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5 October 2020

Cineworld job losses show the risks of Rishi Sunak’s economic approach

The case that cinemas, music venues, or theatres don’t have a post-pandemic future is far from proven.

By Stephen Bush

Cineworld Cinemas – the owner of 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in the United Kingdom, and 536 Regal picture houses in the United States – has confirmed it will temporarily close all of its British and American venues, while Odeon cinemas in the UK will go weekend-only, the chain has confirmed in an email to Odeon Limitless members.

The issue is only in part the pandemic: if you’ve been to a cinema, you will know that the various procedures in place make going to see a film a surreal but comfortable experience that feels very safe. The trouble is that Covid-secure procedures are hammering concession stands – pick-and-mix, hot dogs, and all the other parts of the business that make the real money. 

You can’t trade if you can’t get people through the door. A look at this week’s cinema listings illustrates the problem: the 25th anniversary reissue of Jurassic Park, the 40th anniversary reissue of The Empire Strikes Back, the much-delayed genre stinker The New Mutants, arthouse flicks such as On The Rocks, The Trial of Chicago 7, and east London coming-of-age tale Rocks. Now, I licked my lips in anticipation at pretty much all of those, but I still buy DVDs: the difficult truth is that while consumers do exist in sufficient numbers to sustain a handful of arthouse cinemas and a few video stores, the big-money US blockbusters on which the English-speaking cinema world in particular thrives are going to remain on ice, and the British cinema industry will continue to struggle. This would be the case even if the UK did have a functioning system to test, trace and isolate new cases of the novel coronavirus. 

The news also exposes two problems with Rishi Sunak’s economic approach. The first is that the explicit and implicit logic of his new measures is the economy needs to adjust to the novel coronavirus, rather than be frozen in carbonite. And, yes, you can’t fault the logic as far as the office complex economy is concerned: most big businesses are contemplating at the very least a blend of remote and distanced working, which will have big and lasting consequences for city centres. But the case that cinemas – or music venues, or theatres – don’t have a post-pandemic future is far from proven. That is more acute for music venues, theatres and film studios themselves, where the loss of skilled workers from those industries is more of a blow than the loss of the corporate entities that currently sustain them. It’s not clear why the government treats these things as one and the same.

The risk, too, is that usually in recessions, it is unskilled jobs in retail and entertainment – like, you know, manning the concession stand at a cinema – that help to get people back in work, but it is those very jobs that are most at threat from the pandemic. It’s not only that the jobs the Chancellor’s approach declares non-viable might, in fact, be viable later down the line: it’s that while social distancing measures remain in place, it is hard to see where those new jobs are going to spring from.

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