Ten key cinema workers on the way out of lockdown

To mark the anniversary of the first coronavirus closures, we invited a range of voices from across UK film exhibition to share their experiences and hopes for the future.

18 March 2021

By Katie McCabe, Isabel Stevens

A mask-wearing front-of-house staff member cleaning cinema seats.
Sight and Sound

It's a year since the first lockdown began in the UK. As the vaccine rolls out and the prospect of normal life appears on the horizon, we return to Sight & Sound’s editorial campaign #MyDreamPalace to survey the people who make cinemas work, from projectionists to front-of-house workers to programmers. We asked them to reflect on the momentous changes that have taken place this year, with cinemas shuttered for long periods, and to offer their predictions and dreams for the future of the big screen experience.

1. Toki Allison

Toki Allison
My dream is that we don’t go back to normal.

Allison supports cinemas and arts organisations to be more inclusive.

My dream is that we don’t go back to normal. For people who don’t have physical mobility or who have caring responsibilities or are rurally located, a world has been opened up with the access to content available now. But the disability communities I’ve been talking to feel quite frustrated – why wasn’t this available before?

Before the pandemic, dementia- and autism-friendly screenings were fairly normalised. Now that has taken a back seat because capacity in cinemas has been cut. So there’s got to be a lot of momentum to get that work going again. But people will have higher expectations now because they’ve seen accessible online offers – whether its BSL, captions or audio description. But my opinion is that it shouldn’t just be exhibitors that pay for this, it should be happening at the production end too.

My other worry is that there may be a ghettoisation of accessible cinema on to online platforms because cinemas will need to cut costs. My argument is always: do less and do it right. If you can’t afford to put access into your events, do fewer events.

There is a vulnerability that people have all felt now that hopefully will make us think about these issues more in the future. We could be entering a golden era of new cinema times.

2. Stuart Brown

Stuart Brown

Head of programme and acquisitions, BFI

We’re going to see an explosion of arts and culture.

During the pandemic – apart from a few months at the end of 2020 – the BFI Southbank’s programme of films and events has been solely online on BFI Player.

Cinemas have been shut for most of a year, which is a disaster. At the same time, it was one of the strongest years for British and independent cinema that I can remember. We released two British films, Mogul Mowgli and County Lines, just as cinemas shut again in November, and then again in December: they were both the most watched premium VOD films (where the price to see the film is roughly the same as what you would pay for a cinema ticket) we’ve ever had.

It was also a year when everyone was fascinated with what’s happening with cinema. I remember I was watching Newsnight or the 10 o’clock news, and they did a whole section on Saint Maud. A little independent film release would never get that coverage in pre-Covid times. When we get past this pandemic I do think we’re going to see an explosion of arts and culture, a bit like there was in Weimar Germany. And there is unfortunately going to be a recession, but cinemas traditionally do really, really well, during a recession as it’s a cheap night out.

3. Jacqueline Chell

Jacqueline Chell

Head of programme and new business, Cinema For All

People will feel safe in their community cinemas.

Cinema For All supports the 1,500 volunteer-led cinemas in the UK. Visit mycommunitycinema.org.uk to find your local community cinema or to set one up.

The watching of films in a venue part of a community cinema has stopped, but the community part hasn’t. There’s a group in Leigh, in the north-west, who’ve been doing what they call “orange bags of cinema sunshine” – curated packages of DVDs led by the taste of the person who’s watching the film. And they stick in a bar of Fruit & Nut. Other community cinemas have been doing food and clothing drives or seed swaps.

We’ve also been helping members develop their online output. We show mostly super-independent films. The Scottish drama Dirt Road to Lafayette (2018) has been very popular. We’ve seen a massive upswing in community cinemas over the past six years and increasingly younger people are setting them up. Once the lockdown is over I think it will appeal to people because they are going to feel safer in their communities. If you take a village hall, you can seat people cabaret-style within their households. Also, people are going through a lot of financial hardship at the moment and our average ticket price is £5.40.

Our biggest battle is letting people know that community cinema exists. It’s like a secret little Narnia and there are so many of them.

4. Julie

A man wearing a mask stands outside a closed Cineworld cinema.

Cineworld front-of-house employee

Cinemas haven’t been sustainable for workers.

