A new cinema and cafe bar housed in the old Midland Bank in Wellington has been delighting audiences since it opened in 2019. The Orbit reopened its doors to the public on Saturday 4th July and board director Ray Hughes gives us the lowdown on how things have gone so far.
A lot of independent cinemas haven't managed to reopen yet. Was your decision to reopen a risky one, or does your financial model mean it was relatively simple to make?
All decisions currently carry a risk element. There is no one size fits all solution for cinemas. Our decision was based on the advantages of flexible furloughing. Financially, we had been able to manage our fixed overheads of rent, insurance, interest and service charges through the funds from the Retail Hospitality and Leisure Fund. That fund was not finite so we made the decision that with the easing of restrictions on 4th July we could try to cover our variable costs including wages through a phased reopening and a gradual recall of staff. To an extent, we were also aided by having a substantial volunteer base. We were also able to access the BFI Resilience Fund to cover potential losses and will be applying to the BFI Cultural Recovery Fund.
What has the audience attendance been like since reopening?
There are three key parameters here being the quality of the film slate, customer confidence and the impact of the virus with the government reaction to it. We are operating at around one third of audience capacity at the moment and we are considering rolling out audience questionnaires to get a further understanding of confidence and behaviours.
Are you concerned that older audience members will stay away?
Our analysis to date would indicate that this is the area where customer confidence is at its lowest. Our ticketing allows us to analyse broad age profiles and broadly over a raft of films the adult/concession/other ratio pre Covid would be 45/45/10. On reduced audiences, the concession rate is now around 25% to 33% only. This cannot be explained wholly by the film slate.
What films have been most popular with audiences?
The quality of the film slate has been an issue with bigger films being held back but classics have sold quite well including a Harry Potter revival series as well as British rom-coms and dramas. Our two sellouts have been Harry Potter and Love Sarah. We continue to struggle with family films even during the school holidays because of the dearth of quality new releases while new limited distribution art house releases are not attracting decent audiences in the same way they didn’t pre-pandemic. We are looking forward to the release of blockbusters and that will dictate when we reopen on 7 days. We have Tenet from 9th October and sales are encouraging already. In fact, with advance sales we achieved our highest turnover to date on Saturday, indicating higher confidence levels, but it remains to be seen if the increase in infections will peg that back. The bigger issue is obtaining acceptable commission terms.
Do you think the pandemic will make people more appreciative of venues like yourselves?
We very much hope so as we are a community project with all profits being ploughed back into the cinema. The pandemic has shown the need for communities to work together for their mutual benefit and we would hope that this will be an enduring consequence and with confidence gradually to be restored, our community will appreciate what's on offer right on their doorstep.