An interview with Ster-Kinekor Zimbabwe on the operating in a pandemic, the state of the movie industry and streaming services, Mortal Kombat and more.
A little dive into what goes on behind our favorite movie houses..
Over the past year, we saw the COVID-19 pandemic tear down and disturb a lot of businesses around the world, affecting everything from tech to basic food production. Entertainment was no different, with movies especially taking the hardest hit. Anyone who’s an avid movie fan will tell you of films that got delayed, halted production or even straight up got cancelled, but while we often think of actors and directors when it comes to the movie industry, we often forget about the outlet that often brings them to their eyes first: cinemas and theatre chains. It’s a whole business after all and the movie theatre is still by far the biggest revenue stream for every major movie, while of course being a source of employment for everyone who works in one. This is why we had an interview with Mr. Vicknos Charimba, the Complex Manager for Ster-Kinekor Joina City, and got into a pretty interesting conversation that starts below:
(Dialogue was mildly edited for easier comprehension of context)
Clint Mukarakate (CM): So the pandemic has shaken up everything the world over for about a year now. The cinema industry hasn’t been any different, with movie releases getting delayed, projects getting halted and cinema chains closing down for a while. How did Ster-Kinekor Zimbabwe handle all that and what is it like navigating operations during the pandemic?
Vicknos Charimba(VC): Well it has definitely been a difficult time I wouldn’t want to lie. We closed last year from March to October, opening up mid- October to pretty low numbers as the pandemic and quarantine were still in full swing, then closing again in early January of this year to open up again mid-March, and while people have slowly been coming back the numbers are still pretty low, partially because of the pandemic and likely also because budgets are still pretty tight and people are spending on the basics and essentials. We’re aware of that and can’t be ignorant to it, but unfortunately that has had a negative effect on us.
CM: That is certainly true, I’m a huge movie fan myself but I can’t be ignorant to the fact that both myself and probably most people in the country are in a situation where the basics and what’s most important need to come first. However I did want to ask if there’s perhaps been any positive change or any factors that have hopefully been boosting attendance. Or are there any measures that Ster-Kinekor itself, be it Joina or other branches that’s promoting people coming back to the movies.
VC: Well promoting safety has been the biggest drive for us. People don’t want to go to places that are overcrowded, so despite having cinemas that can fill 210 people, we cut that down to half of that, dividing the seating in a way that goes along with health regulations, and making sure that people are safe but hopefully also feel safe enough to want to see a movie. But also as you mentioned, the vaccination drive is likely what will make people confident enough to truly mix and mingle with everyone again, and I’m happy about that and hope it will directly improve on our attendance.
The need to promote safety in the cinemas still remains a key aspect for Ster-Kinekor, even with the vaccination drive picking up as the year moves along. This is simply due to the fact that regardless of vaccination or not these standards have to be adhered to rigidly if SK wants to keep their doors open. As already mentioned however, that can only go so far, and the vaccine drive, like for many other businesses , remains a ray of hope as it will deal with the psychological effects of the pandemic and the fear that people still have about going out. We also talked about movie releases in general, from last year’s delays to how this year seems to have a much more promising release slate.
CM: Last year seemed like it didn’t have too many “BIG” movies get released, but with this year’s release slate definitely having more big blockbusters, be they Marvel or superhero flicks or even other attractive movies, would you say those movies are at least helping with the attendance issue? Or getting people interested again?
VC: Well I’ve always believed that when we talk of content, our content tends to be the best available. Even right now when we don’t exactly have a big superhero movie we still have some great movies for people to come and watch. At the moment the we have Jason Statham’s Wrath of Man, as well as Mortal Kombat, which have both been drawing some attention and crowds. As for movies that have been rescheduled like Black Widow and Fast and Furious 9 we still expect them in June and July and with things seemingly getting steadier those movies should only add to our margins I’m sure.
And of course, you couldn’t really talk about movies and the pandemic without talking about streaming. After all streaming services are now releasing some movies on literally the same day as theatres, we wrote about it since last year with Wonder Woman 1984 and with releases like Mortal Kombat the trend seems to only continue. Mr. Charimba brought up the benefits of a cinema, and the uniqueness of it’s experience as reason streaming services aren’t exactly the biggest threat yet. Add that to our own biggest reason of data costs and availability, and you have a solid argument.
