SINGAPORE - The lifting of the ban on food and beverage consumption in cinemas from Monday (June 21) will ease chains' financial woes, but the 50-person limit per hall will continue to throttle revenues and cause bleeding, cinema operators told The Straits Times.
Revenues of cinemas here fell by an estimated 70 per cent last year, compared with 2019. Audience numbers recovered somewhat when Singapore entered phase three of its reopening, but plunged by 80 per cent during the phase two (heightened alert) period, according to industry insiders.
A spokesman for the Filmgarde Cineplexes chain, which operates three outlets - in Century Square, Bugis+ and Leisure Park Kallang - said that they are now operating at less than 50 per cent capacity.
"Such capacity limits are not tenable for business continuity, especially given the industry's high fixed operating costs," said the spokesman.
Since May 16, under phase two (heightened alert) rules, up to 50 people are allowed in a hall per screening without pre-event testing (PET), and with safe distancing and group sizes limited to two people. Food and beverages are not to be consumed within the cinema premises.
Typically, cinema halls seat between 100 and 200 people. A cap of 50 means that each hall is operating at one quarter to half its usual capacity.
From Monday, the ban on food consumption will be lifted, with the 50-person cap staying in place. The lifting of the ban on food consumption means the return of a much-needed revenue stream, the Filmgarde spokesman said.
"Food and beverage sales at the cinemas have always been an important source of revenue for cinema operators, and hopefully its resumption will also make it more attractive for audiences to return to the cinemas sooner," said the spokesman.
Ms Karen Tan, founder of independent cinema The Projector, said that food sales are "not merely ancillary but critical to the cinema business model and sustainability of cinemas".
"Having concessions allows another revenue stream and also makes cinema-going more attractive, thereby hopefully translating into more customers."
But that relief will mean little as long as the 50-person cap remains, said Ms Tan.
While it is possible to increase capacity to 250 people per hall with the use of PET, that option is unfeasible for cinema operators, as each test kit costs more than the price of a movie ticket.
There is also the cost and logistics of dealing with trained test administrators and crowd control in cinema lobbies, she said.
PET might work for one-off events such as weddings, but patrons are unlikely to put up with the cost and inconvenience of PET for a movie, she said.
Ms Tan hopes that the previous eight months of data showing no Covid-19 clusters in cinemas will persuade the authorities to allow a return to the phase three limit of 50 per cent capacity per hall.
Meanwhile, cinema operators are confident that once the pandemic-postponed blockbusters start screening, crowds will return.
A spokesman for Singapore's largest operator, Golden Village Multiplex, which operates 14 outlets, said that "movie-goers will be spoilt for choice" in the coming weeks, beginning with the release of the racing thriller Fast And Furious 9 , which begins sneak previews from Thursday.
Cathay Cineplexes, which operates eight outlets, is also getting ready for the coming slate of films, which includes the Marvel superhero film Black Widow, which will be released July 9.
"We are feeling optimistic as Singapore continues to open up," said the Cathay spokesman.