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Screening: Sheffield’s cinemas come back after Covid

Like many in the service industry, cinemas suffered during Covid. How are Sheffield's city centre cinemas faring now restrictions have eased?

The Light Cinema on the Moor, Sheffield
BCDS

When I think of the cinema, I’m taken back to 2012. Daniel Craig’s Bond film, Skyfall, has just been released and my family and I decide to go and watch it. To this day, I still remember my shock at the enormity of the completely occupied screen. Though the memory is one I cherish, I can’t help the new, small voice in my head that warns: that’s not Covid safe.

Even though restrictions were finally eased in February of this year, there’s no denying that Covid is still around. The idea of sitting in a room, for what could be up to three hours, with strangers carrying around god knows what, doesn’t seem risk-free anymore.

Yet the cinemas of Sheffield’s city centre, aren’t just doing well – slowly but surely, they are making their comebacks.

The return to Sheffield’s cinemas had been a gradual but rewarding process. Across the cinemas, it seems that younger audiences returned to the cinemas ‘as soon as [they] opened’ but older audiences have taken much longer to feel safe.

When speaking to Dom, a myLight Premiere member at the Light Cinema, he indicated that he was a quick returner although "not quite back the day things reopened", even though losing the cinemas was one of the "hardest element[s] of lockdown" for him.

Visiting cinemas, as with most things after Covid, has been a slow process whereby as time has gone on, confidences have grown and cinemas have become another functioning part of people’s weekly routines. The Curzon, in a statement, used Top Gun: Maverick, released in late May 2022, as an example of films that have "brought that range of people and families back in", with numbers reaching what they had been pre-Covid.

It's hard to compare each of the cinemas in the city centre because all of them provide such contrasting and unique experiences; but it helps the people of Sheffield to definitively think – yep, that’s my cinema.

For Dom, the Light is a "better fit" as the level of comfort is unmatched. He emphasised the "big comfy seats, and the personal space that goes with them" as a major highlight for the Light.

Another essential aspect of a cinema that appeals to Dom is a mature tone and a cinema that isn’t aimed at a teenage audience. Whilst the Light does provide this, Dom agreed that it is a quality shared with the Curzon and Showroom.

Despite Dom’s commitment to the Light through his membership, the Curzon would be his next venue of choice. Though the capacity may be smaller than the other cinemas, with just three screens, the Curzon’s customer experiences are not diminished as a result.

Situated in a Grade II listed building for Sheffield’s 19th-century bank, the Curzon withholds vast amounts of character. When I spoke to the Curzon’s manager, his pride for the cinema was undeniable.

"[We are] able to provide a different level of customer service. We want everyone who comes here to have a memorable experience and if they want, even a conversation."

It seems that these personal touches are what also appeals to Showroom customers. One Showroom customer stated that they enjoy supporting independent ventures and, as the only independent cinema in the city centre, the Showroom provides a "unique environment, occupied by staff and customers with similar views and a love of and commitment to non-mainstream cinema".

The Showroom customer brought something up that I had been pondering: after Covid, would the Showroom now prioritise blockbusters in an attempt to guarantee audiences and therefore income instead of showcasing non-mainstream cinema?

Showroom

They told me that "as an independent cinema we want to prioritise screening films from across the world, new filmmakers, female filmmakers and those underrepresented in the film industry".

Still, I was concerned. The Showroom has a discounted membership, CINE 26, where anyone 26 and under can buy tickets at half the usual price. It is no secret that films from the Marvel Studio and other big blockbusters are popular and appeal to the younger generations. I questioned whether this would affect their memberships.

But the Showroom said, "we might not always show the big blockbuster films, but we provide young people with the chance to watch new releases representing different communities and tell stories from across the world that they might not be able to see elsewhere".

This is also not something that has damaged the Showroom as significantly as I had thought, as their memberships are on par with their pre-Covid numbers.

When choosing films, the Curzon is just as selective. They try to have a wide range from small independent films to blockbusters. Whilst Top Gun: Maverick was popular, they also detailed the ‘tremendous success’ of the National Theatre’s production of Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer.

Usually, they show theatre shows once or twice but Prima Facie has been shown "at least 60 times".

More than anything, it seems that the process of selecting films has not been as affected by Covid as I originally thought and that it is an art of balancing and adjusting to what audiences want whilst staying true to the ethos of the cinemas.

Some people may still feel anxious about Covid but Dom didn’t seem phased.

"I’ve pretty much given up on Covid precautions now", he told me, and whilst he will try to avoid sitting next to a stranger in the cinema, he is now a bit more relaxed about attending sell-out screenings; he attributes this to The Light’s well-spaced seating.

A Showroom customer demonstrated this same acceptance of the "new normal", however they did add that in the future it would be good for cinemas to refurbish and have wipeable furniture.

The Light, Showroom and the Curzon all still have precautions and, as The Light quite nicely puts on their website, are still ‘continuing to keep you safe’.

When questioned on their Covid precautions, The Showroom still has weekday screenings before 5 pm at a reduced capacity to provide a more spacious environment for their customers, who are perhaps still social distancing. They have introduced e-tickets, more bins and hand sanitiser stations through their venue and continue to encourage people who have symptoms of Covid to stay at home, which is also the case at the Light.

Whilst restrictions have been eased, the cinemas are not pretending that Covid is not on some of their customer's minds.

It is clear that Sheffield's cinemas have made their customers at ease with their gradual comebacks, the dedication to their cinemas, their love for films and their commitment to making each customer’s experience as safe and comfortable as possible.

by Sam Beresford-Kay (she/her)

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