Article: Cineworld/Picturehouse closure: Independent venues and distributors discuss the impact on the UK exhibition sector

With the closure of Cineworld’s 127 sites and Odeon scaling back its operations in the UK, The Bigger Picture speaks to independent venues and distributors to discuss the impact on the UK exhibition sector.

With the delay on the James Bond film No Time To Die from November 2020 to April 2021, Cineworld has confirmed that its 127 sites in the UK and 536 Regal cinemas in the US are “temporarily suspending operations”.

The exhibitor confirmed the move in a statement that the closure of the UK sites will include the boutique Picturehouse chain, which Cineworld owns. The move will impact approximately 45,000 employees, according to the chain.

Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Cineworld, commented: “This is not a decision we made lightly, and we did everything in our power to support safe and sustainable reopenings in all of our markets – including meeting, and often exceeding, local health and safety guidelines in our theatres and working constructively with regulators and industry bodies to restore public confidence in our industry.

”We are especially grateful for and proud of the hard work our employees put in to adapt our theatres to the new protocols and cannot underscore enough how difficult this decision was, Cineworld  will continue to monitor the situation closely and will communicate any future plans to resume operations in these markets at the appropriate time, when key markets have more concrete guidance on their reopening status and, in turn, studios are able to bring their pipeline of major releases back to the big screen.”

Unprecedented times

With one of the UK’s biggest cinema chains shutting down, we spoke to a number of UK independent distributors and venue owners for their reactions, thoughts, concerns and predictions about what the next few months holds for the exhibition sector.

Now more than ever, cinemas of all shapes and sizes are facing commercial challenges like never before. The closure of UK & US cinema chains will also have a continued and sustained impact on the release calendar. But in this gloom, there are glimmers of light. Firstly, through the hard work of organisations such as the BFI and FAN network, many independents have access to the Cultural Recovery Fund. Similarly, films are still being released. Granted, not the day and date, tentpole titles but there is a breadth of quality content still available. Here in Whitley Bay we see this as a golden opportunity to welcome new audiences through our doors and we’re working tirelessly to market the available content as well as the benefits of visiting the local independent. Similarly; we’re working on a PVOD streaming site for those cinema-goers who don’t feel confident, or are unable to visit us at present. Currently it feels like as a team we’ve never worked harder for as little admissions, but we’re committed to weathering this storm and we hope our mutliplex friends are also – more so for the jobs and livelihoods of friends and colleagues in the sector.

Dan Ellis, Managing Director, Jam Jar Cinema

I am not sure if it was a surprise to hear news about Cineworld’s dilemma this weekend but it still came as a blow to the industry and a shock to the system. I don’t think the full effect of this can be understood yet. What will this mean for audiences? Future distribution patterns? And of course, the small independent screens working to the new normal?

On a very local level it is devastating. Our friends, peers and partners work in these venues and we have seen their commitment to the industry from the ground floor.  Speaking from a single screen venue, we are fortunate that we aren’t feeling quite the same pressure as the larger multiplex chains. We counter-programme and curate to respond with the opposite; meaning Bond, Tenet, Death on the Nile were never a factor for us. We are in a good position to roll with the smaller independent, British releases and there seems to be a decent number of titles on their way, which our loyal audience will value.  I just hope they will value them enough to want to buy tickets when we open our doors later this week. However, we do worry about distributor confidence and how long we can continue to compete with virtual cinema models…

Claire Horrocks, Film Programmer, Exeter Phoenix

I honestly don’t know how it will affect the sector. The bigger films that are currently scheduled for the end of the year will most probably move, but then they probably always were going to. The one part of this that is giving me cause for concern would be Picturehouse closing.  We don’t depend on the Hollywood films for our audience, but the higher quality independent/world cinema films. With the larger Picturehouse venues closing would that mean changes to the release calendar for those films that most independent venues rely on more?

Paul MacDonald-Taylor, Head of Film and Visual Art, Eden Court

As a small, single-screen venue that re-opened a week ago I honestly don’t know how to react to the news. I started to allow myself to think that the independent sector might have some resilience built in by its ability to be more agile in programming; we aren’t reliant on the tent-pole openings that the multiplexes base their business models on and our audiences want more diverse, interesting films which aren’t necessarily current. The indie programming model of mixing new releases, small British and foreign language films with a sprinkling of old classics thrown in and an audience which feels more inclined to want to support and are loyal to their local, small cinemas means I hoped we might be better insulated from the effects on business of the pandemic than bigger organisations are. The problem is that the cinema industry is a delicate ecosystem. Without the big national chains operating, are distributors going to be able to hold their nerve and continue to release films out into the wild or are they going to hold back titles and/or release straight to online viewing platforms? Postponing the release of the new Bond film could end up being the nail in the coffin for a lot of us. It’s sad and ironic to think that a film most of us wouldn’t even be screening anyway could end up signalling the death knell of the whole exhibition sector.

Anna Navas, Director and Film Programmer, Plymouth Arts Cinema

The word unprecedented has become part of our daily vocabulary hasn’t it over the recent months, and clearly these are unprecedented times for exhibitors, both large and small. It is a challenge unlike any we have faced before but we do believe in the cinema experience and believe it has a future for generations to come. The decisions across a range of companies in exhibition and distribution over the next few days and weeks will shape the next few months and beyond, and how those decisions will impact companies such as ourselves we don’t quite know for certain yet.

Mark Williams, Director, WTW-Scott Cinemas 

It’s understandable that Cineworld has decided it’s not worth opening, given how first Disney and now Universal/Eon have essentially abandoned cinemas for the rest of the year. Unfortunately it’s likely that the decision will set off a further chain reaction of closures and delayed releases that (commercially speaking) will wipe out the rest of the year.