Cineworld is the world’s second-largest cinema chain, with 9,518 screens across 790 sites in 10 countries. Julie (surname withheld) was one of 5,500 UK Cineworld staff who in October 2020 found out their jobs were at risk from an article in the Sunday Times [paywalled]. She was subsequently put on furlough when the government job retention scheme was extended.

Cineworld pays around 20p over the minimum wage but the job retention scheme only covers 80 per cent of our wages. I’m single, so I can cope a little better than most. It’s hard enough to feed a family when you’re just paid over the minimum wage, let alone on 20 per cent less. And the amount you are paid fluctuates a lot if you’re on a zero-hours contract; it’s based on the amount you earned in that same period in the previous year.

The Cineworld Action Group formed as a result of the company letting their staff go in March, apart from those people with three years’ service – they were kept on 40 per cent pay. We wrote an open letter to CEO Mooky Greidinger, which got lots of press coverage. We were then all put on the furlough scheme instead. Initially the Cineworld Action Group just covered Scotland but now it covers every venue in the UK.

Covid has shown just how desperate the situation is for people who work front of house in cinemas. How cinemas have functioned hasn’t been sustainable from a worker’s perspective. A boycott of Cineworld by the public wouldn’t help, as we would be the first people affected. But it’s important to keep the public pressure on the company to do better by us. There needs to be a recognition of the union at Cineworld and they need to pay the UK Living Wage. It was not surprising to hear recently that Cineworld shareholders approved a scheme to pay executives up to £208m in bonuses but it’s disgusting that they profit so much at a time when so many people are struggling. When the pandemic is over, I don’t want to go back to work there. But what other option do I have?

5. Kris Elstrop

Kris Elstrop

Senior projectionist, Broadway Cinema, Douglas, Isle of Man

Since reopening, people have been keen to stop and chat.

The Broadway in Douglas reopened in early February as the island’s lockdown was lifted.

It’s been good since [the Broadway] reopened. People are eager to come out and do things again, and we’ve been trying to find a popular cross section of films. We’ve recently been screening older films, La La Land and West Side Story.

Our audience has been more vocal. We’ve been making lists of things they come up with, the classic rereleases that we could run. We do have a lot of regulars, they’ve said how much they’ve missed it. We’ve got no social distancing or anything like that. It’s optional to wear face masks since the circuit-breaker finished. The borders are officially shut. There’s no community [Covid] cases at the moment.

I’m not sure worldwide if that picture will be the same as us… I’m just hopeful for the other cinemas that they have a resurgence in popularity. There’s a lot more interaction than there would be normally, people are keen to stop and chat, rather than just going straight into finding their seats. Life has pretty much returned to some sort of normality on the island.

6. Delphine Lievens

Delphine Lievens

Senior box-office analyst, Gower Street Analytics

The multiplexes are most under threat.

Gower Street provides data analysis and box-office forecasts for studios and distributors.

To be honest, 2022 is when life will return to normal. In the short term we’re unlikely to have theatre and big festivals, so people will want to return to cinemas. But cinemas need to think more about their approach.

The multiplexes are the ones most under threat. They can’t just go back to normal, to a popcorn-selling venue that just happens to show movies. Some multiplexes are programmed with the assistance of algorithms. Parasite showed just how many people will go and see a South Korean film, even when South Korean films very rarely get released in the UK. They need to be a little more open to taking risks. And it makes sense because they’ve got more screens.

The industry needs to adapt to a place where cinema and streaming coexist, a bit like the music industry has done. People will cherish cinemas that feel part of a community. There’s no reason why most cinemas can’t do that. A lot of people only have a local multiplex, so there would be a genuine benefit.

7. Umit Mesut and Liam Saint-Pierre

Liam Saint-Pierre and Umit Mesut

Co-founders of 16mm film club Ciné-Real

All cinemas should try and project on film.

In 2011, projectionist Umit Mesut and director Liam Saint-Pierre created Ciné-Real, which became a movie night at The Castle Cinema in Clapton, east London, that exclusively shows films on 16mm. Umit is also the owner of Umit & Son, a celluloid film shop nearby.

