By Hanna Rantala
LONDON (Reuters) - Londoner Sam Poch was anticipating the thrill of the big screen lighting up as he waited on Monday to enter a cinema on Leicester Square - a once routine experience that has not been possible for months because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The 31-year-old content producer was among the first arriving to watch a film the old-fashioned way as cinemas in England reopened their doors as part of the latest stage in the government's phased lockdown relaxation plan.
"I missed it a lot. It's just the whole experience of going out, sitting down in (front of) the big screen and just the feeling of being in a cinema - it's just something I've missed for the past year," Poch told Reuters before his screening.
"I can't wait to go inside and watch a film."
Across England, Wales and parts of Scotland, indoor entertainment venues were welcoming back audiences after several months of closure, albeit operating at 50 percent capacity, with social distancing and other safety measures in place.
Tim Richards, founder and CEO of cinema chain Vue International, said the business was seeing bookings at levels slightly above a normal pre-COVID market, which he described as very exciting.
"We have a situation now where we're going to be having almost three years of movies in the next 12 to 18 months. So we're looking at this extraordinary period where I believe we're going to be looking at the second golden age of cinema."
Vue, rival chains Odeon and Cineworld and smaller independent cinemas were first forced to shut their doors in March last year as Britons were ordered to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
When measures eased in the summer, they reopened for a while, only to be obliged to close again months later.
"In 2020, both admissions and box office were down 75% on the previous year and we think that equates roughly to around 2 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) in lost revenue," said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association.
Now cinemas are counting on highly-anticipated films like the latest James Bond offering "No Time to Die", and Marvel's "Black Widow", both pushed back from 2020, to entice audiences.
"Last year, cinemas were able to open for a few months and to be honest, the lack of availability of big films meant it was always a slightly half-hearted affair," said Clapp.
"This time, I think absolutely there's an expectation this is it, and that cinema audiences will want to come back and enjoy the big screen."
($1 = 0.7081 pounds)
(Reporting by Hanna Rantala; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Estelle Shirbon)