Coronavirus had already ravaged the global cinema industry before today’s confirmation from Cineworld that it is indeed “temporarily suspending operations”. From Thursday, all 536 of its venues in the US and all 127 in the UK will be closed indefinitely, putting 45,000 jobs including 5,500 in the UK seriously at risk.
“As major US markets, mainly New York, remained closed and without guidance on reopening timing, studios have been reluctant to release their pipeline of new films,” the chain said in a statement. “In turn, without these new releases, Cineworld cannot provide customers in both the US and the UK – the company’s primary markets – with the breadth of strong commercial films necessary for them to consider coming back to theatres against the backdrop of COVID-19.”
It’s easy to pin the blame for this devastating development on Eon Productions, makers of the Bond films, who last week announced that the franchise’s latest instalment has been delayed again. No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, was originally scheduled to open in April of this year before being cautiously bumped back until November. Now, it won’t arrive until at least April 2021, robbing cinemas of the massive tentpole movie they need to put enough bums on their reduced number of socially distanced seats.
Postponing No Time to Die so close to its November due date is cowardly – not a trait Eon would want us to associate with a franchise predicated on devil-may-care heroism – but at the same time, entirely understandable. When Christopher Nolan’s lavish and fascinating blockbuster Tenet opened just over a month ago, it was bullishly talked up as the movie that could “save the cinema”. Sadly, this hasn’t quite happened: though Tenet has topped the North American box office for six consecutive weeks, it’s only taken $45m there as part of its $307m global gross to date. This isn’t small change, but neither is it especially close to the $450-$500m it reportedly needs to break even.
Warner Bros. execs will definitely be wincing at the prospect of Tenet potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars, but their multinational conglomerate can absorb the body blow more comfortably than Eon, a relative minnow which makes very few films outside of the Bond franchise. Several commentators have suggested that Warner Bros. may well perceive Tenet as a one-off loss to be “written off against” Nolan’s future movies, which will presumably be very profitable. Eon has no such luxury: its business is Bond.
Still, being able to rationalise Eon’s decision-making doesn’t make the ramifications any less distressing. Following Cineworld’s bombshell, Odeon has today announced that a quarter of its venues will now only open on weekends. It’s horribly possible that some independent cinemas might admit defeat and decide to close for good. After all, other huge 2020 movies including Top Gun: Maverick and Black Widow have already been pushed back until 2021. Wonder Woman 1984 is still just about scheduled for a 2020 release on Christmas Day in the US and Boxing Day in the UK.
It goes without saying that we can all support the cinema industry by actually going out to see a movie – presuming, of course, that we feel safe and comfortable doing so. Wearing a mask for two hours isn’t necessarily pleasant, but neither is it unbearable – Ghostface from Scream has been doing it for years. Many cinemas are programming new movies like Tenet and Bill and Ted Face the Music alongside tried and tested modern favourites such as Jurassic Park, La La Land and Black Panther. There’s surely something on to suit all tastes.
But it’s also time for the government to step up and provide proper support to an industry that’s sinking but not yet capsized. The government has earmarked £30m from its $1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund for the UK’s independent cinemas, a pledge which should definitely be applauded. Clearly cinema chains need some extra help too: why was there no ‘Watch Out to Help Out’ scheme in August? Tories aren’t known for being generous defenders of the arts but even Boris Johnson should be able to recognise the value of cinemas both large and small; they’re places that provide relatively inexpensive escapism for Brits of any age and class. Then again, despite saying he would “encourage people to go out to the cinema” following today’s terrible Cineworld news, the PM isn’t exactly a movie buff: last year he revealed that his favourite Christmas film is, um, Dodgeball.
Even for millennials and Gen Z-ers who’ve become accustomed to streaming whatever they like on iPlayer and Netflix, there’s still something magical about a cinema trip. It’s one of the few places where we can switch off our Smartphones and give our undivided attention for a couple of hours to just one thing – one thing that has the potential to entertain, educate and inspire. In the middle of a global pandemic, this experience feels more special than ever.