Lockdown lessons: 13 UK film industry leaders on coping with Covid

With the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down the film industry, we surveyed a range of organisations to gauge the impact on film culture in the UK, and to learn what the future holds.

BFI CEO Ben Roberts on UK film and the Covid crisis

Isabel Stevens , Trevor Johnston

Credit: Michele Marconi for Sight & Sound

Kelly Jeffs

CEO, Light House, Wolverhampton

Jeffs has spent most of the last two years firefighting to keep the two-screen independent venue alive after the local authority cut support and the local university stopped hiring the cinemas for its film studies course.

The impact of Covid-19 was devastating from 12 March until the enforced closure of cinemas on the 20th. Light House was taking £100 per day, instead of an average £1,500. So in one week the cinema lost perhaps £10,500 in income. Regular revenue from ticket sales, café/bar wet goods and food came to a complete standstill.

From around 12 March most external clients who had booked future parties, events, office space hire, workshops, etc, were cancelling until further notice, adding to the catastrophic problems of income generation. Fundraising events have been put on hold, resulting in a prospective loss of donations of over £25,000.

The trustees decided to furlough all staff from 20 March. That hasn’t stopped me thinking about the way forward for Light House. If we can get funding from the BFI Resilience Fund to support my costs to return to work, I can begin discussions about how Light House can maintain social distancing and safeguard staff and public, and investigate how to bring in a sustainable revenue stream without compromising the quality of what we offer. It is a long road ahead. What will happen depends on what audiences want to do and how safe they feel, especially the older people who are a large part of the Light House audience. But we have always adapted to challenges.

Small indie cinemas will need to find more financial support to bridge the gap while they rebuild audiences. Another factor to consider, though, is the growth of streaming, which was already beginning to impact box-office across the world. Cinemas won’t die out, but this is a strange time we are in and will definitely be a talking-point in cinema history.

Top lockdown watches: The Greasy Strangler (2016), Border (2018), re-runs of Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-).

 

Susannah Shaw

CEO, Curzon Community Cinema, Clevedon, Somerset

The independent single-screen cinema in North Somerset (not part of the Curzon chain) opened in 1912 and was rebuilt in 1922 without – legend has it losing a day’s screening, giving it a claim to be the oldest continually running purpose-built cinema in the UK.

When we shut the doors on 20 March, we realised this was the first time the Curzon has closed in 108 years – that was a pretty emotional moment. We had just begun a vital roof restoration project costing £659,000, with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Reaching Communities and other trusts and foundations, with an additional £130,000 from the community. While this has been on hold I have been doing weekly checks of the building, looking for new leaks and other issues that can arise in a neglected building. We had already put £60,000 of our reserves into this project, and now are putting the remaining £40,000 into keeping the business afloat. This leaves us with just enough to cover bankruptcy, should it come to that. We are losing around £30,000 a month.

We are looking askance at the government suggestion of a July re-opening. Redesigning the cinema to include spaced-out seating, acrylic screens and hazard tape, with ‘occupied’ lighting outside our toilets, could put off all but our most loyal audience. Taking into account the fact that the roof-work will still be underway in July and August, so we can only hold evening screenings anyway, this may just not be viable. However, we have a remarkably faithful audience. We are planning a survey later this month to gauge public anxiety levels over returning to cinemas and other entertainment venues.

All our efforts will be needed to stay positive and keep this cinema afloat. We can rely on our experience – this cinema has survived both wars, the Spanish Flu, the advent of VHS and DVD and even Netflix. Every time the demise of cinema is forecast, our experience shows that with ingenuity and a desire to diversify to keep our audiences interested, we can continue to pull them in. I am confident that, unless this virus flares up again, we can make it through, and by May next year we’ll be seeing numbers grow.

Any cinema that only has one screen to depend on has to be prepared to duck and dive and grab opportunities. I think the most vulnerable are either end of the spectrum – the huge multiplexes and the smaller independents. Cineworld has high levels of debt and others have been suffering from dwindling audiences. I have seen two small independents close down this year, before the pandemic. The art of survival has to be based on the celebration of the shared experience.

Top lockdown watch: I enjoyed Portrait of a Lady on Fire for its intimacy and colour. But give me any Fellini film!

No man’s land: Céline Sciamma on Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The many faces of Federico Fellini – part one: the neorealist

 

David Evans

Rex Cinema, Wareham, Dorset

Evans is chair of the Purbeck Film Charitable Trust which runs the Rex, one of the oldest continuously running independent cinemas in the country, and the Purbeck Film Festival.

The Rex (called the Empire until 1963) has run continuously through wartime and peacetime, hard times and more prosperous times until 20 March, when we were forced to close by the government – the first time we have closed for any length of time in 99 years! We had to close down the cinema at short notice, cancel booked films, furlough our two admin staff and cleaner. It’s been frantic: refunding advance sales, putting the cinema into hibernation, picking up tasks from the furloughed staff. Shutting down the projection equipment was heartbreaking, not knowing when we might be able to reopen for our amazingly loyal patrons.