In some respects, the major circuits are looking at a tougher time than the independents, who at least have the hope of assistance from the Cultural Recovery Fund. We are also less reliant for product on the major studios, though the loss of Bond, a heritage brand with huge appeal for every audience sector, is a big blow to us all.  If cinema exhibition as we know it is going to survive, distributors have to share the risk. There needs to be a steady supply of content that will appeal to a mix of audiences. This doesn’t just mean blockbusters: titles like Dream Horse and Six Minutes to Midnight also need to be part of the slate.

Gareth Negus, Managing Director, Electric Picture House

The news was a shock, but not unexpected given the announcement of A Time To Die moving. There was already indications of the fragile state of exhibition when Tenet moved date and other ‘tentpole’ releases moved.  In my view the relationship between exhibition and this form of releasing had become too interlinked and the exhibition sector too dependent on it. I remember sitting in a presentation a few years ago from a major exhibitor who said that the future of cinema was bright because coming down the pipeline were 5 years worth of tentpole releases (already with release dates). I’m not working in that model, but I thought then “what about the inexorable logic of digital?”. Over the years, digital has been gnawing away at the tent pole, now Covid has come in with the chainsaw. The pandemic is changing everything, but there was an inevitability about the un-sustainability of a theatrical model based on exclusivity and tentpole releases in a digital era. We do need a rich exhibition ecology, think of the Great Barrier Reef here, where diverse film culture thrives. In order for this to happen, we need the range across commercial mainstream venues to standalone independents, but we need to work with distribution and the wider film community to move the pendulum away from the reliance on a monolithic film culture and develop the audience cinema-going appetite for a broader range of films. The appetite is there.

Mark Cosgrove, Cinema Curator, Watershed

Thankfully we’ve never been a cinema that has relied on the bigger releases to get us through the year; although we catch a break every now and then when a Mandy, a Parasite or an Uncut Gems breaks through and packs the house for weeks on end.  Alongside this, we rely heavily on a rotation of older films to keep things interesting and varied – some popular, some not so much – but with our doors being closed since March the key to our survival has been our audience.

Over the weekend we passed a huge milestone; 4,000 pre-sale tickets sold for our forthcoming programme!  When we couple that with a huge Membership uptake over Summer and the new web-store sales… well, we simply can’t believe how much people have all rallied around to support us. We feel missed. We feel loved. We feel supported. And we will do our best to continue on for as long as we possibly can.

Paul Vickery, Head of Programming, Prince Charles Cinema

As a distributor, all cinemas are important to us and the news of the UK’s largest cinema chain going into hibernation is bad news for everyone. The film industry is an eco-system, everyone will be hurt by this as a result. My concern is that other exhibitors might follow and exacerbate the problem of distributor reluctance to release new titles

Coverage of this issue has been focused on the blockbuster titles, but that’s a red herring. Cinemas re-opening and audiences returning was always going to be a tricky period and there has been the opportunity to release some mid-range titles during this time. While there has been the likes of Unhinged, 100% Wolf, After We Collided and Bill and Ted Face The Music, most distributors have been deliberating holding back titles. Theatrical recovery post lockdown has been thwarted by a failed supply line and if the theatrical marketplace is to be saved, we need all companies to step up and release films, otherwise we face the stark threat of not having any cinemas to return to.

Hamish Moseley, Managing Director, Altitude Films

The closure of the Picturehouse cinemas is bad news for us and I’d imagine other indie distributors too. We will be monitoring the situation but it could have implications for the releases we have currently scheduled in November/December. It all has a knock-on effect…

Marcel Kast, Head of Theatrical Sales, Dogwoof

In the most direct sense these closures won’t affect Eternal Beauty and our other upcoming releases as they are all day and date (theatrical and Premium VOD), so Cineworld, Odeon and Picturehouse would have had no plans to book them. We’ve obviously worked with these exhibitors before and we would plan to again in the future on certain projects, but the day and date model is our natural preference. It suits our releases for several reasons, but is obviously at odds with their general policies. However, we aren’t naïve enough to think that such a big change in film releasing in the UK won’t affect us at all. Though at times it feels very polarised, there is still crossover between the indie and studio/multiplex worlds and anything that affects the marketplace in a big way will surely have a knock-on effect. But exactly how it plays out is obviously yet to be seen.

In the meantime our hearts go out to staff and suppliers affected by closures, as well as the other distributors and their filmmakers whose immediate releases will be impacted, and to the audiences, whose ability to watch films in the way they are used to keeps changing. And here’s hoping that a pragmatic approach to film releasing and film exhibition moving forward across the board can allow for things to keep going and to foster a diverse marketplace where big and small films and a variety of ways of releasing them can continue to co-exist.

Philip Hoile, Head of Distribution, Bulldog Film Distribution

We were very saddened to hear the news of Cineworld/Picturehouse UK closures. With Signature releasing more theatrical content than ever, we were naturally disappointed that our films wouldn’t be shown in their cinemas after working closely with their brilliant team over the last few months. We have had very pleasing results recently with the likes of Dreambuilders, currently in its 12th week at the box-office at almost £500,000 , and The Elfkins looking on track to reach £200,000 in its first week. This proves that there is a huge appetite from UK moviegoers, even without the tentpole studio releases. We will continue to move forward with bringing our commercial, quality and cast driven films to the big screen with the likes of Honest Thief (Liam Neeson actioner) coming to cinemas nationwide (excluding Cineworld/PH) on October 23rd.

James Javes, Head of Sales, Signature Entertainment UK

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