Cineworld – By A J Black.
To some this seemed inevitable. To others unthinkable. To many, a genuine surprise. Cineworld, the largest cinema chain in the U.K., are closing all 128 venues across Britain with the loss of over five thousand jobs.
It is, quite simply, a devastating blow to the cinema industry, particularly as this also affects over five hundred Regal cinemas in the U.S., with many more redundancies likely there too as a result. Commentators have been long anxious about the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in the death of independent cinemas, privately owned minnows in a sea of corporations, but for Cineworld to admit defeat, close their doors until some point in 2021, and lay off most of their workforce, proves just how badly our unprecedented situation has marked the cinematic landscape. If there was one organisation you would imagine had the reserves and resolve to battle on, it was Cineworld.
The trigger for this has been, undoubtedly, the push back of the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die, which in a remarkable about face – remarkable for the fact Eon & MGM were going full bore with their marketing campaign for the intended November release, including posters, podcasts, music etc… – decided to move the film’s release until April for the second time, conservatively hopeful that the pandemic will be under greater control in Europe by Easter. Cineworld, and the entire landscape, were banking on 007 appropriately coming to the rescue and now he has gone ‘undercover’ for six months, shall we say, then all hope appears to be lost. The Blofeld that is Covid-19 is too much for Cineworld, haemorrhaging profits and facing down sizeable debt as their cinemas remain open with few punters, and the result is the worst outcome: redundancies.
Let’s not kid ourselves on who is principally to blame here, though. It’s not the public. It’s not the film studios. The blame lies with an ineffective, willowy, strategically inept government who have allowed things to get this far.
The opening of cinemas during the pandemic has always been a scenario filled with various chickens and various eggs, since the beginning of the protracted lockdown in March this year.
It made sense for Cineworld to close as the pandemic hit hard. And in the government’s defence, though they should have been more adequately prepared and consistently had ignored advice that such a scenario was likely, scaling back pre-emptive attempts to plan for it, Covid’s impact and how to counteract it took time in which the country, and the entire world, reeled from the reality of the situation. By the summer however, with lockdown restrictions lessening and the country slowly beginning to return to work in key industries, Cineworld took the plunge of re-opening and exhibiting ‘classic’ movies to tease audiences back in. My best mate would regale me in July of tales in going back to his local Odeon with his son, catching The Empire Strikes Back or 1989’s Batman, and having a great time. He would tell me his screenings were largely empty, they were safe. Returning to the cinema seemed a perfectly viable thing to do.
Understandably though, the public were reticent to return. Who can blame them? In almost every other sector, the government were vacillating on rules and regulations, in everything from retail through to opening schools. U-turns abounded, ministers contradicted each other, the track & trace system was a shambles. While the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was a relative success, albeit temporarily, and the public certainly did not seem backwards in going forwards about getting back onto city streets when shops opened up, cinemas seemed a different prospect. Two hours in a ventilated room surrounded by strangers—with often only two metres social distance possible sideways and not in front or behind—with no obligation to wear face masks at first. Why would people return to cinemas with such uncertainty? In fairness, Cineworld and other chains did everything they could to keep Covid at bay, on the ground. Social distancing, sanitizers, alterations to screens etc… but the doubts remained.
The saviour was considered to be Tenet, the big new blockbuster from Christopher Nolan that, after one or two push backs, stayed the course as a brave test case for how to open a tent pole picture during the pandemic. The result was fair to middling. More people ventured to see it—myself included, but two weeks after it debuted on a quiet Sunday morning and masked up all the way—but not enough for it to be considered the salve for the cinematic nation. Would No Time to Die have fared better in this slot? Maybe. Nolan has as many detractors as he does fans and once reports of Tenet’s wilfully bonkers, time-splicing narrative leaked, with polarising reviews across the board, that surely couldn’t have helped common or garden film fans make the journey. 007 might have led more consumers to take the plunge rather than Tenet’s brand of icy, esoteric intelligence (and I say this as someone who thought it was a terrific movie).
Tenet’s release just prefigured, however, the long expected second wave of Covid-19 cutting across Europe. Coronavirus on the march saw most of the major releases pushed back into September and October jump ship, leaving only No Time to Die to weather the storm. And in that, the government response continued to be paltry. This isn’t from the perspective of financial solvency, let’s be clear; bailing Cineworld out almost certainly would not have been viable as a major, international PLC with a significant turnover, even with the disappearing furlough scheme for employees helping businesses out across 2020. The poor response lies solely with the consistent government mishaps in bringing Covid-19 to heel, with badly enforced, confusing rules across the country, conflicting advice, problems with mass testing and a track & trace system still lagging behind other nations. If people were being told they shouldn’t visit relatives in their homes, why would they risk going to a cinema, even one operating at around 30% capacity?
The simple reality, however, as to why Cineworld has ended up in this position is due to the dearth of pictures available for people to see. We have already seen a trend away from cinemas, in the main, making money from smaller, independent films, at the expense of the major blockbusters that fill up copious screens in the primary chains. I’m as guilty as the rest for this; despite having a Cineworld card, I’m far less likely to venture out to see Kajillionaire than I would have been Black Widow, and I say this as someone who enjoys independent film and studies cinema, rather than just a regular fan who goes to the movies and doesn’t think too hard about it. So, this is the public’s fault, right? If cinemas are supposedly safe, with few cases of Covid being contracted in them, then their avoidance has surely resulted in closures? The public don’t mind having raves or illegal parties or infesting shopping centres and going out for meals, but they won’t show up for smaller films to support their cinemas.
Here’s where the issue is chicken and egg. No Time to Die moved because Eon & MGM saw a continued resurgence of Covid-19 in Europe where the franchise makes a significant amount of box office, and ultimately they have a responsibility to protect their bottom line and aim for the film to make as much profit as possible – No Time to Die will be aiming for that sweet billion, ultimately. Had the U.K. better controlled the spread of infection, keeping Covid down by not sending hundreds of thousands of children back to school at once or releasing restrictions too soon in various sectors, the film might well have opened in November. Not everyone would have ventured out to see it, but it would have given Cineworld, and other chains and particularly independents, the boost they needed and possibly encouraged the bigger hitters delayed until Christmas—Dune, Wonder Woman 1984 etc… – to go for broke, further boosting the sector. But that didn’t happen. Those films will almost certainly now move and if they do, there will be little incentive for most audiences to return to cinemas until realistically around Easter 2021.
Yes, the studios are trying to protect their shareholders. Yes, the public have at times been reckless and not obeyed Covid restrictions. And yes, Cineworld didn’t even pre-warn their staff of redundancies before the news leaked to The Sunday Times. But if the film sector is collapsing in the U.K., let’s aim the blame where it’s due: a haphazard, mercurial government whose ineptitude now could see thousands of hard-working people out of a job just in time for Christmas. Hardly the magic of movies at work.
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