‘We stick to the rules’: why cinemas in Sweden have stayed open during the pandemic

Showing a film in a cinema has become an act of political consequence. Movie theatres across the globe, from China to the US, have shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, and arguments have broken out, as much on ideological lines as economic, as to how and when to reopen. In Sweden, however, some have remained open all along, operating under new government guidelines. With 47 cinemas and about 200 screens, the country’s second-largest chain Svenska Bio stayed operational – and as a result has become Europe’s biggest operator by box office revenue.

“Swedes, we’re born social distancing,” says Peter Fornstam, Svenska Bio’s founder and managing director. “I am happy that we kept the doors open and that we are still operating [but] I wish everyone was operating.”

New rules mean no more than 50 people in the auditorium. By choice, Fornstam has halved theatrical occupancy. Hand sanitising, washing and social distancing is paramount. He has started a plan where the screen can be rented for gaming. There is also the Bio on Demand, which is cinema-on-demand on a real-life big screen. “You can choose your own movie and have your own screen with your friends,” says Fornstam. “The proof is in the pudding. We have had a fair amount of [customers].”

Fornstam has been both lauded and reviled for keeping his cinemas open – even more since the biggest cinema chain in Sweden, Filmstaden, closed theirs. The 65-year-old takes a long view. “Swedes … there used to be a joke that if every Swede were told to have a blue and a yellow sock, nobody would question the decision but they would question if the colour of the sock could cause cancer,” he says. “The government said we should do this. So we’ll do this. We can stick to the rules. Also, there are physical and mental issues to deal with, so we try to keep everyone going.”

Forstam’s position is in keeping with Sweden’s more liberal response to the pandemic. While its neighbours Denmark, Finland and Norway went into various versions of lockdown, Sweden closed high schools and universities but allowed kindergartens and primaries to remain open. Theatres, museums and sporting arenas were closed, restaurants remained open. The government said that if social distancing rules are not followed, offending businesses would be shut down. The country has faced heavy criticism from scientists as it recorded a far higher death rate than its neighbours, with Sten Linnarsson, a professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, saying that “there is a lack of scientific evidence being put forward for these policies”.

No reopening in sight for US cinemas after federal guidelines issued

However, the Swedish model has been hailed by conservatives in the US – without understanding, according Lars Trägårdh, a history professor at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College, that it depends on the population’s compliance with, and trust in, the state. “It is interesting to see that the Swedish stress on what we call ‘freedom under responsibility’ is getting picked up by the libertarian right in the US. The big problem with all of that is that Sweden is all built, ultimately, on a very strong alliance between the state and the individual.” Swedes, in effect, follow the recommendations of authorities.

Swedish-American journalist Erik Augustin Palm went even further in an article in Slate, citing Sweden’s peculiar cultural attributes such as “unbounded trust in state experts and an internalised sense of exceptionalism” as contributing factors to the belief that the government knows what it’s doing. “It is still possible that Sweden’s Covid-19 response could be exonerated – say, herd immunity does take effect and Sweden’s death rate is lower than neighbouring countries’ at some point … This seems highly unlikely, but still possible.”

In the meantime, Fornstam is waiting on that start of movement further up the movie supply chain, which seems to be focusing around the projected July release of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s time-travel epic. He remains convinced that the anticipation of a major big-screen spectacle is proof that cinema – like live music or sports – can be a unique experience. “Some people say this is the kiss of death for the cinema, especially in corona times. I think it is the other way around,” he says. “It is so funny that [the idea] of ‘rent your own cinema’ has been so successful for us – that shows the strength of going to the movies rather than watching a movie at home. I pray and hope that on 17 July this year, Chris Nolan will be there for us.”

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