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

As cinemas reel from the impact of Covid-19, five UK industry insiders discuss what it takes to keep the projectors turning – and how we might emerge from of the crisis.

30 October 2020

By Charles Gant

Sight and Sound
While multiplexes have closed or reduced their opening hours, many arthouse cinemas, like Curzon Mayfair, have remained open

In October UK cinema operators suffered two big blows. First the new Bond film, No Time to Die, was postponed (again!), from November to April 2021. Then the Cineworld and Picturehouse chains closed until further notice, making it even harder for distributors to release new films. Less sweepingly, Odeon and Vue scaled back opening days at some venues. As of the end of October, meanwhile, all cinemas in Northern Ireland and Wales have been closed by Covid lockdowns.

In the independent sector, though, there have been successes. Some distributors realised the postponement of blockbusters as an opportunity to release independent films more widely – the British indie feature Saint Maud topped the UK box office midweek, thanks to a 300-screen release. And some loyally supported independent cinemas have achieved sellout shows, albeit within the reduced capacities mandated by distancing protocols. Against this backdrop, Sight & Sound invited representatives from different parts of the independent cinema ecosystem to discuss current and future trends:

  • Hamish Moseley is managing director of Altitude Film Distribution, a distributor that stepped up to its responsibility to serve UK cinemas with films when many of its competitors failed to do so.
  • Damian Spandley is director of programme at the national arthouse chain Curzon.
  • Allison Gardner is CEO of Glasgow Film, running the Glasgow Film Theatre, one of the UK’s major arthouse cinemas, backed by a charitable trust. (Since we conducted this discussion, the GFT has announced another closure for a minimum of two weeks from Monday 2 November, the result of new Covid Protection Level (Tier) 3 requirements in Scotland.)
  • Dorothy Smith provides the perspective of a family-run business in the Lake District tourist town of Ambleside, with five screens on three sites under the Zeffirellis and Fellinis brands, playing studio titles and the more accessible end of indie.
  • Catharine Des Forges, director of the Independent Cinema Office, offers a wider perspective on the independent cinema space.

Charles Gant: Dorothy, how is it going at Ambleside and what has been working for you?

Dorothy Smith: We’re not doing mega numbers, but we now have enough new content to programme all five screens. Coming soon, we’ve got a local film called Helvellyn: Life of a Mountain by Terry Abraham – we’ve sold out all five screens.

You’ve got to take into account our capacity is well below 50 per cent. Social distancing and the lack of studio films have had a negative effect. When we put Tenet on, we were doing more or less sellout shows every night – so I know people want to see new films.

What has most impacted you – the distancing measures, or the lack of studio films this summer?

Dorothy Smith: Probably 50/50. Both have had a really negative effect. When we put Tenet on, we were doing more or less sellout shows every night – sellout as far as we can do – so I know that people do want to see new films. But social distancing is reducing our numbers such a lot, and there are also people who are still a little nervous about going in.

"When we put Tenet on, we were doing more or less sellout shows every night" — Dorothy Smith, Zeffirelli's

How have the more stringent social distancing regulations in Scotland affected Glasgow Film Theatre, Allison?

Allison Gardner: GFT reopened on 31 August, and we’ve had a very steady attendance. Our audience are very loyal, and they’re delighted to see us open. We have two metres physical distancing in Scotland, so in GFT1, which has 394 seats, we now have 58 seats, and in GFT2, which is 140 seats, we now have 23. We’re able to offer 14 per cent of our normal capacity, which is not a sustainable business model.

However, during the period, we’ve sold over 80 per cent of the available seats. There is an appetite for cinema. We’re not relying on blockbusters; we were never going to show the Bond anyway. The Picturehouse and Cineworld closure has had no noticeable effect on us so far, but I think it will impact the cinema ecosystem going forward.

We have applied to the Screen Scotland resilience fund for independent cinemas, the Scottish version of the BFI’s fund for English cinemas. [The scheme’s aim] is to get you through to March 2021, when everybody assumes this will all be over, although I suspect that it will take organisations like ours at least five years to get back on their feet.

Does this chime with what you’re hearing from independent cinemas generally, Catharine? How do you see the next few months panning out?

Catharine Des Forges: Definitely. The ones that have more independent programming and are less reliant on studio releases are fine. We’ve probably got three-quarters of the cinemas we work with open at the moment. A couple have decided to mothball. Quite a lot have had to make redundancies, but the ones that have opened are doing really well. Places like Depot in Lewes are selling out on the capacity that they have.

There was a view that the [older] audience wouldn’t come back, but in the venues that cater to those audiences, that’s not what’s happening. The ones that are struggling more are the ones that play the more mainstream films.

A lot of it depends on how many screens you’ve got, what flexibility you’ve got. We’ve got a number of single screens that don’t have a cafe: if you don’t have anything else to sell, it becomes much more difficult.

How do you see the next few months panning out for your cinemas and the sector in general?

Catharine Des Forges: We have had the London Film Festival [playing in partner cinemas], and that has made people’s appetite for new films increase.

