How berlin’s yorck cinemas survived the pandemic

The pandemic hit berlin's movie theaters hard – always long stretches they were simply closed since march 2020. Yorck cinema boss christian brauer tells how his cinemas weathered the pandemic and even managed to attract a new audience.

Many challenges that the yorck cinemas had to face

Tipberlin since march 2020, berlin cinemas have had to close for 324 days across two lockdowns. Now that they're open again, stricter rules are causing confusion and a loss of viewers. Looking back on these two unusual years, how do you assess the current situation?

Christian brauer although most people are now vaccinated, we are currently seeing record numbers of covid cases. There are now very strict rules for cinemas and we don't even know what will happen in two weeks' time. We had 2020 closed for almost six months and then again in 2021. Social distancing and hygiene regulations made it particularly difficult for us to regain pre-pandemic audience numbers and sell tickets. 2021 did a little better than 2020, but it remains a tough situation.

Tipberlin 2020 ticket sales fell by a whopping 70 percent across germany. Two lockdowns, the first shock, uncertainty and chaos – how did you deal with it in berlin?

Christian brauer fortunately, the year had started fantastically – the best start in decades – until march came and the shock of the first lockdown. This explains why movie theaters didn't die out right at the start and could afford to wait until the relief programs came to the rescue. The problem is that after the first lockdown, a lot of distributors just pushed their movies backwards. And just when we started to provide people with good, quality films again, the second lockdown happened.

Cinemas open again: "we lost our older audience"

Tipberlin in july 2021, movie theaters were finally allowed to open again after an eight-month break. How things have gone since then?

Christian brauer the summer months – july, august and september – were unexpectedly successful. We had fewer admissions than 2019, which was a fantastic year, but more than 2018. Then in the fall, we benefited from the momentum of two huge box office hits: no time to die in october and spider-man: no way home in december. This bond did better than the bond before the pandemic.

As for spiderman, it was one of the most successful releases of all time. But then ticket sales dropped in november as distributors postponed films. This applied to the latest almodovar film madres paralelas, for example, but also to christmas family favorites like bibi and tina. The week after christmas is usually the strongest. But not in 2021, due on the one hand to regulations and on the other to a thinned-out program. Of course, it was a bit harder for the arthouse cinemas. But we had great arthouse releases in 2021: films like nomadland, french dispatch and dune, as well as pre-pandemic films.

Tipberlin who are the people who came back to the cinemas after the lockdowns? Did you notice a change in the audience, either because of the pandemic itself, or because of the strict regulations they had to comply with?

Christian brauer yes, we lost our older audience, as they understandably became suspicious of public spaces. The over-60s represented a third of our audience, and now their share is only ten percent. Between 2018 and 2021, we saw a 50 percent increase in the number of young people under 30 and today they represent more than a quarter of the audience.

Last summer, we noticed that a new demographic of young people who had not been going to movie theaters before were now lining up outside the theaters and clapping after the movies because they were so happy to have a cultural life again. But in the last quarter of 2021, when the delta wave came, we saw a drop again. People became more cautious, and there was the switch from 3G to 2G, and not everyone was vaccinated.

Rule tightening: "people are disappointed and angry, and I can understand them"

Tipberlin the first two weeks of january 2022 went well, then the box office collapsed after the introduction of 2G+ on 15. January again. How did you deal with such a sudden decision?

Christian brauer it was tough. First, because it happened overnight. Also, it is not easy to explain to people who are fully vaccinated or recovered that they need a test but their "boostered" friends do not. People are disappointed and angry, and I can understand them. It is very frustrating, especially to realize that in restaurants 2G+ does not include any social distancing or wearing a mouth guard while sitting at the table.

In the cinema, on the other hand, you have to wear a mask all the time. When we've invested so much money in air filters, after all! Even the smallest cinemas have them. According to the statistics we have from the luca app warning system, the number of infections in movie theaters is extremely low: under one percent compared to ten percent in restaurants and 50 percent in clubs and at large events. So when we know that movie theaters are not places where people get infected, it feels unfair and highly frustrating to have to bow to ever stricter regulations.

Tipberlin the berlinale announced it would stick to a 50 percent occupancy rate, in addition to the 2G+ rule. How is actually the occupancy rate in berlin cinemas regulated?

Christian brauer this is constantly changing. Basically, it's either wear a mask or social distancing. Since viewers have to keep their masks on throughout the performance, cinemas can decide for themselves what they want to do. If you own a large movie theater and it's not sold out, it's easy to block off a few seats. But it puts smaller venues at a disadvantage.

Christian brauer another rule says that if you want to get financial support, you can only sell under 80 percent of the tickets. If you sell out, you don't get government assistance. It's all a bit strange.

Distress: this is how dangerous multiplexes and streaming are to small cinemas

Tipberlin are you satisfied with the financial help, in your opinion, the cinemas received adequate support from the berlin senate?

Christian brauer overall, it was fair. But these utilities are like swimming noodles for children in the swimming pool: they keep them from drowning until they can swim without them. Aid programs have been good as an emergency measure, but we need to move on. After two years, even small cinemas must be able to earn money for reinvestment, for the repayment of loans and debts, and for the time thereafter.

You must be able to stay afloat without assistance. I am afraid of the moment when the financial help will be stopped. The post-pandemic market will be tough. By now, nearly everyone has streaming subscriptions, and people will need time to get used to public spaces again. They are still cautious and fearful. It's not like pushing a button: the pandemic is over now and everything is the same again. It will be a rocky road back to normality.

