Rising up to meet the lockdown challenge

Fight or flight? The CV19 crisis has tapped into something primal in all of us, eliciting a broad spectrum of responses… Staying in touch and staying afloat have been the core  goals for most cinemas and here Melissa Cogavin explores the inspiring ways the UK’s independents have used their time wisely.


HAND-WRINGING AS OFTEN as hand-washing, this has been a tense time for independent exhibitors in particular, exposed to cashflow shortfalls unlike their larger multiplex contemporaries, perplexed about the present closures, the furloughing of staff and fretful about social distancing measures affecting their survival.

The impact of lockdown on the industry has been profound and the imposition of enforced, if anxious, idleness is a phenomenon none of us have experienced before. Much has been made of the economic impact but what about the social? It is perhaps no surprise that once panic buying of toilet paper and pasta ceased, it was self-raising flour and eggs that became scarce as cookbooks were opened for the first time in years. Long and empty days? You might as well bake a cake.


Nobody could accuse independent exhibitors of sitting around waiting for dough to prove though. The sourdough technique might not have got any better during lockdown and the jigsaw puzzles gathering dust, but the indie cinema sector has risen elegantly to the occasion. Their work has inspired, their efforts have been wildly creative, moving and long-lasting. It is testament to the enormous resilience, passion and commitment of exhibitors.


I talked with a selection of exhibitors from all over the UK who have seen this downtime as an opportunity to connect with audiences, stay relevant, and engage with customers online. They’ve raised funds for charity, crowdfunded books, produced podcasts, made videos, hosted quizzes, competitions, surveys, blogs, streamed arthouse movies, hosted social media house parties and even donated their pick and mix to foodbanks.


Parkway Cinemas: Keeping the faith via Facebook
Rob Younger of Parkway Cinemas has been using his engineering background to produce Facebook videos on his own in his closed cinema in Barnsley, covering a range of topics from renovating a sub-woofer to a tour of the disused gents’ toilets. As entertaining as they are educational, Rob laughed and said, “It’s just a bit of daft fun really. Who wouldn’t use this time to spruce the place up a bit?”

He and his team have spent years cultivating their audience and introducing the show in person is all part of the relationship. “Gerald Parks [who died 7 years ago] always used to introduce Senior Screen shows with a joke, and I’ve taken that over now. The cinema might be closed but I see people in the street at the moment who call out ‘Have you got a joke for us?’ I try to be personal, I try to be different.” Rob feels that connecting via Facebook during lockdown is important for continuity, not least because the cinema itself has a 13-screen Cineworld multiplex being constructed a few hundred yards away. As a local man, with roots in the cinema going back decades, he feels his voice and presence online is part of the effort to retain his relationship with his customers. It doesn’t look as if Rob has much to worry about. Comments from supportive fans of the cinema all love his new paintwork. “Please don’t close when Cineworld comes, I like the old-school theatre, love this cinema,” said one fan.



AT THE PALACE CINEMA in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, they have been tearing up the floor of the auditorium and posting their finds on Facebook. Cinephiles will be frothing at the sight of faded old tickets, paper cups and ice cream wrappers. It’s a creative, resourceful way of using the downtime to renovate a cinema while bringing history to life — exploiting social media to connect with the audience even with the doors closed. Likewise, Kevin Markwick, owner of the Uckfield Picture House in Sussex, has been reeling in showbiz contacts to create podcasts. Matthew Sweet, Neil Brand, Peter Curran, Robin Ince and Catherine Bray have all joined him for his Lockdown Time Machine podcast. Kevin avoids gloomy CV19-related rhetoric, preferring to discuss favourite movie moments and the good old days, over a couple of pints. Given the quality of his podcast, one can only wonder what would have happened had the pandemic taken place before the Internet..


At the Plaza Cinema in Workington, Cumbria, and its sister site the Gaiety Cinema in Whitehaven, general manager Pete Berrisford identified a pressing need. He realised there was an awful lot of perishable stock sitting on shelves at both sites. He contacted a local foodbank and volunteered. “If you’ve ever worked in retail or a cinema, you’ll know about rotating stock. There’s a shelf life. Otherwise it would all go in the bin.”


His Facebook page is all smiling faces and food vans being unloaded. “The reaction was overwhelming. Our first post was seen by 10,000 people,” Pete’s been offloading popcorn and sweets to the needy all over Cumbria. They deliver stock to the vulnerable as well as donate direct to food banks. He admitted the buzz helping in such a close-knit community is almost as good as having a packed cinema for a Bond movie. Almost.


“It’s made us very efficient at rotating dates,” he laughed, adding that this volunteer work prevented thousands of pounds worth of stock being thrown. Such outreach has done wonders for the profile of the cinema and strengthened already close relationships in his community. “We’re going to have a job here with social distancing when we re-open,” Pete smiled. “Our foyer is like a mothers’ meeting most days.”


