Inside the sad, rapid collapse of the UK’s cinema industry

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It is a chilly Thursday night in central London and the staff at Cineworld’s flagship cinema in Leicester Square are closing up for what feels like the last time. Last week they all received the news – or more accurately read it on social media after a report in The Sunday Times – that Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger will temporally close all of its 128 cinemas in the UK and Ireland. The decision was prompted by the news that the James Bond film No Time to Die was being postponed for a second time, from November 2020 to April 2021.
“As soon as Bond was moved, we knew it was over,” says one young man behind the concession stand, busy emptying out the popcorn. “We can’t just keep showing the same films every day.” Like most of the staff here, he has been let go with an assurance that he will be hired back once the cinema reopens. Yet many have already applied for jobs elsewhere. At the very least they get to take the popcorn home. But as another worker tells me: “Popcorn won’t pay the rent.”

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Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, the UK cinema industry finds itself gasping for air. Admissions to cinemas this year are on course to hit their lowest levels since records began in 1928. Following the mothballing of Cineworld, major chains Odeon and Vue have announced that they will be scaling back their opening times to a few days a week. And many independent cinemas are either fighting for their survival – with some doing better than others – or have closed.
It is a period that been characterised by a frustrating cycle of hope and disappointment. As cinemas prepared to reopen after the national lockdown, for example, Vue CEO Tim Richards invested “a considerable amount of resources” in ensuring that his cinemas were Covid-secure for the release of new Christopher Nolan movie, Tenet. The hope, says Richards, was not that Tenet would perform so spectacularly well that it would single-handedly save cinema – “the amount of pressure on that movie,” he sighs – but that it would instead give movie studios the confidence to provide cinemas with a consistent supply of films. The disappointment came when Tenet, despite pulling in an admirable $300 million internationally, performed poorly in America ($45m), thanks partly to cinemas being closed in two of its biggest markets, Los Angeles and New York.
This America-centrism, it has been suggested by industry insiders, is a major reason behind the postponement of No Time to Die, which according to a statement was delayed, “in order to be seen by a worldwide theatrical audience”.
That’s understandable. Blockbusters cost hundreds of millions to make – it’s unsurprising that movie studios would want to wait for a release date that would guarantee them the best return on their investment. Not to mention the risk of piracy, or spoilers. But there is a grim feeling in the industry that by the time the major studios hit upon the perfect date to release their blockbusters globally, there may not be many cinemas left to release them into.

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“I do not believe it’s going to be possible to have a global release date for quite some time,” says Richards. “And I think that the studios are going to have to look hard at differential releases in different markets. Currently, roughly 75 to 80 per cent of screens in the world are open.” Screens may be open, for now, but that doesn’t mean they have anything to show.
The industry finds itself caught in a surreal catch-22: major studios won’t release their blockbusters because they do not believe enough people are going to the cinema to see them, but cinemas cannot entice people into their screens without a steady supply of blockbusters.
Hence the delay of No Time to Die leading to the delay of Dune, months after the shift of Wonder Woman from October to December, Black Widow from November to March 2021 and worst of all, of big movies like Mulan and Pixar’s Soul bypassing cinemas entirely to be released on streaming service Disney+. One industry source has suggested that Disney’s decision to release Mulan on Disney+ may have been more about keeping the company’s share price buoyant in the wake of a huge $3.5 billion loss to its theme park profits: making it a sacrificial lamb that was ‘a complete failure’ in terms of actual gross – viewers had to pay £19.99 on top of their subscription to watch the film – but did raise Disney’s stock ten per cent in the week it was announced.
Richards describes Disney’s move as “disappointing”, but doesn’t see streaming as a direct threat to the future of cinema. “It’s a completely different business model,” he says. “People are desperate to get out of their homes. They want to go out and enjoy something and see other people.” Last week Vue announced that it will be shutting 21 of its 87 UK cinemas three days a week. “We didn’t want to do a knee-jerk big reaction with a blanket closure,” Richards says. “We took the decision that there are a few cinemas that are being under-utilising during the week. We wanted to stay open for our customers.” I ask what his plan is for jobs, which he is reluctant to talk about in specific terms, only saying that the company is looking into chancellor Rishi Sunak’s new jobs support scheme, in which the government will contribute to the wages of employees who are working fewer than normal hours. “It’s under analysis right now.”