It's getting harder to compete with streaming services, especially when cinemas no longer have a monopoly on premieres, when new releases are released on major platforms rather than in cinemas, and, when cinema and SVOD releases overlap. Take the new campion film, the power of the dog, or don't look up – they ran simultaneously on netflix and in berlin theaters… We need to distinguish between netflix and the major studios. Netflix has never respected movie theaters, while studios like warner bros. And sony did.

Netflix also hasn't really kicked off a campaign for the theatrical releases of its movies, so no one has noticed them. Even if it's a jane champion movie that's nominated for the oscars! There used to be a 120-day window when movies could only be shown in theaters. Now it's 45 days or less, which is a huge disadvantage for us. This is a major challenge for the industry. And the pandemic has made it even worse.

Tipberlin it's often said that corona serves as a catalyst, highlighting and accelerating underlying trends. Is it time for cinemas to wake up, and re-evaluate their mission in a digital world dominated by SVOD platforms?

Christian brauer arthouse cinemas are important institutions in neighborhoods. They are an analog place in a digital time. We consume online. We stream, we buy, we data online. This is relatively new. The cinema experience itself has not changed in more than 100 years. Maybe you book your ticket online today, or become aware of a film through social media. But the unique experience of going to the movies has not changed, and berlin has one of the most diverse cinema landscapes in the world. No city has as many arthouse cinemas as we do, not even paris.

Tipberlin we're talking about more than 100 cinemas, right? That's a lot of cinemas, which is great, but could that mean too much competition?

Christian brauer it's a challenge, but it also means a more dynamic scene and more awareness of the issue of cinema. In berlin, movies make a splash and going to the movies is on the cultural agenda, unlike in cities with fewer movie theaters. The high density of cinemas also promotes diversity: from the yorck group and the astor film lounge to small neighborhood cinemas like wolf or II kino.

What we can do then, or need to do, is interact with local communities. You can actually plan a program for and with your audience. It is about curatorship, knowledge, and experience. It's not about diversity through algorithms or token diversity: it's about real diversity.

Tipberlin this could explain why small ambitious neighborhood cinemas have weathered the pandemic relatively well compared to multiplexes, as they have been able to retain audiences by offering more original programming. Elisa rosi from lichtblick kino explained that her frances mcdormand retrospective did unexpectedly well and attracted a new generation of young moviegoers. The next challenge will be to keep them, even when the party days are back and they have more options.

Christian brauer I completely agree with her. We have seen more and more young people coming to our cinemas. They have all these streaming options available to them, but they choose to go to our movie theaters. Classics had been trending for a while, but the pandemic amplified it – like tarantino movies or movies with mcdormand. And who comes to see them? People from my generation who have seen these films in their youth, or young people who have never seen them and are curious. And yes, in the mood for love did very well, it was one of the box office successes after the second lockdown.

Audiences are changing: more and more young people want to see films in the original language

Tipberlin could this be the ray of light at the end of the horizon, this new, younger audience longing for a real cinema?

Christian brauer developing audiences is part of our job, especially appealing to younger audiences. And that's why it's so great in berlin, because why people move here? Because of the diversity and opportunities, because of the clubs and bars, but also because of the culture. Students from all over the world are moving here and this is a huge potential market for us. Check out the re-release of spencer with kristen stewart. At first, we weren't sure who would be watching this – we thought it would be older people who knew lady di.

But it was mostly young people who came, and they wanted to see the film in the original language. That's another trend we've noticed: moviegoers in their late teens want to see films in their original language. Through their social media consumption, they are increasingly coming into contact with foreign languages and their language skills are improving all the time. Now we have korean movies in korean with english or german subtitles.

Tipberlin does this mean for yorck that more screenings will be in the original versions?

Christian brauer much, much more. During the pandemic, movies with subtitles performed better than their dubbed versions for the first time, which is very new for germany. A film like dune, we performed almost exclusively in the original version – that is the yorck audience, i.E. People who have not seen the film in a multiplex cinema. This reflects the city's growing multiculturalism, as more and more international berliners want to see films in their native language. We've also started showing german and foreign language films with english subtitles and have found that there is an audience for that as well.

The future of cinema in berlin: " we just need fair rules and some support"

Tipberlin do people have a movie subscription, similar to an SVOD subscription? Is the yorck subscription also popular with young people and international guests?

Christian brauer two-thirds of our subscribers are under 40, with the majority of them – more than 40 percent – under 30 years old. This is good news for the cinema as a whole, because these subscribers not only watch more films, but also experiment more with difficult films or documentaries. This is a chance to find an audience for smaller films with less marketing power and to promote a new film knowledge.

Tipberlin how do you feel: worried, frustrated, optimistic? All of it?

Christian brauer I'm tired of the pandemic, tired of fighting for fair hygiene measures, tired of seeing corona case numbers rise and fall, and tired of waiting for the next improvised regulation to come along. But the great support we have received from our audience and the great films we have been able to show after each reopening make me optimistic. Watching a good movie at the theater will never become obsolete. That's the magic of the movie theater: it's dark, everyone is sitting together like around a campfire, and someone is telling a great story. And there will always be people who want to tell these stories. These films need the berlinale and they need the cinemas. But I am not gullible. It's expensive and risky to run a movie theater, it always has been. We just need fair rules and some support.

More about the cinema in berlin

Here you can find the best cinemas in berlin: from small and special to mainstream, which we have compiled for you and our cinema program. We also took an in-depth look at movie theaters in prenzlauer berg and movie theaters in neukolln for you. Information and the current program of the yorck cinemas can be found here.