Screen freeze: can UK cinemas survive the winter lockdown?

Theatres opened 2021 with their doors closed and their seats empty. Toby Earle speaks to workers and industry figures to hear how they're plotting a comeback

Last year was one of cinema’s worst ever. Theatres closed, films were pushed back and big and small studios alike lost loads of money. According to official figures, the UK box office dropped 76 per cent in 12 months – from £1.2m in 2019 to £297,000 in 2020. Most had hoped to return to normal in January, but a new, open-ended lockdown has instead clouted the industry back onto the ropes.

So, with no new blockbusters until at least March when restrictions ease (or don’t, as the government may decide), is this the last straw for the movie business as we know it? NME spoke with those running independent cinemas and with industry representatives to find out what happens next.

Wonder Woman 1984, Gal Gadot
‘Wonder Woman 1984’ was the last blockbuster to get a wide theatrical release in the UK. Credit: Alamy

Advertisement

“We were open in 2020 for three weeks and three days,” says Chris Ryde, general manager of the Savoy Theatre in Monmouth, Wales. The cinema was rebuilt in 1927 and is prized by the local community, but has remained closed throughout the pandemic. “As a cinema we could have opened at the end of July, but we didn’t for the simple reason that we had nothing to show.”

The planned release of Wonder Woman 1984 in mid-December was to be accompanied by other events at the Savoy, like a big screen pantomime – and was an opportunity to welcome cinemagoers back. That opportunity didn’t last. “I was hoping we’d have a month where we would actually break even – so when it was announced in Wales that all indoor entertainment had to close on December 3 it was a major shock.”

Savoy Theatre
The Savoy Theatre in Monmouth. Credit: monmouth-savoy.co.uk

Total closure is one option, but throughout the year smaller establishments opted to try and reopen when they were allowed. For example, Manchester’s independent cinema and art venue Home did so in September – and regularly sold out its socially distanced screenings. This success, as well as keeping staff and customers safe, made the next round of closures harder than the first lockdown, especially on staff and their mental well-being.

“Every time you open and then close again, you have to go through the same systems,” explains Jason Wood, Home’s creative director. “You have to close the building, furlough the staff, and mothball the venue. That takes a lot of resilience.There are only a certain number of times you’re going to be able to do that. We can’t keep opening, closing, and then opening again a few weeks later.”

HOME
HOME arts venue in Manchester. Credit: homemcr.org

Advertisement

What Wood wants is a bit more transparency from the government, as that would allow for forward planning and an end to uncertainty. “It would be much safer and much better if the government was to say, ‘The reality is: until we have control of this, which may be April or May, you have to keep your doors closed.’ Without a long-term contingency it makes the situation more precarious.”

According to the UK Cinema Association there are a small number of cinemas which do not plan to reopen after the current restrictions are lifted, although there is hope a couple of those venues – including the Granville Theatre in Ramsgate and the Artrix in Bromsgrove – might return under new management. Last October, Cineworld shuttered all of its sites, with many of its 5,500-plus workforce learning of the company’s decision after a story was published in The Sunday Times.

Cineworld
Cineworld’s doors have been closes nationwide since October. Credit: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Luckily, the industry is looking to shore up its defences in the new year. “It’s all part of the discussion we’re having with the government,” reveals Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association. “These are venues which are worth supporting, not just because they’re places that people go to see films, but because they have a much broader local community, economic, and cultural value. The government is very keen not to set a precedent whereby every other sector comes in and asks for ‘special treatment’. We’re confident we’re bringing together an argument which convinces them that there is a particular case here.”

Of course, an inability to trade is just one problem cinemas face. As the public looks for their big-screen fix elsewhere, home entertainment has boomed. In the UK, BBC iPlayer experienced a 31 per cent increase on 2019 viewership, with 5.8 billion streams, while globally Netflix added 16 million subscribers in the first three months of 2020 alone. Disney+, last year’s debutant streamer (outside of the US), had a pretty decent 2020. By the end of the year, it increased its subscribers to 86.8 million, placing it close to the 90million-plus customer target Disney had envisaged for the platform’s fourth year – way ahead of schedule. On top of that, studios are looking to erode the traditional theatrical window. Universal has decided to release its titles on-demand after 17 days, rather than the usual 90 – and Warner Bros went even further and revealed plans to stream all of its 2021 movies (including mega blockbusters Dune and The Matrix 4) on HBO Max (currently unavailable in the UK) from the same day as in cinemas.

Timothée Chalamet Dune Rebecca Ferguson
‘Dune’ is one of many Warner Bros. blockbusters to be slated for a streaming release this year. Credit: Warner Bros

It’s a seismic move – one that cinemas may not recover from. “We’ll have one hand tied behind our back,” says Ryde. “If Disney [also decide] to take their children’s films and run them on Disney+, that’s a major revenue stream that’s not going to be available to us. We rely on that enormously. That’s a worry.” By shortening the release window, cinemas will have less opportunity to generate box office and concessions revenues, which will impact their profitability and ability to employ staff. “I think we’re going to have a game of brinkmanship,” says Mick Corfield, BECTU Midlands Negotiation Officer. “I think that our members will be pawns used in this, because it’s their livelihoods and their jobs at stake while the studios and exhibitors have a face off.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Clapp believes cinema and streaming can work together, especially after Disney’s announcement of over 20 films destined for theatres over the next three years. “It’s not a zero sum game; it’s not what’s good for streaming is bad for cinema, and what’s good for cinema is bad for streaming,” he says. “All the evidence we have is that the two can coexist perfectly happily, not at least because many of the people who are the biggest fans of streaming are also the biggest fans of cinema. They choose which films they’re going to see in the cinema, and they decide which films they want to see on the streaming platforms. There’s absolutely a hope and an expectation that cinema will recover, but that it will be in lockstep with a thriving streaming business as well.”

Positives remain while projectors gather dust in empty screening rooms. There is a huge slate of films, both blockbuster and arthouse, waiting to be released. Ryde talks of how a crowdfunding drive raised over £20,000 for the Savoy, demonstrating how much locals care about the business. Clapp believes the business is “solid” and will recover. For Wood, 2021 is a chance to break away from the dependency on US blockbusters: “We can build a landscape which is less reliant on the big tentpole films, and equally supportive of smaller independent films. Let’s build on this moment to commit to a more diverse film culture.”

Advertisement
Advertisement