UK cinema staff react to closures: “The government and studios have left us to rot”

On the day that Cineworld and Odeon announce extensive closures, Elizabeth Aubrey talks to employees about what can be done to save the industry

When it emerged late on Saturday evening that Cineworld were rumoured to be temporarily closing all of their cinema chains, staff members in the ‘Cineworld Action Group‘ – a group formed and run by Cineworld and Picturehouse employees around the UK – reacted to the news. A front-page story in The Sunday Times said that they were about to be made redundant. According to the staff we spoke to – all of whom wished to remain anonymous, alleging that any potential redundancy package could be under threat if they speak to the media – none of the chain’s workforce had been contacted by bosses directly.

“I found out from a post on Facebook late on Saturday night,” a trainee team leader told NME. “I went to work on Sunday morning with no further information from Cineworld and had to deal with customers asking questions about it while having no clue what was happening with my job.”

Another staff member from Scotland said hearing the news via social media was “a real punch in the gut” on the day he was meant to celebrate his nine-year job anniversary at the cinema chain – a job he says he “loves.” He continued: “We were literally given a three-day notice period that our jobs were getting flushed down the gutter. We have had absolutely no communication from our CEO throughout this whole mess.”

Cineworld have announced temporary closures across the country. Credit: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

This morning (October 5), bosses at the chain confirmed that it would close 127 cinemas in the UK – as well as all of its cinemas in the US. The news came just two days after the twice-postponed James Bond film, No Time to Die, was pushed back again to April 2021. Following poor ticket sales for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney choosing to release Mulan straight to its Disney+ streaming platform, studios scared of losses are pulling big-budget releases that cinemas rely on to survive.

The news of No Time To Die’s postponement came as a shock to many in the industry following recent PR campaigns. Only last Thursday (October 1), the official music video for Billie Eilish’s No Time To Die Bond-theme was shared in full anticipation of a November release date. Less than 24 hours later, the film had been pulled from schedules.

A staff member at one of London’s Picturehouse branches, set to close until further notice, said the cancellation of Bond was “the final nail in the coffin” for them. He added: “I’m extremely disappointed in [007 studio] MGM as No Time To Die could have saved the cinema industry. It’s what we were all holding out for. They could’ve been known as the studio that saved cinemas as opposed to the studio that condemned them.”

His thoughts were echoed by another Cineworld staff member in the Midlands. “The delay of No Time to Die was a huge blow to us. It was the last chance we had at getting cinema-goers back. For Tenet, we barely had 40 customers during opening week. To put that into perspective, pre COVID-19, we could fit 200+ people in our largest screen. This delay will be the straw that broke the camel’s back. I believe many other cinemas will now follow suit and close their doors until 2021.”

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Daniel Craig as James Bond in ‘No Time To Die’. Credit: Nicole Dove / MGM / The Hollywood Archive

Just hours after Cineworld confirmed news of their closure, Odeon announced that a quarter of their cinemas would now be open at the weekend only. “We look forward to reopening full-time when the big blockbusters return,” a spokesperson for Odeon said (via The Guardian). “But in the meantime, we promise to bring you a great choice of big-screen films to enjoy at the weekends.”

A worker at Vue Cinemas, which operates 91 sites in the UK and Ireland said he feared they could be the next affected. “It was a crushing blow for sure,” the employee said of Bond’s cancellation. “Bond is a huge name and a big ticket release with more industry and commercial clout than the less successfully released Tenet. We had hoped it would increase footfall and galvanise customers to return to us. As staff, we had been relying on its release as a much needed boost to our working hours as well.”

One of his colleagues added: “The government and the studios have abandoned us. They’ve left us to rot. With no support from either, cinemas will not be here in 2021 if this continues.”

Tim Richards, founder and CEO of Vue International, told NME that the government, film studios, landlords and cinema operators need to come together to save the industry.

“The cinema industry is a huge social and economic contributor. It was setting global box office records as we entered the global pandemic and underpins a global ecosystem of studios, distributors, independent filmmakers and landlords. It’s the foothold in communities and the commercial driver of retail and eating out operators,” said Richards.

“While we wait for the blockbusters to return, consumers are clamouring for safe, out of home experiences to support their wellbeing. We need governments, studios, landlords and cinema operators to come together to give the public something they need right now – and to be there to support a return to growth in the future.”