CM: We’ve wrote a few pieces about the advent of streaming services and their threat to movie houses, it’s a much bigger threat in more developed nations yes, but especially now in a time where some big releases are coming out on streaming services as well as cinemas on the same day, what would you say is your general take on the streaming service issue.
VC: Well yes, streaming services can be a threat, but we’ve always thought our biggest advantage or rather the biggest advantages of cinemas is experience. We sell an experience, not just content. You said it yourself you’re a cinema fan, there’s a reason for that, there’s a difference between watching a movie on your laptop or even your TV versus what you get in a cinema, and I think there’s still enough in the experience of coming to the theatre to keep us ticking. So while there is a measure of threat from streaming services, I feel we will survive.
CM: Maybe to add on to that what would you say is the biggest reason/advantage of coming to the cinema? Your own personal reason would be appreciated too.
VC: Well that comes down everything that creates the atmosphere of a cinema experience, the big screen, the dark room, the sound and even the crowd because people make comments and laugh together and experience the thing together. You share your different ideas, you might even debate a little over a character or the story but the fact that you watch it together makes it special.
CM: Like the last hour of Avengers: Endgame? Where people acted like it was a soccer match and jumped when all the big moments would happen?
VC: Exactly like that!
CM: We also noticed that you actually started airing some big releases a week before their US/EUROPEAN debuts, including on streaming services such as HBO Max, now I’m sure that could be due to international release dates as well but would you say it’s something thats been beneficial in getting people to consider coming to cinemas again?
VC: Usually it’s actually a case of preference and partnerships with those studios and producers of these movies. So, while yes, some movies are releasing on the streaming services the same day these studios still aim to maximise as much profit and viewership as they can from the cinema, hence they give us the advantage of releasing these movies earlier to cinemas. So it’s not by chance or even exactly a move we make but the studios themselves make and of course it helps people know that you still get movies at the cinema first.
All of this was bottom-lined by the fact that movie studios and producers definitely still want the cinema chain as that still makes them more money than streaming service releases. The Marvel Studios Phase 4 trailer above actually states just that, as it basically states that besides Black Widow, Marvel wants you watching the rest of it’s works in the cinema still.
CM: This week there was a big Marvel Cinematic Universe “See you at the movies” trailer that essentially shows that while Black Widow is being released on the streaming service Disney+, Disney themselves and Marvel definitely want you watching these films in the theatre. Would you say you’re appreciative of statements of intent like those ones which encourage people to go back into the world and into movie theatres?
VC: Well of course, that’s exactly what we need as after all the movie business is dependent on people. We need people to come and watch these movies, to come and enjoy them. So when studios and producers start giving people teasers or incentives to jump back in, we definitely are happy about that as it benefits the Box Office.
CM: We’ve actually talked about your big superhero movies and blockbuster action flicks and how they tend to be the crowd pullers, but are there any other genres or even specific films that you feel people should pay attention to besides the typical Marvel or DC flicks.
But movies aren’t just about superheroes and action stars , and Mr Charimba was quick to remind us that the full slate we mentioned before has almost everything for all kinds of fans, including horror, comedy and of course stuff for the kids.
VC: Well definitely it’s not just about Marvel and DC. We cater for everyone, the whole family. Here at Joina we have the Kids Cinema made to specifically cater to kids and give them movies they’ll enjoy. I have Peter Rabbit 2 coming up next week specifically for that. Beyond that horror fans will like A Quiet Place 2 , there’s Disney’s Cruella a week after that and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard in June. So there’s a lot of movies to check out, even if you aren’t a superhero fan. We have content that caters for everyone and the movies are definitely a place for more than just friends of one genre.
CM: Well any final words to add then?
VC: Well the biggest thing we would like people to know is that Ster-Kinekor is there, it’s open. We’re offering a safe environment and adhering by the health guidelines set in place so that you can to come and enjoy amazing , brand-new movies in the best experience possible. There’s no need to be afraid , there’s no need to be hesitant, just come by and you’ll see you’ll have a good time!
And hopefully some of you will decide to pass by. As we said already this is still a whole business after all, with employees dependent on the same movies we go and watch for amusement. Hopefully as things continue to pick up the average Zimbabwean will be able to enjoy a movie as well, especially since the last thing anyone needs is SK scaling back or closing down operations like it did it’s Westgate branch (which personally I’m still salty about). Here’s to hoping people get the memo.