The impact has been disastrous. We now have no income but still have fixed costs such as insurance, IT, security, utilities.

We have a three-strand strategy for emerging from lockdown: first, minimise costs and maximise grant income during lockdown – for example, we have negotiated a much better insurance deal. Secondly, continue with the refurbishment work we had started just before lockdown, so that we present an even better experience for our patrons when we reopen (although project-managing the refurbishment, in particular sourcing building materials, has been a nightmare). Thirdly, we have been maintaining contact with our patrons and have started to develop our programme for next year. The completion of refurbishment will provide an excellent basis for our relaunch, currently planned for the end of the year.

The main issue for us in an old building is meeting social distancing rules. Our auditorium capacity shrinks to 20 per cent if the two-metre rule is applied. That makes the viability of reopening questionable until there is a relaxation of the distancing rules.

We are fortunate that we own the freehold of our building and pay no rent. Also, we are debt-free – all our improvements are funded from grants and donations. Some cinemas are not in such a fortunate position. Cinemas will need specific help from the government over the next year. They are a vital part of our culture and the heart of our communities, and it is vital that government does everything it can to help them through what is going to be a very challenging year.

Top lockdown watch: I’ve really appreciated the time to watch some great movies again, such as Cinema Paradiso (1988) and The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), which capture the atmosphere of the Rex so well.

Cinephilia down the ages: a Museum of the Everyday

 

Holli Keeble

Tyneside Cinema

Keeble is CEO of the popular arthouse cinema, the north-east’s centre for independent film.

Tyneside Cinema places great value on independence. Our business model has sought to minimise reliance on public funding, but the current situation has left us exposed. Of our £4.5 million turnover, just £147,000 comes from the BFI, our revenue funder, with most coming through trading, and particularly our on-site food and beverage outlets. So when our doors closed in March, our income simply stopped, but many of our running costs haven’t. That’s the problem we’re facing right now. I’m grateful we’ve kept a small team working, and been able to furlough the rest of the team.

It’s been crucial in this period to look after our people and our finances, and maintain the relationship with our audiences. We’ve turned to digital platforms to sustain our popular quizzes and online film clubs, and provide regular film recommendations across streaming and TV. It’s clear people still want to connect with others via our cinema. What has been particularly moving is the response to the #myTynesideCinema fundraising campaign that we launched the day we closed our building. As well as donations, people have been sharing what our cinema means to them, which has been humbling, touching and galvanising. It’s such a strong expression of the love and support out there for us.

I’m looking at our long-term strategy. As a charity, how might we deliver our social mission differently? What is our role in the community? How do we make sure the most vulnerable are part of this? Arts and culture must no longer be weighted towards the privileged – that must be an outcome. Participation and working with and in our communities I think will become even more important. There’s a chance to emerge stronger in some ways, but it will require all parties to surrender to a properly different way of working. I’m genuinely hopeful that film and cinema have a positive role to play in the reconfiguration of a more equitable, kind and connected society and a vibrant cultural sector.

Top lockdown watch: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). The astonishing and moving sunset dance to Miles Davis is simply made for a cinema, though.

A culture preserved in Amber
Burning first look: Lee Chang-dong’s film sets a noirish love triangle alight

 

Ben Luxford

BFI Audiences Fund

Ben Luxford is head of UK Audiences, with a range of responsibilities across distribution, film festivals and film programming all designed to grow audiences for British and international independent film.

There’s been a very real and immediate impact to the exhibition sector, so we quickly repurposed and reimagined the Film Audience Network (FAN) fund to help respond to that, creating the FAN Resilience Fund (£1.3 million to support cinemas and festivals, distributed via local film hubs). We’re trying to ensure that those most in need get the support they require. Cinemas and exhibitors are in an incredibly precarious position. It’s an unfortunate reminder just what fine margins they work to.

In some ways isolation has made us more connected. Distributors and funded partners such as MASSIVE Cinema and Bird’s Eye View’s Reclaim the Frame have reimagined themselves as curators, broadcasters and direct-to-consumers. BFI Player partnered with some leading national cinemas to curate a selection of titles and keep their audiences connected.

I’m certainly looking to ensure there’s a positive legacy. We can already see how much these independent venues and festivals mean to their communities and how a community isn’t necessarily a local thing. Access has been a key theme. Whether that’s hanging out with Jean-Luc Godard or Rapman on Instagram or being able to attend Flatpack or Sheffield Doc/Fest while staying at home, these are things I hope are here to stay.

Top lockdown watch: I finally got to see Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade (2018). If you like a bit of dystopian Ozploitation cyberpunk science fiction then get on that.