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The problems faced by the big cinema chains are not too dissimilar to those faced by independent ones – although fortunes do tend to vary. On the one hand, you have the Peckhamplex in south London, a cinema famed for its £4.99 tickets, which closed down temporally last month. In a statement its owners explained that the “film distributors that we rent our films from are constantly re-scheduling the big titles to further and further away”. As an independently run cinema, the statement continued, remaining open was simply not viable with such low levels of admission. On the other hand, you have cinemas such as HOME in Manchester, or the Watershed in Bristol, which have both enjoyed strong sales for smaller films like Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age story Rocks and re-releases such as Bong-Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder.
Jonathan Foster, marketing manager of the Prince Charles Cinema in central London, which only reopened its doors this week, says that some independent cinemas like are in a relatively strong position. “We know that we don’t have to rely on new releases, which is the big problem right now,” he explains. “Instead our bread and butter has always been screening old classics on the big screen. We have built a niche audience around it. Whereas an Odeon or a Cineworld or a Vue isn’t gonna get that same interest because they have more of a casual film audience who wants to go to see the next big blockbuster.”
Rather than cutting staff, the Prince Charles Cinema has found itself having to actually hire new workers due to its policy of splitting employees into two bubbles. “We set a goal for ourselves to say ‘Okay, we know we’re going to lose money’, and especially because we have to do reduced capacity and make sure our staff feel safe. But we have been able to reach a number in pre-sales where we feel comfortable that even if we’re losing money that we’re going to be able to make it through the rest of this year.”
A common sentiment in the industry, particularly among independent cinemas and film distributors, is that this crisis is the apex of a long-running problem: an over-reliance on blockbusters to keep the entire industry afloat. “A few blockbusters account for 90 per cent of the business,” says Hamish Moseley, managing director of Altitude Film Distribution. “That’s not good for any business because if for some reason that fails, then we’re all in trouble because both cinemas and audiences feel that that’s the only thing on offer and it isn’t.”
Indeed, the pandemic has provided distributors such as Altitude with something of an opportunity to showcase films that would usually struggle for space. “The cinemas reopened in July but they didn’t have any films to play because the major studios kept moving their films back,” says Moseley. “We leaned into that. We released a Russell Crowe thriller called Unhinged, which did very well. Usually it’s all about the opening weekend and then you reduce the amount of cinemas it plays in. Whereas actually we found that it got better and better every week and it’s still in cinemas now almost ten weeks after release. Last year, it would’ve probably only had two-three weeks to make way for the next Avengers film or whatever. It’s done nearly £200m at the box office now which is terrific.”
One of the most pressing issues for film distributors however, and indeed much of the film industry, is the changing status of the theatrical window: essentially, the guaranteed amount of time a movie plays exclusively in a cinema before it then moves to home entertainment and digital release. In the UK the window traditionally lasts four months, in the US three, and is considered sacrosanct by major chains who want to ensure that huge blockbusters suck in as many people into their screens as possible. Yet, many distributors argue, this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work hugely well for smaller or mid-budget films, which could benefit from a shorter theatrical release before being made available to watch at home.
“It has always been about the thin edge of the wedge,” says Moseley. “If they say to us, ‘We’ll let you release your film with a one month window’ then the next big blockbuster like Star Wars will say, ‘Well you did that for them.’”
But this year has seen unprecedented change. In response to cinema closures, distributors such as Altitude have been able to negotiate more flexibility in deals with smaller chains. Its film Rocks, for example, played just two weeks in cinemas before heading to Netflix. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, major studio Universal sensationally broke the window earlier this year by making Trolls World Tour available for video-on-demand purchase while simultaneously screening it in cinemas. In response, American chain AMC Theatres – which owns Odeon – threatened to never host Universal films again, but has since made peace in a deal which reduces the window to 17 days and gives AMC a share of video-on-demand revenue.
Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, meanwhile, have stood their ground, but Richards says there have been internal discussions at Vue on offering a greater degree of flexibility. “We need to be flexible,” he says. “Will windows come down? I think they will come down. We are having discussions on how we as a company and as an industry can be more flexible going forward. We’re trying to find a way forward now because it’s more important than ever. Windows have been a mainstay of the industry for a very long time, and that I don’t see changing, but we need to look at it and dust it off.” Does that mean reducing the window even for blockbusters? “I can see a scenario where windows are more flexible for all movies in the future. And that means reduction by definition.”
Despite everything, Richards remains optimistic for the future of cinema, and shares the general sentiment of the industry that all they need to do is to survive long enough to see this pandemic through.
“I think that the future of the industry is as strong as it’s ever been,” he says. “And once we get out of Covid, there’s an extraordinary line-up of films for the next 12, 18, 24 months. There’s no question that there’s going to be a massive boom.”
Hope and disappointment, disappointment and hope – the dramatic engines of any Hollywood screenplay. Only time will tell if there’s going to be a happy ending.
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