"Places like Depot in Lewes are selling out on the capacity that they have" — Catharine Des Forges, Independent Cinema Office

What we’re already seeing is that you play certain films longer; it’s less about the opening weekend. You’re bringing things back; you’re showing things differently.

Some of the distributors have been very brave, like Altitude. The audiences want to see new product. We already needed new models in both distribution and exhibition, but this crisis has accelerated that, and it’s encouraging people to be more adventurous in what they show.

Look at the success of After We Collided – what that tells you is that there’s an audience that hasn’t been catered for, that want to come and see that film in a cinema. Before the pandemic there was a lot of received wisdom about what audiences wanted to do, what would work, what would not work. The pandemic has changed [those rules]. What that tells you is a story about what people will actually engage with and come to see. And it means that we all have to be a bit more open-minded about what that might be.

Hamish, how has Altitude viewed the challenge and opportunity that has been presented by radically disrupted circumstances?

Hamish Moseley: Catharine kindly said the word ‘brave’, but let’s be honest, it’s an opportunity. I don’t want to mince my words on this: I found it so shocking, and disturbing, the Cineworld closure, as we all do. We are all reliant on each other. It is an ecosystem.

There was a working group that some of us were on, about how can we get cinemas reopened. We all thought it was about encouraging audiences to come back and feel safe, and cinemas working on their safety measures. And they worked hard on that. I didn’t think that the supply line would fail. It’s been shocking.

I’m very disappointed by my peers. It’s not charitable that we’ve been finding films and releasing them, it’s an opportunity. It was an opportunity for us to be more supported by cinemas and press to release these films [and not be] crowded out by blockbusters. So we scrambled and we found a range of films.

I don’t think it’s about any one kind of film. You could make a case that younger people feel more comfortable coming out, but we’ve seen older audiences too. The point is we have and will never know what’s going to work, so it’s always about a range of films that speaks to all audiences. We need a comedy, a thriller, a documentary – we need everything [in order] to speak everyone. And we need a steady pipeline of that stuff. And all those films are available.

I’ve been shocked at the reluctance of major distributors to put available titles out there. There was a specific call during these discussions in April, May, to please supply us with films because the blockbusters have moved back: we can only see Tenet coming. So please, can we have some more? So we did that, and so did a few other distributors, but where was everybody else? They have these films in their slates.

It doesn’t have to be a $250 million blockbuster. There are other films with lesser budgets, of all genres and varieties, that could have been put out. There’s an opportunity to do quite well, as you’ve seen with Unhinged, After We Collided, 100% Wolf, but arthouse films too.

How has it been at Curzon, Damian? You’ve got central London cinemas, London neighbourhood cinemas, fairly big cities and smaller cities, so has the pattern of success varied?

Damian Spandley: When we first opened we were hoping that Tenet would come into July; then it moved. That gave us an opportunity to showcase a lot of films that we’d already released digitally [on Curzon Home Cinema] during lockdown: our movies, but also third-party distributors’. It made for a really rich arthouse programme.

"In Soho, early on, the numbers were very low, mainly because footfall in town was low" — Damian Spandley, Curzon

With some of those titles, we had made some commitments [to show them theatrically] either to the producers, or to third-party distributors we are trying to attract to the platform. And we felt that these titles deserve to be seen on the big screen.

Then Tenet came along and we saw much better numbers with our regional Curzons, which skew more towards a quality-mainstream programme. Whereas in Soho, early on, the numbers were very low, mainly because footfall in town was low.

In recent weeks we’ve seen gradual increases of between eight per cent and 14 per cent each week, showing that momentum is important. Which is what makes the Picturehouse and Cineworld closures so heartbreaking.

This week [9-15 October] will be our biggest since the opening week of Tenet – testament to the fact that distributors like StudioCanal are releasing Saint Maud, and also to the Netflix and Apple films that have come to us.

Crucially, they have marketing spend behind them, which has been a bit of a challenge since the cinemas reopened. We’re seeing a lot of titles released each week, but they’re not really cutting through on marketing. Distributors like Altitude with Rocks and Studiocanal with Saint Maud are actually supporting these movies with promotion – and that’s really helping.

Hamish, were you able to support [UK drama] Rocks because you did a deal with Netflix and hedged some of your risk?

Hamish Moseley: No, we were always planning to give it an ambitious release. The film is wonderful. We had always been trying to pursue a pay-TV or an SVOD [subscription video on demand] deal. The deal we did with Netflix meant having a short window [the length of time before a theatrical release plays on a streaming platform], so some cinemas couldn’t play it, sadly. Odeon played the film post-broadcast on Netflix, so the rules are all up for discussion now.

"We were always planning to give Rocks an ambitious release. The film is wonderful" — Hamish Moseley, Altitude Films

We’re on a war footing at the moment. It’s about survival. Let’s find a way of making it work for each party. And maybe we can find a way to come together and find a new model – it can just be a way of making this particular film work for this audience and then we can survive for another week.

