On Monday morning Cineworld, the UK’s largest cinema chain, confirmed it would close all its sites. From Friday 9 October, its 127 UK and Ireland outlets (including all Picturehouse venues), as well as its Regal cinemas in the US, will be “temporarily” shuttered.
Jonathan*, a Cineworld staff member who works in the Luton branch, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the closure. Like many of his colleagues, he was furloughed over the summer, and started working again in early September. Just one month later, he has found out he is now set to lose his job, with no word on financial help or a redundancy package. “I don’t have any other work to fall back on, to be honest. Me and a lot of other staff are very confused about where to go from here,” he said.
All UK Cineworld sites were closed between mid-March and June due to the national lockdown, with the company reporting a £1.3bn loss for the first half of the year.
The closures will leave more than 5,500 Cineworld employees – as well as contract workers such as cleaners and security staff – out of work. Many of these staff members found out their jobs were at risk via a media leak: this weekend’s Sunday Times reported on its front page that the “cinema chain is set to close all its screens after the new James Bond film was delayed until the spring – robbing audiences of a must-see movie and the industry of a lifeline”.
It was not until around 4pm on Sunday that Cineworld publicly acknowledged the article, tweeting: “We can confirm we are considering the temporary closure of our UK and US cinemas, but a final decision has not yet been reached. Once a decision has been made we will update all staff and customers as soon as we can.” At 7.35am on Monday, Cineworld employees received confirmation that all Cineworld cinemas would close from Friday.
The email sent to staff and seen by the New Statesman was headed “A Message from Mooky”, the nickname of Moshe Greidinger, the CEO of Cineworld. In the letter, Greidinger described the media leak as “unfortunate”. He assured staff that he is working to lobby the government to support employees and the industry “which has so much cultural significance”, and noted that the new Job Support Scheme, which supports viable jobs, “cannot work for us when we have almost no income”. The decision made by major studios to delay big releases was the final straw: the second postponement of No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film originally due out in April 2020 and now set for an April 2021 release, was “a huge blow”, wrote Greidinger.
The letter ended: “And for now, do not forget – even with no movies, we are still the best place for them.”
“We’re sick of the way Moshe Greidinger, aka Mooky, is handling the company,” Jonathan said. “From the rash decisions to lay us all off and lack of communication, we’ve all lost faith in him. Obviously, I don’t know who’s behind every decision, but as CEO it’s his responsibility… Did I mention the company is something like £6.2bn in debt? And being sued by Cineplex in Canada? Yeah. It’s bad.”
Jonathan called Greidinger’s letter “half-assed”. He also pointed out that Cineworld has a history of bad organisation and communication around employees’ job stability: at the start of the pandemic, he said, staff members were called and told that if they hadn’t worked at Cineworld for a certain number of years, they would lose their jobs, and those who had would be asked to stay at reduced pay. Then, once the furlough scheme was announced, the staff members were told to “disregard everything” and that they would receive furlough pay. “As you can imagine, it was all very confusing,” he said.
On Monday morning, Boris Johnson told reporters: “Cinemas do now have ways of letting 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.”
But while individuals can show support by visiting their local cinema, many insist the onus should be on the government to support the cinema industry, as it has with the hospitality industry through the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. In July the government pledged to give £1.5bn to prop up the arts during the pandemic, but three months on, with the furlough scheme coming to an end and many institutions still unable to open, the culture industries are asking for more long-lasting support. On 30 September, global demonstrations were held to shine a light on the contributions of the live performance economy under the motto “We Make Events”.
Alex*, a cinema employee at a separate UK chain, appealed to friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter to visit their local cinema, highlighting the safety measures that are currently in place in venues. “People I know and people with like interests on social media are more likely to respond and make a change right now than the government,” they told me. “It shouldn’t be this way, but the arts have always fought an uphill battle for recognition and respect from the establishment, so they have been historically claimed and held up by the people.”
Others believe it is the film studios and distributors who wield the power here. It was, after all, the news of the further delay of No Time To Die that dealt the last blow to Cineworld. Jonathan said film studios “should’ve taken one for the team like Warner Bros who released Tenet”, the Christopher Nolan action thriller released in late August. “Yes, they’d suffer a loss in revenue but if they keep waiting for a ‘global audience’ to see it, there won’t be any cinemas for them to see it in,” he said.
The independent, family-run Genesis Cinema in east London was the first indie cinema in the capital to re-open after the lockdown. When it did, on 4 July, it was trading at 15 per cent of its usual business, but week by week, trade has grown by 5 or 10 per cent, its owner, Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, told me. He added that in the week Tenet was released, admission numbers at Genesis were up 2 per cent on the same week last year.
“When the films are there, the audience will come out to see them,” Walker-Hebborn said. “You need a new release every week, especially when you’ve got five screens.”
For now, Genesis is safe. Walker-Hebborn has worked to diversify the programming at the venue, streaming international film festivals and old classics instead of relying on new releases. But the further postponement of No Time To Die and the closure of Cineworld will have “a domino effect” on the rest of the industry, he said. Warner Bros has again delayed Wonder Woman 1984, while Disney has pulled all of its releases up to Christmas, including Black Widow and Death on the Nile. The hotly anticipated Mulan bypassed cinemas altogether, and was released on the studio’s new streaming service Disney+ on 4 September.
“For Disney to be hoovering up all of the product, buying 20th Century Fox, the Star Wars franchise, the Marvel franchise and everything else, and then to just say, ‘we’re not going to release everything for six months’… if they were a food supplier saying they weren’t going to provide food, there’d be a huge uproar and the government would get involved. But we’ve got this situation where it’s run by a monopoly and if one company’s got one product, no one else can do anything about it,” Walker-Hebborn said.
He pointed out that other recent rules – that a maximum of six people can meet, the 10pm curfew – have greatly affected the cinema industry in a way that the government had not considered and has not appreciated.
There are fears that if Cineworld-operated cinemas do re-open, they will do so with reduced staff, working zero-hour contracts. What Cineworld says is “temporary” will, for some current employees, be permanent.
For those working at other cinemas, and for film fans across the UK, this is troubling news. Alex told me staff fear they might lose their jobs. “But beyond that, I fear losing the cinema experience that has always brought me joy and comfort since childhood,” they said. “Cinema holds a mirror up to humanity and helps us understand our existence while enabling us to escape and to connect with one another. If the big screen experience dies, then that mirror shrinks to a smaller screen, to a more isolated and diluted form of escape and connection.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.