 

Georgia Stride

Film Hub Scotland

Part of the BFI Film Audience Network, the Hub’s role is to respond to the needs of film exhibitor members (cinemas, film festivals, community cinemas, film clubs and more). Stride is the Knowledge and Network Coordinator.

We have paused all funding for screenings in physical spaces but repurposed our Pitch Pot fund, which supports additional activity for screenings, to help members who want to move activity online – for instance, the Glasgow-based feminist film festival Femspectives is hosting Feminists in Quarantine: Femspectives at Home. We are also developing schemes to mitigate issues lockdown might have created, such as checking technical equipment that hasn’t been used for months. We have a UK-wide scheme for all FAN members, called Advice and Experience, which pairs organisations with experts across a variety of specialisms.

If you have a local cinema that you love and value, make sure you show your support if you can. This could be buying gift vouchers, engaging with a specific fundraising campaign they’ve got or donating to the Mubi UK Cinemas Fund.

There have been some positives in this tough time: a lot of sharing and collaboration between organisations. With screenings restricted and activity taking place online, people have been making screenings and content as accessible as possible, including captions, Zoom meetings with BSL interpretation, audio description, and a lot of screenings that are free or ‘Pay What You Can’. The recovery of cinema-going might be slow, but it will come back.

Top lockdown watch: I have very fond memories of seeing the documentary Minding the Gap (2018) last year at the Glasgow Film Theatre and just saw it’s on BBC iPlayer.

 

Clare Binns

Picturehouse Cinemas

Operating across 25 sites, Picturehouse Cinemas is a key UK exhibitor and distributor. Binns is joint managing director of the company.

Both our cinemas and our film distribution arm are shut down, but we are pouring resources into ensuring our cinemas are safe and we have dynamic programming when we do reopen. The strategy is to get cinemas safely opened and great films released, and everyone is working towards that. We will get there.

In a year’s time, I see us back up and running, opening new sites, showing a wide range of film, and serving up great food and drinks. I cannot imagine this marks the end of cinemas or the big screen experience. If anything it proves to me – having watched a film most nights since we shut up shop – that cinema is where it’s at.

Top lockdown watches: Lots of classics, from On the Waterfront (1954) to Fitzcarraldo (1981). I just wish we could watch them on our cinema screens again. Long Live Cinema!

Gallery: five new London cinemas
Cinema showman Tony Jones looks back

 

Catharine Des Forges

Independent Cinema Office

Des Forges is the director of the ICO, the UK national body supporting the independent cinema sector.

Half of us are furloughed and the rest are working from home, but we’ve been able to deliver courses and events online, including an industry session at Vilnius Film Festival, and for Film Hub South East, our labs with producers/ directors/sound designers/composers, etc, have had a phenomenal response. Online delivery enables you to be very inclusive, since it’s open to everyone regardless of income or location.

Some screens have closed indefinitely and many events have been postponed. We’re discussing how to deliver events in a time of social distancing. Meanwhile, we’ve been working on the BFI’s FAN Covid-19 Resilience Fund. Our job is to give independent cinemas intelligence and advice so they can emerge in the best shape possible. The crisis has already affected the industry enormously – but will change be permanent? I hope we can realise the importance of building and sustaining communities.

In terms of cinemas and the theatrical model, we’re all looking at this and seeing opportunities as well as threats. I hope we will see some rethinking, in the light of the present crisis and also in the context of climate change.

Top lockdown watch: So far it’s the High School Musical trilogy (2006-08), which tells you who rules the remote in our house.

 

Katharine Ford

The Cinema Museum, London

Housed in the former Lambeth Workhouse, once home to Charlie Chaplin, the Cinema Museum is a unique private collection of cinema memorabilia, books and vintage film tracing the history of cinema; it also hosts regular screenings and cinephile events. Katharine Ford is the deputy director.

The Cinema Museum has been battling for over a decade to secure its own future and the future of its Grade 2-listed building. We were in the midst of a David and Goliath battle with the new property-developer owners to save our cinemas, collections and buildings when Covid-19 struck. The virus found us in year 13 (!) of negotiations to turn our short-term one-year leases into a freehold, so we can get our building mended and make our business model sustainable. This was to be the year that, finally, it would all be resolved. The last thing we needed was a global pandemic.

Negotiations with the developers are back on hold, and who knows what their business model will look like after this crisis. The battle goes on: we still need signatures for our Save the Cinema Museum petition and funds to enable us to reopen (www.justgiving.com/ cinemamuseum).

Top lockdown watch: For classic and uplifting go straight to A Matter of Life and Death (1946); for funny and uplifting, Florence Foster Jenkins (2016); beautiful and uplifting, Three Colours Blue (1993). Basically, do all you can to be uplifted!