It’s interesting what Damian was saying about media spends not really cutting through. We’ve released six films since July and every single one has been on the BBC homepage. But I think it has flipped a bit now. The story is Cineworld has shut, James Bond’s gone. The public perception is: “Oh, there’s no point going any more and the cinemas are shut anyway.”

Dorothy, are you playing Netflix, Amazon and Apple titles, and is a window even a consideration for you?

Dorothy Smith: Yes, we are. My logic is that not everybody has Netflix, especially a lot of our customers. And there’s also a lot of people who like to see things on the big screen.

That’s why I’m so frustrated with Disney going straight to Disney+. If they gave us the opportunity to put Mulan on, they could have done it on Disney+ at the same time. We’ve been advertising for them on the screen for six months; the least they could have done is give us the opportunity to [show the film].

Damian Spandley: We are in this present perverse universe where it’s easier for a studio to go direct to digital than to break the theatrical window because of the relationship conditions with the major [multiplex chains].

So if a studio puts a film on a streaming platform, bypassing cinemas altogether, rather than a combined digital and theatrical release, it avoids a row with ’plex chains over windows, but the indie cinemas get denied a film you would have played?

Damian Spandley: The independent sector is on the outside of that conversation. I thought it was interesting in the summer, the reaction that Trolls World Tour going direct to digital got from some of the major [multiplex] companies, who were closed and unable to play the film. It would be doubly controversial for a studio to allow films the size of [Pixar’s] Soul to play with the independents and then apply pressure on the multiplexes to change their windowing policies.

But we have seen some multiplex companies be more flexible. Flexibility and opportunity should be what’s driving people’s decisions now. It’s such a shame that we’ve seen Cineworld close. There is content available that they’ve chosen, unfortunately, not to play.

Allison Gardner: The reason they’ve chosen that, presumably, is because it’s profit over people, in the sense that it’s not profitable for them to pay the staff, it’s not profitable for them to open the buildings, and they’re not sure of this model, so they can’t commit to that. They’re choosing to protect their profit rather than looking to the good of their staff and the good of their audiences.


Hamish Moseley: I think there will be a lot more nuance to that Cineworld story if you see it from a worldwide perspective – for example they may be trying to force the majors’ hands to open up the supply line. There might be discussions going on saying, we will reopen if you don’t move Wonder Woman 1984. I’d be fascinated to hear what the rationale is.

Big decisions about supply need to be made. It needs to be about territorial openings, and not waiting on New York. We just need to come up with solutions to these problems we’re facing.

Catharine Des Forges: We need to see innovation. The people that will survive will be the people that are adaptable and nimble in their thinking. Reverting to a model that exists and saying we can’t deliver under these conditions, it’s not good enough.

From what your peers in other territories are saying, Catharine, how does the UK experience compare?

Catharine Des Forges: Some of the things we’re seeing are quite similar to here. A lot of them are looking at locally produced films. A lot of them have had the same things that people in the UK have had, like crowdfunding campaigns, and people wanting to come and use the space, such as food banks. So I think we’re seeing, if you like, a resurgence of cinema in an activist sense.

What do you all see as the long-term changes to the sector – in terms of both distribution and exhibition? Allison, if we’re on a war footing now, when the war finally ends, what lasting impact will it have?

Allison Gardner: We adopted [a policy of] not looking at [theatrical] windows years and years ago, so we’ve been ahead of the curve.

"Our audience are very loyal, and they’re delighted to see us open" — Alison Gardner, Glasgow Film Theatre

I hope that what we can go forward with is a new, more diverse model of cinema-going for the public.

Damian Spandley: At Curzon, we are fortunate in that we’ve worked with a day-and-date [simultaneous video and theatrical release] model for many years. During lockdown, like many digital platforms, we saw a fantastic surge – in terms of traffic, increases between 200 and 500 per cent on [the equivalent week from] the previous year.

And that’s giving us a fantastic opportunity to give a platform to distributors who want to mitigate risks. We are hoping the new landscape will include day-and-date quite firmly, and that some of the obstacles that we’ve experienced have fallen away.

Netflix tends only to release its films in cinemas during awards season. Would you like to have all streamer titles available to play all year round?

Hamish Moseley: Yes. Could we see [Michael Bay’s Netflix film] 6 Underground, or a mainstream romcom or action film that a streamer has, made available to cinemas, either concurrently or with a few weeks’ window? Anything that might get audiences into cinemas is a good thing. And the cinemas then have the decision to play it or not.

Catharine, have the experiments exhibitors are doing with online virtual screenings generated any real traffic and revenue?

Catharine Des Forges: I don’t know if it’s generated much real revenue, but I think it extends your audience and your reach. We who work in this sector have always thought of cinemas as being more than just places where you go watch films – they’re a community support.

One of the things I think we will see change is the way cinema has used that digital space. If you look at festivals, all of them say that they will retain a digital element in future, because you’re reaching quite different audiences – geographically, for example. That’s something that won’t go away.

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