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Report: European cinema sector making slow recovery

May 12, 2022

The European Audiovisual Observatory reports that 2021 turned out to be another difficult year for the cinema sector in Europe. Multiple factors, like the ongoing closures of cinemas, particularly in the first half of the year, the negative effect of attendance restrictions, possible hesitancy among audiences to return to cinemas, the return of US studio blockbusters and the differing strength of local films, contributed to the European theatrical markets making progress, but rather slow progress, in returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Cinema attendance in the EU and the UK increased by 31.5 per cent from 299 million in 2020 to 394 million in 2021. However, this level accounts for only 40 per cent of the average pre-pandemic admission level registered between 2017 and 2019. Similarly, GBO grew by 38.2 per cent from €2.1 billion to an estimated €2.9 billion, accounting for only 42 per cent of pre-pandemic box office levels.

There were significant differences in box office development across the individual European markets, which evidently need to be interpreted in light of the differing degrees to which the individual markets had collapsed in 2020 as well as differences in cinema closures. Overall admissions in 2021 increased in 17, decreased in eight and stagnated in two out of the 26 EU member states and the UK for which 2021 data were available. The highest year-on-year increase was registered in Bulgaria (+91 per cent), Croatia (+77 per cent), the UK (+68 per cent), Cyprus (+57 per cent), Ireland (+56 per cent), Poland (+55 per cent), Spain (+53 per cent) and Romania (+53 per cent). In contrast admissions declined particularly in Estonia (-23 per cent), the Netherlands (-15 per cent), Slovakia (-14 per cent), Lithuania (-13 per cent), Italy (-12 per cent) and Finland (11 per cent).

Outside the EU and the UK, theatrical markets grew strongly on a year-to-year basis in Bosnia-Herzegovina (+186 per cent), Montenegro (+125 per cent), the Russian Federation (+64 per cent) and Iceland (+51 per cent). Cinema attendance however continued to drop by -28 per cent in Turkey, which registered the lowest admissions level in recent history.

No Time To Die and Spider Man: No Way Home led the box office charts

US studio titles returned to European cinemas in 2021 and accounted for all the top 20 titles in terms of admissions. Two films stood out, No Time To Die (GB INC / US) topped the charts and was the only films to sell more than 30 million tickets in the EU and the UK. It was followed by Spider Man: No Way Home (US) which sold 27 million tickets in 2021. Three other films managed to sell more than 10 million tickets: Dune (US; 14.3 million), Fast and Furious 9 (US; 12.1 million) and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (US; 10.5 million). A total of five films therefore sold more than 10 million tickets in 2021, compared to 18 films in 2019.

Film franchise titles once more dominated the European box office, with 17 out of the top 20 films being sequels, prequels, spin-offs or reboots, compared to only seven in 2020 and 18 in 2019. Apart from the EUR inc production No Time To Die (‘EUR inc’ refers to films produced in Europe with incoming investments from US studios), no European film featured among the top 20 titles. The French comedy Kaamelott – Premier volet became the most successful European film selling 2.8 million tickets, ahead of psychological drama The Father (GB/FR; 2.4 million) and French crime thriller BAC Nord (2.2 million).

European market share dropped again to 26.5%

While European films benefitted from the absence of US blockbusters in 2020, admissions growth in 2021 was primarily driven by the return of US blockbusters. US films are estimated to have sold around 230 million tickets in 2021, 82 million more than in 2020, while admissions to European films actually declined from an estimated 118 million in 2020 to 104 million in 2021. This compares to a pre-pandemic average of 644 million and 271 million tickets sold to US and European films, respectively. The market share of European films therefore dropped from its exceptional record high of 39.5 per cent in 2020 to 26.5 per cent, which is well within its normal range. US market share on the other hand jumped back from its record low of 49.5 per cent in 2020 to 58.6 per cent, which is still below its pre-pandemic levels while European films with incoming investment from US studios, led by No Time To Die (GB inc /US), and films from the rest of the world, captured above average market shares of 9.3 per cent and 5.7 per cent, respectively.

After reaching exceptional record highs in several European countries in 2020, market share of national films declined again in most European markets, but remained high in several of them. Within Europe 28 four countries stood out in terms of national market share: the UK and the Czech Republic which registered the highest national market share with 42 per cent of total admissions, marginally ahead of Denmark and France (both 41 per cent). Outside the EU, Turkey’s national market share plummeted from 80 per cent in 2020 to 23 per cent, the lowest level in recent history. With 30 per cent Norway registered the highest national market share outside Europe 28, ahead of Russia (27 per cent).

Film production in the EU and the UK back to pre-pandemic levels

Having reached a comparatively brief temporary standstill due to the lockdown measures taken all over Europe in March 2020, film production never collapsed in the same manner as box office did and indeed seems to have recovered fully by 2021 with a total of 1 836 feature films produced in the EU and the UK in 2021, up 426 films (+30 per cent) from 2020. While this production level comes in shy of the record high of 2 018 feature film productions in 2019 it is the third highest level registered in recent history.

Trends differ widely between countries also due to different methodologies in counting productions: in those markets where film production is measured as films actually released, the closing of cinemas had a direct negative impact on film productions and 2021 figures still remained well below pre-pandemic figures. Whereas in markets where film production is measured e.g. in terms of films starting principal photography, receiving public funding or being certified, the 2021 production activity often exceeded its pre-pandemic levels. The question is whether this increase in production activity indicates indeed a sustainable return to previous production levels or whether represents a mere catch-up in 2021 of films whose production was interrupted or stopped during the crisis, i.e. a level that will not be sustainable as long as cinemas have not returned to their usual attendance levels

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