London’s Cinema Museum is keeping cinephilia alive. Can it be saved?

 

Eve Gabereau

Modern Films

Gabereau is the managing director and founder of the female-led production, distribution and event cinema company.

The biggest impact of Covid has been the closure of cinemas and the shutdown of production. We are a theatrical and event-driven company, relying on cinemas and partner spaces to be open. Sixty per cent of our revenue comes from box-office returns, so taking them out wipes out the backbone of what we do.

We’ve had to react quickly to make the most of the situation, launching a streaming platform for our new release The Perfect Candidate, then extending the offering for other distributors to access. We’re looking at how audiences access films and related content, including Q&As, within a growing framework that’s viable and sustainable. As part of this, we’re working with cinemas on co-operative marketing then apportioning back to them part of the proceeds from transactions on Modern Films.

In future, we will likely acquire fewer films and concentrate more on event cinema screenings and cross-arts partnerships. A positive outcome from the pandemic should be around humanity and community. Not everything has to be about financial growth. Maybe stability, making the most of what we have and being more sustainable in human and economic resources, is the way forward.

Top lockdown watch: I have binge-watched Normal People and Unorthodox and felt reassured that great stories are being told and will continue to be.

The Perfect Candidate review: a political fable fuelled by optimism

 

Mehelli Modi

Second Run DVD

This London-based boutique label has released numerous international films on DVD and latterly Blu-ray, including many restored Eastern bloc treasures. It also issues select theatrical titles.

In many ways things have essentially stayed the same, since we are a small team and can work from home. An unexpected positive is that we have more time to stay in touch with filmmakers, and to respond to messages from supporters.

Our theatrical release of Pedro Costa’s exquisite film Vitalina Varela unfortunately had to be curtailed within a week. But we have a renewed commitment to enlarge the audience for our kind of cinema. We’ll be able to continue presenting releases of films we love and care about, but we’ve also been thinking how we can help all those special independent UK cinemas who’ve always supported us. We’re planning to trial a Second Run streaming service, which will show films from our home video catalogue, and we want to give an equal share of our income to independent cinemas that have been closed. We hope it will amount to a contribution, with our thanks, to reflect how important cinema is to communities everywhere.

Top lockdown watch: Fred Astaire dancing in the afternoon, Akira Kurosawa in the evening.

Living memory: Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela

 

Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor

Producer

Gharoro-Akpojotor’s Joi Productions has a company focus on queer, black and femaleled work, and produced Andrew ‘Rapman’ Onwubolu’s recent drama Blue Story.

It feels like because we’re on lockdown, people assume that we should always be available, so I think I’ve been working more on development process and having more meetings. Production-wise, there’s not much I can do until we know more. Writers are also dealing with the emotional stress of the lockdown. So deadlines are being missed, and I don’t think it would seem right to pressure them in the current circumstances. In the meantime, I’ve started offering to pay for artist wellbeing sessions to help them cope mentally with the lockdown.

The situation has made me think about how to find that work/life balance. If the crisis does change the way we work, it could be for the best. There may be shorter or just easier work days because of Covid. But once there’s a vaccine, I suspect people will go back to the way they used to work. The cost of insurance will be the main thing that will affect emerging filmmakers – that and questions around PPE on set.

Top lockdown watch: Westworld Seasons 1-3 (2016-).

Rapman on the road to Blue Story: “If you can prove it online then why go the film school route?”

 

Charlotte Tillieux

Mubi

Tillieux is director of distribution at Mubi, which combines a subscription streaming service, a theatrical distributor for arthouse features, and an online magazine, The Notebook. It operates globally from London, New York, Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai.

The impact is that we’ve seen accelerated subscriber growth and increased viewing across all countries. But our planned theatrical releases have been affected. Cinemas shut down during the UK theatrical run of our Brazilian siege thriller Bacurau, and we decided to bring its launch on Mubi forward to meet audience demand.

Since March we’ve worked with 400 cinemas and cultural institutions around the world, providing free 90-day Mubi subscriptions to give access to great cinema during this time. Moreover, we launched the UK Cinema Fund with the BFI, which is a fundraising campaign aiming to raise £100,000 for independent cinemas and festivals urgently needing support.

The pandemic has led us to collaborate quickly with partners and think about different ways to bring cinema to audiences online. Pablo Larraín’s Ema, initially planned for a theatrical release, we offered for free on Mubi for 24 hours across 60 territories, creating a moment for audiences to experience the film on the platform. It can’t be predicted how the pandemic will affect theatrical windows in the long term. Interesting times ahead.

Top lockdown watch: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the last film I watched in the cinema. It’s beautiful and I can only recommend it in these challenging times.

Bacurau review: a tough and timeless Brazilian frontier western
Ema review: Pablo Larraín lights some kind of delirious inferno

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