Film Discussion

UK Cinema Closures: They Could Have Avoided This

Header image: “Facade of Cineworld at New Mersey Business Park” by Rodhullandemu, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 / cropped from original

Let’s get one thing unmistakably clear, first off: they wanted this.

The head offices of all the major UK cinema chains, backed by the UK Cinema Association, were lobbying for the government to let them reopen way back in May.  Hollywood studios and certain auteur filmmakers, emboldened by the heads of US cinema chains and the National Association of Theater Owners similarly lobbying for reopening, largely chose to hedge-bet all of their releases – for the most part moving back in successive tiny increments rather than pulling an F9 – so they could be ready to capitalise should TENET’s canary in the coalmine have whistled glorious tunes.

Current and former Tory government members have been publicly insisting and bloviating that the economy needed to reopen back to normal, even if that required actively ditching public safety measures, since the second our much too late national lockdown went into effect; focused as they are on short-term economic shots and woefully insufficient furlough schemes to bother about the consequences both long-term and non-economic from not properly trying to protect businesses and people during this pandemic.

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So, once more for the people in the back: they wanted this.  And now that the consequences of their desires have become abundantly clear to them, as they had been to everyone in the trenches working for those responsible over the last several months, they’re abandoning the lowest on the totem pole, the poor health-risking often-zero-hours employees who keep cinemas ticking, to get fucked over.

On Friday night, not even 24 hours after the film’s marketing machine whirred into life again, Universal and MGM pulled the plug on No Time to Die’s November UK release, delaying the film until April 2021 “in order to be seen by a worldwide theatrical audience”.  Bond 25 marks the last domino to fall on a chain that’s been demolished one by one since UK cinemas reopened in July expectant for the return of big blockbusters to keep them afloat.

Sure, TENET opened and did pretty ok in UK cinemas given that there’s a deadly plague going about, but because it didn’t make pre-plague levels of money – and much more specifically because its US opening was severely underwhelming and its tail has been disastrous for a $200 mil+ tentpole – every other big name that cinemas had been relying on to entice wary patrons back flew the coop.

Wonder Woman 1984, shunted to Christmas.  Mulan, removed from cinemas entirely outside of China and dumped on overpriced VOD.  The King’s Man, delayed to February 2021.  A Quiet Place: Part II, April.  Top Gun: Maverick, July.  Black Widow, one month out from its planned UK release, was delayed til May.  Dune, Soul, Coming 2 America, and Death on the Nile are all still planned to come out in December; I would not take that bet.

In response to the Bond delay, Cineworld is closing down again.  5,500 UK jobs are now at risk because the woefully inadequate furlough scheme ends on Halloween (and effectively ends on Thursday since the government stops contributing to furloughed workers’ wages then).  5,500 employees who, fun fact, first found out about this through The Sunday Times’ breaking of the story, not from Cineworld’s own communication.

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VUE have refused comment on whether they’re planning to remain open now, same with ODEON, but do you really think the complete closure of one of Britain’s three major cinema chains is going to inspire studios to continue releasing any films whatsoever when one-third of cinemas have gone up in smoke?  The decision is going to be made for them both.  In America, AMC Theaters, the nation’s largest cinema chain, is reportedly expected to run out of money within six months because nobody is going to the cinema and it’s costing them more to stay open due to that fact.

TENET tried but its performance – which, again, in International territories has actually done pretty alright for a deeply divisive artistic misfire released in the midst of a global pandemic – kicked off a vicious cycle nobody can pull out of.  The same number of people who made mega-expensive tentpole blockbusters successful in pre-pandemic times don’t want to risk going to cinemas in the middle of a pandemic, so the big expensive tentpole blockbusters cinemas rely on to recoup operating costs won’t make the studios as much money as they would like.

So, the studios won’t release anything big, which means that even those who want to go back to a cinema during a pandemic won’t go because there’s nothing on, which means the cinemas start losing money because there’s nothing big on, which means the studios won’t release anything cos low weekend takings from there being nothing except The Elfkins makes it seem like nobody wants to go to the cinema, so cinemas keep losing money, so studios keep delaying films, and on and on and on and on and on and on it goes.

And, to be clear, I get it.  I get the lose-lose scenario going on here for the studios.  Nothing works.  The grand VOD experiment that seemed like it was gonna provide a good lifeline for studios with blockbusters on the backburner when Trolls: World Tour smashed past $100 mil in rental fees back in April, has instead greatly shown its limitations with Bill & Ted Face the Music only at $35 mil after a month and Disney conspicuously refusing to release any numbers whatsoever for Mulan at the moment – various independent analytics groups have the early numbers as low as $33.5 mil and as high as $93 mil, but neither are great for a movie with $200 million in production costs.