An Odeon cinema in Milton Keynes. Credit: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Speaking to staff at Cineworld, many place blame centrally at the hands of the government, saying they have done little to support the industry nor little to make people feel safe with ongoing track and trace issues – something The Labour Party have today described as “shambolic.” The government’s £1.57billion Culture Relief Fund was brought in following months of delays at a time when the industry was repeatedly calling for urgent support. At the weekend, it was revealed that parts of the funding had been delayed again, putting many arts venues and workers at further risk. 

“I think the government’s response to the COVID pandemic has been shambolic and has provided virtually no safety nets for a large portion of the hospitality industry and those on zero-hours contracts, which is an unfortunate reality for most workers at Cineworld,” one staff member at a London branch of Cineworld said. “I don’t believe the government have done enough at all to reassure the public that they will remain safe… I think the government’s handling of this current crisis has been an unmitigated disaster on an unimaginable scale.”

Mooky Greidinger, the Cineworld chief executive, blamed the government’s job support scheme for the closures in a staff memo sent to those affected this morning. NME has reached out to Cineworld for comment in regard to staff allegations that their redundancy packages are at risk if they speak to the media.

“The UK government announced a new job support scheme last week and as you know, the aim of this is to support viable jobs,” she wrote in the memo, revealed to NME by another employee. “This said, the new government scheme places a greater financial burden on employers, which cannot work for us when we have almost no income.

“I would like to tell the government that they need to give more financial help to the arts and entertainment sector. They are huge money makers for the UK and huge industries for the country.”

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Cineworld cinemas will stand empty from Thursday. Credit: Alamy

In a statement to NME, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: “The Government is supporting cinemas through the VAT cut on tickets and concessions, business rates holiday and bounce back loans. Independent cinemas are also eligible to apply for a share of £30 million from our unprecedented £1.5 billion Culture Recovery Fund, with cash already started to be allocated.

“Cinemas up and down the country are open for business and COVID secure. We urge the British public to support their local cinema by visiting and enjoying a film in accordance with the guidance.”

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged people to visit the cinema saying: “What I would say to people is that local cinemas do now have ways of making their shows go on in a COVID-secure way and I’d encourage people to go out to the cinema, enjoy themselves and support those businesses.”

However, for many cinema workers, the measures don’t go nearly far enough. “The government support for cinemas has been extremely lacklustre,” an employee at Vue told NME: “We need the government to get that message out there and to support us not only financially, but in getting the message to cinema-goers that they are a safe place to visit.”

Another London Vue employee told NME: “Cinemas have taken it into their own hands to ensure that customers and staff are kept safe and as a staff member I can proudly say that we work extremely hard to keep our workplace safe for ourselves and our customers.”

Her views were echoed by filmmakers on Twitter today including Edgar Wright and Francis Lee. Wright said on Twitter: “As a film goer, I’m gutted about the Cineworld & Picturehouse shutdown. There is more to say and do on this, but it’s worth stressing that when I went to Picturehouse Central they went out of their way to make it a safe experience. My heart goes out to all staff affected by this.”

Francis Lee added: It’s so upsetting about the Cineworld & Picturehouse shutdown. I last went to @picturehouses 2 weeks ago and it felt like the staff were working flat to make it a safe experience. I’m gutted for all the workers.”

While some feel the situation in the independent centre is still precarious, many in the industry feel they are better placed to survive without relying on blockbuster film releases like No Time To Die or Tenet.

Dave Moutrey, Director and CEO of HOME independent cinema in Manchester said: “The news from Cineworld and Odeon highlights just what a challenging time this is. Our hearts go out to all their staff who have been affected. At HOME, we are fortunate that we do not rely on blockbusters to attract our core audience, however the knock-on effect of uncertainty in the industry means that other new release titles which we were planning to show may also be affected. Since reopening we’ve enjoyed seeing our audiences come back, and we’ve been lucky enough to see many of our socially-distanced screenings sell out, which demonstrates how much people have missed independent cinema.”

Similarly, the Prince Charles theatre in London added: “Thankfully, we’ve never been a cinema that has relied on bigger releases to get us through the year…but with our doors being closed since March the key to our survival has been YOU,” the cinema added, announcing that they had sold over 4000 pre-sale tickets so far.

“I don’t know if cinemas will survive this,” a manager at a northern branch of Vue told NME. “But the only way we can is if the government, cinema goers, the studio and the industry at large come together to save cinema. Because that’s where we’re at now. There’s no longer time to talk about saving cinemas when 45,000 cinema workers have lost their jobs today here and in America.

“The time for talking is done now. We need action, solidarity and a community effort to survive this.”

Cineworld Action Group is supported by BECTU, one of the UK’s leading arts unions