Heritage

Can cinemas ride out the pandemic horror show?

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Motion Cinemas general manager Celcius Allo at the Greenspan Cinema on February 2, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

When Crimson Multimedia opened Motion Cinemas in Greenspan Mall in Nairobi’s Donholm, they expected a good return on their investment. For a long time, movie theatres were concentrated in Nairobi’s Central Business District and upmarket estates, and by opening one in the heart of Eastlands, the investors were demystifying movie-going as a privilege of the wealthy.

“When we launched in November 2019, the turn was better than we had anticipated,” Mr Celcius Allo, the General Manager of Motion Cinemas says.

“I was thrilled.”

The hall was teeming with activity as people trooped in to experience movies in 2D/3D with technically illustrative sounds and bigger-than-life visuals.

Barely six months later, Covid-19 struck. People retreated into their homes, leaving investors with dashed hopes after cinemas were declared shut for an indefinite time as the world tried to come to terms with the virus.

With postponed or cancelled movie releases, there are worries the industry will never return to the pre-Covid normal.

As I walk around the theatre, I cannot help but notice how loud the silence is. The seats still feel new and the red carpet, the signature look for cinemas, has not aged—mostly due to lack of use. One of their two snack bars is empty. They had not even used it when they closed down. Had it not been the regular cleaning, the theatre would have been layered in dirt, says Mr Allo.

In her three years as the marketing manager of IMAX, Naomi Mwangi had never seen numbers so low.

“On a normal weekend, we could get almost 300 to 500 moviegoers. Now, 150 people per week is a good deal,” she says.

In the months following closure in March, the film industry is estimated to have lost Sh250 million in revenue. The lack of new movie releases and fear of getting coronavirus kept people away, resulting in shrinking revenues, she adds. This was further exacerbated by the government’s delay in opening up the sector. As incomes plummeted so did employment opportunities.

For example, only 20 percent of the employees of Motion Cinemas remained. The rest were sent home. To stay afloat, they resorted to renting out their space for small functions, presentations and video shoots. The revenue generated enabled them to foot utility bills.

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Xpose Digital partners Maxwell Mululu and Mercy Nyawira (C) with Xpose Digital logistics manager Mark Bosire (L) on February 2, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Movies fall under the entertainment sector as bars and restaurants but did not receive guidelines on reopening, until much later, after lobbying from the movie distributors and exhibitors. Reopening did not come cheap either.

“We tested all returning employees for Covid-19, set up dispensers, social distancing markers and masks for employees,” Ms Mwangi says

“All this came at a cost, yet we had zero revenue.”

To woo customers back, the exhibitors have employed several strategies, including selling combo tickets, curating VIP experiences, and offering recliner seats to their clients for ultimate comfort.

Motion Cinemas reopened in September 2020. Aside from observing the general safety guidelines, they have changed how they operate.

“We have three screens. Normally, we would have 12 to 15 shows per day but due to social distance measures, we’ve staggered movie times showing only nine movies,” Mr Allo, who is a movie fanatic says.

Golden opportunity

Furthermore, only packaged snacks and drinks are sold. During 3D movies, the clients buy the accompanying 3D glasses for Sh200.

Across the two branches of IMAX — Diamond, Parklands and Sky Panari —the response has been “good,” Ms Mwangi reveals.

Currently, they are open seven days a week, with five timings a day. Their first screening is starts 11am and the last 6.30 pm.

“We’ve kept our prices at between Sh200 and Sh500,” she says. Once the curfew is lifted, they will have more evening shows, which are quite popular. Families remain the largest group of customers over the weekends. However, others have seen a golden opportunity in the pandemic.

In 2018, Mr Maxwell Mululu and Ms Mercy Nyawira, partners at Xpose, had a vision of resurrecting drive-in cinemas. A drive-in cinema is an enclosed area where people watch movies, usually on a large outdoor screen, from the comfort of their cars. Each partner had a motive. Mr Mululu wanted to revive the experience, Ms Nyawira was driven by the desire to bring back classics and morals to the screens.

“At the time, I was it was also a challenge going to the movies with my newborn. A drive-in cinema would work for me,” Ms Nyawira says. Her favourite movie is ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Their first trial was at Nairobi’s Two-Rivers mall. “The response was poor,” Mr Mululu recalls and refuses to divulge attendance numbers.

“Once the movie was done, we packed up our equipment and the idea.” It was during the pandemic that they reconsidered the idea after Mr Mark Bosire, the company’s logistics manager brought it to their attention.

“People were stuck at home, tired of cabin fever and had purchasing power for entertainment. On the other hand, we had zero revenues streaming in as all events had been cancelled. It was no brainer,” he says.

In September 2020, they held their first screening of ‘Black Panther’ at Galleria Mall. They had 50 cars come in out of the 100 they were expecting, which Mr Mululu adds was an “amazing” turnout.

How did they pull it off?

“We first approached Kenya Film Commission to explain the concept and the Kenya Film Classification Board to get permission for general exhibition and moral guidelines,” Mr Bosire explains.

They also had to approach the police to get security for the venue. The idea was readily received and this set the ball rolling.

To date, they have had 30 screenings in Nairobi and one in Kisumu, charging Sh3,000 per car regardless of the number of passengers.

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Motion Cinemas during the interview with The Business Daily at the Greenspan Cinema on February 2, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Do they think this outdoor model will hold forte? Their response is a resounding ‘yes.’

They wager that a focus on creating an experience will keep them relevant and therefore in business. And they plan to ride on technology, which has improved since the 1980s when drive-ins were first introduced to draw more people to their screenings.

“We use radio frequency and social distance is assured,” Mr Mululu, whose favourite movie is ‘Bruce Almighty,’ says. So far their efforts have garnered regulars who “cannot get enough” and “want more.” Keeping up with the demand and finding the right movie to air are some of the challenges they have. Their last screening — ‘Home Alone’ — elicited the best response so far.

Down memory lane

To the older folks, the drive-in cinema is a trip down memory lane and to the younger generation and children, it is the curiosity that makes the drive-in concept exciting. Most of their clients have been Indian families.

To ensure safety, tickets are purchased online.

Will the pandemic kill traditional cinemas?

“You cannot compare watching a movie at home with doing it in the theatre,” Mr Allo says. He is confident that die-hard movie fans will not be stopped. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Ms Mwangi and the IMAX team have special packages for clients. For Sh1,000, couples will get movie tickets, a pair of popcorns and two soft drinks.

Whether the cinema is indoor or outdoor, online streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon, continue to be a threat.

“We had planned to show my favourite classic movie, ‘Matilda’,” Ms Nyawira says.

“Imagine my disappointment when it was aired on Netflix in January.”

They, therefore, had to go back to the drawing board.

But Mr Allo insists that ‘Netflix and Chill’ is not a competition as most movie producers prefer giving their products to cinemas first.

“It is still the best option. They are assured of higher returns and to the public, we narrow down the options, making a selection of movies easier,” he says.

Then there is the challenge of accessing movies. Xpose has had to speak to officials sitting in offices as far as South Africa and Dubai just to get approval for a movie to be screened.