Cinemas, meanwhile, are basically a guaranteed loss for studios.  On a personal anecdotal level, I’ve been exactly three times since they re-opened and I’ve never been in a screening with more than 10 people.  You aren’t going to fully recoup your costs this year even if you release your biggest hitters.  Hell, you aren’t going to next year, either, cos if the lack of trust in returning to cinemas whilst the virus is still out there doesn’t kill you, the incoming global economic depression that means even those who’d like to go can’t afford to will.

On a personal view, one shared by Set The Tape management, I don’t think anyone should be going to cinemas.  Yes, even though I went myself in flailing effort for some normalcy, I think that cinemas should have remained closed full stop.  I think that all films should have been immediately delayed to a nebulous “next year,” instead of constant micro-delays that function more like marketing alerts and provide constant stringing-along kicks to the dick of the cinemas that studios claim to care so much about.

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I think the cinema chains and head offices could have taken all of the time and money they wasted lobbying the government to let them reopen whilst conspicuously trying to layoff a bunch of employees at the first available opportunity, and instead spent that on lobbying for greater financial support that they could pass on to the poor fucked-over workers who spent the last few months unnecessarily risking their lives for minuscule pay in order to provide a little peace of mind and security as things get even worse.  I think that the government could have easily put such economic safety measures in place by PROPERLY TAXING THE WEALTHY SO THAT BILLIONAIRES DON’T BECOME EVEN RICHER DURING A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

But… if they HAD to reopen the cinemas (and again they did not HAVE to), then they should’ve at least fully committed to it.  Accepted that international sales were where the main source of income is going to be from for the time being.  Accepted that early international rollouts were going to be the norm until the US elected somebody competent to lead the charge.  Accepted that we weren’t going back to pre-pandemic box office sales for at least the next half-decade.  Released those big films to cinemas on planned dates and, in the times where that may not have been possible, remained in constant communication with cinemas so that they weren’t blindsided by major landscape-shifting delays hours after confirming their pre-order (allegedly).

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And both the industry and the UK government should have accepted that the situation surrounding the virus can and does turn on a dime, so there should still be some kind of safety net for cinema chains and their improperly-compensated employees risking their lives on non-essential services when things changed.  Maybe also see CEOs and executives up and down the chain take pay cuts to help out, just spit-balling.

It may not be as simple as either of those absolute options, I am aware.  I imagine there will be people more in the know who read this and insist that it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be.  Perhaps that’s fair.  But to those I would respond thusly: how has this, the worst of both options, been any better?  Are independent cinemas supposed to be comforted by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s absolutely pitiful cash boost of £650,000 and calls for people to go to the cinema, when there’s nothing to show and £650,000 split 42 ways is *types into calculator* fuck all?

Was it really worth sacrificing TENET for information about cinematic viability anyone could’ve told you about back in May without having to toy with the lives of workers and debt-riddled businesses?  Was the frankly minuscule and extremely short-lived bump in Cineworld share prices upon reopening in August really worth the calamitous fallout you’re now stuck in, and the likely financial and mental ruin your thousands of employees are going to suffer through?

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This could have been avoided.  That, honestly, is the recurring truth of the worst that this pandemic has caused overall.  If at any point over the course of the last 40 years of conservative and neo-liberal short-sighted, deregulated, selfish capitalistic greed by those in charge had been interrupted or reversed, so many livelihoods, businesses, culture, and most importantly of all lives might have been saved.  Even if it had taken until things were properly kicking off in late February for an effective response that broke from business-as-usual late-capitalist tradition and took this virus seriously, the worst may still have been avoided.

But nobody did that.  Not the studios, not the head offices of the major cinema chains, not the government.  Even now, they fail to do that.  The Prime Minister went on TV yesterday to tell the public that they need to be “fearless” in the face of the virus, effectively putting the looming economic collapse in the hands of the public for not going out and spending enough to keep things running.  Warner Bros. still have Dune and WW84 listed for Christmas.

And the ones that are going to suffer, really going to suffer, are those who were forced back to work – assuming they didn’t have to reapply for their old jobs due to being sacked instead of furloughed when the pandemic started – to perform non-essential jobs in potentially-infectious enclosed spaces on primarily zero-hours contracts with no say in the matter, and who largely found out about their being fucked through social media rather than even a courtesy email.  That’s what makes me angriest about all this.  They, the studios and the head offices and the government, wanted this.

And with just a little consideration of the potential consequences – they could have avoided this.

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