will grow in popularity in the post-coronavirus era. Many cities are reportedly gearing up to open drive-in cinemas in late May, among them Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice, Lublin and Gdansk. Prices are expected to be roughly PLN40 (€8.8) per car.
Even before the crisis, open-air cinemas and other outdoor events were mushrooming countrywide. Numerous cities and even small towns organised one at least once a year, with films often an important part of the festivities. These cinemas are especially popular in the high tourist season of June-September.
Polish cities and towns have undergone a tremendous transformation in the past 15 years or so, recognising the potential of tourism and, therefore, doing all they can to attract visitors. But that's not all: many local authorities see it as a tool to promote themselves to locals (ie voters) by making their towns attractive places to live. This has to do with the wider phenomenon of "Europeanness"; for example, an EU town is expected to be cheerful with lots of cultural events, and Poles have responded to that very well. Generally such events attract a lot of people, as Poland — which is sometime stereotyped as a country of gloomy people — shows its more festive face.
Other countries in the region are also taking their cultural events outside until the virus is fully vanquished.
In Bulgaria there are few open-air cinemas, but some theatres and the Sofia Opera typically hold outdoor events during the summer. As the lockdown is eased, open-air events have been allowed since May 14, and the streets of Sofia are already flooded with people enjoying the spring.
The exception is Romania, where the government unexpectedly banned drive-in cinemas along with other types of gatherings in open-air or closed spaces. The move was surprising, as previously the communications industry regulator ANCOM unveiled the procedure to obtain licences for drive-in events, and several had already been announced, including an open-air cinema near Snagov Lake and a drive-in cinema in Galati.
Meanwhile, in North Macedonia, cinema-going has fallen since the 1980s and 1990s, when there was an open-air cinema in the City Park. More recently in 2018 and 2019 the Millennium Cinema and the Youth Cultural Center organised several movie projections during the summer in the city park — but it did not become a tradition. Skopje had many movie theatres when the country was part of former Yugoslavia but the number has fallen significantly, with only a few new ones in operation. According to bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Skopje, now people prefer to watch movies on Netflix, HBO or online.
Crisis after a record year
Along with the open-air and drive-in cinemas, several governments in the region including those in Lithuania and Poland have also announced plans to allow filming to resume. This is good news for the film and cinema industries, which like other consumer-focussed sectors (with the exceptions of grocery retailers and online retail) have been hammered by the lockdowns.
The current crisis comes after a highly successful 2019, during which there were a record 1.34bn visits to European cinemas, an increase of 4.5% compared to 2018, according to Unic.
The union said in a statement this was "a record-breaking feat unmatched since the early 1990s”. “While final box office figures for several territories remain to be collated, it can already be estimated that total box office for Europe will pass the €8.5bn mark — compared to €8.0bn in 2018. For the EU, estimates indicate over €7.1bn in box office revenues – compared to €6.8bn in the previous year.”
In the CEE region, Unic reported a record 216.3mn cinema visits in Russia, which was the leading territory in terms of cinema admissions in Europe. It also talked of “thriving local industries” in Central Europe, Baltic States and Southern Europe. Polish cinema visits also reached a record, 60.9mn, and substantial increases in admissions were reported in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Ukraine.
“The success of the cinema industry across the Baltics is worth highlighting, as Estonia and Latvia attracted record admissions while Lithuania achieved its second-best performance ever, following an incredible 2018. Furthermore, all three territories had a local title leading at the box office,” Unic's report said.
“Similarly, the cinema industry in the Balkans is growing at an increasing pace, with Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia all enjoying their highest levels of cinema admissions ever, while Slovenia recorded its best results since 2012. More incredibly, Albanians flocked to recently opened cinemas in 2019, with a massive 69.9% increase in admissions, also carried by the incredibly successful local production 2 Gisht Mjalte.”