Liam Saint-Pierre: When cinemas first got shut down, it was quite tough that we lost Ciné-Real. One of the things I found interesting when we started screening after the first lockdown was, it was really popular. All cinemas should try and project on film, because it makes it a different experience for people, and it helps to keep cinemas going. I think it’s about people coming together, having the intermissions and the chats. It’s not about the latest releases for us.

Umit Mesut: I’m sure there will come a point where we will pull out of this. I really do think it might be – and I hope I’m wrong – that the bigger chains will struggle. Our programming [at Ciné-Real] is a little bit different. If I didn’t get the business grant [for Umit & Son film shop], I probably would have gone under. It is a shop, but it’s also my life. Film has always been my life. I would sneak into the projection booth of my grandad’s cinema in Cyprus. I was fascinated by the reels going around, the clutter and the noise of the film. I soldier on, because I love what I do.

8. Mikaela Smith

Mikaela Smith

Programme manager, Showroom Cinema, Sheffield

Independent films need space.

The Showroom is Sheffield’s only independently programmed cinema.

I’m hopeful that during the pandemic people have been developing their film tastes and interests while they’ve been stuck at home, so when cinemas reopen they might be interested in seeing a wider range of films.

When we reopened in September, Rocks was very successful (relatively speaking) and was particularly popular with younger audiences. We saw a lot of repertory films like La Haine and [Bong Joon Ho’s 2003] Memories of Murder do well with them too, which is really promising. Distributors seemed to be taking more risks; it wasn’t just films with Judi Dench in that were coming out. We had the opportunity to show a much more exciting and diverse programme, with films like Shirley, Mogul Mowgli and Miss Juneteenth.

There is a worry that independent films, which could find a significant audience if they’re given enough space, might get pushed to the side if all these big glitzy films that have been held back all come out at once. We’ve only got four screens, so it may be difficult to prioritise those films but I think in that brief period of reopening we learnt that it’s important to do that.

9. Alison Strauss

Alison Strauss

Programmer of the Hippodrome cinema and director of the Hippfest festival, Falkirk, Scotland

People will value our curation.

The Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema, is currently closed due to Covid restrictions. The 10th edition of silent cinema festival Hippfest was cancelled last year and is taking place online this year from 17-21 March.

Our costs during Covid have been minimised because of the government job retention scheme and the cinema resilience funds. When all those funds stop, the bottom line is you can’t survive without the audience. The fact that the Hippodrome is a vintage cinema stands us in very good stead when we reopen. There’s so much choice on streaming platforms and I think people will value the curation.

A good outcome of the pandemic is that the virtual festival can be more affordable. We’ve kept the price of passes low – £20 for 5 days; £5 concession – to encourage people who might be a bit wary of films without dialogue. Our cinema is quite small – we can only seat just under 200 people – but the festival is available to anyone in the UK, Europe and North America. This year we’re able to include orchestral accompaniment like the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the 1928 drama Underground.

It’s been a tough year for the town, and one of the aims of Hippfest was to contribute to the visitor economy. We’re taking the opportunity to show new audiences Bo’ness and Falkirk by filming the virtual introductions around the county.

Further reading

My dream palaces: Edgar Wright revels in a life at the movies

By Edgar Wright

My dream palaces: Edgar Wright revels in a life at the movies

Seven silent self-willed heroines at HippFest 2019

By Pamela Hutchinson

Seven silent self-willed heroines at HippFest 2019

“We’re on a war footing”: independent cinemas stand their ground against the pandemic

By Charles Gant

“We’re on a war footing”: independent cinemas stand their ground against the pandemic

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

By Isabel Stevens and Trevor Johnston

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

Let there be projector light: 80 films that take us inside cinemas

By Thomas Flew

Let there be projector light: 80 films that take us inside cinemas

Other things to explore

World of influence

From The Descent to Caspar David Friedrich: the influences on Stone Age horror Out of Darkness

By Sam Wigley

From The Descent to Caspar David Friedrich: the influences on Stone Age horror Out of Darkness

“Why does a guy like me dream about making a western?”: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka

By Arjun Sajip

“Why does a guy like me dream about making a western?”: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka

How Britain got its groove back: the return of Cymande

By Leigh Singer

How Britain got its groove back: the return of Cymande