Scott Cinemas: Giving back
Giving back to the community is a recurring theme. In the West Country, Scott Cinemas has partnered with German cinema snack manufacturer PCO, offering ‘Movie Packages’ for £20 to audiences, for them to watch movies at home surrounded by as much popcorn as they can handle, judging by the 2.2kg bags flying out the door. Nicholas Boyd, retail manager at Scott Cinemas said they’re promoting this with such success that they have raised £15,000 and will likely reach £20,000, a life-changing amount for their chosen local charities.

Social media is key to the success of this initiative and TikTok has played an important part in spreading the word. “Our link was shared on a TikTok account with one million followers. The following day we had 4,000 orders nationwide,” Nicholas explained. “It’s been great for our profile and amazing to engage with our own communities across our sites,” he added.


Exhibition: a buyer’s market?
Beneath a frenzy of activity and bonhomie are concerns about partial opening, deep-cleaning, social distancing and cashflow. Many are covered elsewhere in this issue, but interestingly a shift in the balance of power was something that came up a few times; the glut of product at year end will turn exhibition into a buyer’s market for the first time, empowering cinemas more than ever. Film rental rates have plummeted in exhibitors’ favour: 14% rental is common, and even 5-10% rates for classic titles are being agreed by distributors desperate for something to be on screens when cinemas open, at a time when the summer tentpoles have been rescheduled for Q3 and Q4.


Where does that leave event cinema in the margins? As far as economics are concerned, Graham Spurling at Movies@ was bullish, saying he’d rather fill Screen 1 with 100% of the [socially distanced] 25% capacity in this market at €15 a ticket than risk being half empty. Kevin in Uckfield agreed — it would have to be live. “No over-60s will be keen to head to the cinema, so recorded events will be screwed,” reckoned Graham, “It has to be live as it’s a draw.” A marginal business narrows further.


A bottleneck of product would surely place additional pressure on easing restrictive windows though? Not necessarily, was the answer. Some titles would benefit from some flexibility with release windows, Kevin argued, while others should stay as they are. CV19 has forced change onto a market that has been resistant for years; if anything, the reaction has proved to distributors and exhibitors alike that change can be embraced, though perhaps in more piecemeal form.


The Rio’s community archive
At the Rio Cinema in Dalston, East London they have exploited  a happy accident to connect with the community in a highly original way. Andrew Woodyatt, marketing manager, explained that during renovations four years ago they discovered a filing cabinet with slides from a youth project from 1982-88 that taught young unemployed locals photography, using the skills to record urban life in one of London’s most deprived areas.

“When we cleared the basement to build our second screen, it was filled to the ceiling with stuff — 90% of it was crap.” I pushed him on this. “Standees? No, that’s the interesting stuff! There were printers, fax machines, patio furniture, a rusty bacon slicer, VHS tapes, Betamax’s… We recycled it all properly and beneath it all was a filing cabinet containing 12,000 glass slides.” Andrew has been using the lockdown to curate these now-digitised slides, track down the photographers, pinpoint the events captured nearly 40 years ago and produce a book. Part historical record, part love letter to a rich and diverse community, it is now a local asset. Crowdfunding the project, the Rio will use the proceeds towards a new community workshop, reigniting the spirit that fired up the Tape/Slide Newsreel Group in the 80s. They have nearly reached their £15,000 target to start printing. “It’s come full circle,” Andrew noted. “Topics covered originally — the NHS, cuts to education, the arts, urban gentrification, the relationship between police and the black community — it makes the issues covered then even more relevant now.”

There is a flipside, Andrew told me. “We have a perception that Hackney was a grim place in the 80s but we can see it was a vibrant, diverse community not content to sit back to let things happen. They made a positive change. Teenagers looking at these images tell me the pictures could have been taken now.” An exhibition will run in Hackney for three months from September.

See more at @riocinemaarchive on Instagram


But has the audience changed?
Audience habits are a worry. The world’s got used to streaming content during lockdown. Notably event cinema producers have taken the decision to offer content for free. Will it devalue the product? The consensus was no. These are strange times; people have no other option. Exploit that captive audience. Get them hooked then jack up the price. The first fix is free…

Graham Spurling agrees. “There will be a point at which people are tired of being indoors and want to get out. My job as an impresario is to screen content the under 35s, the group least at risk, will want to see. Look, we can write 2020 off. We are 60% down on last year and 2021 will see a 60-70% drop on 2019.” Ever the optimist, Graham is confident of a return to form. Testament to the resilience and optimism of exhibitors is rueful acceptance that — even if 2020 had no global pandemic — relentless good weather since April would be catastrophic anyway. If you’re going to be locked down, best to do it in the sunshine. And bake a cake.


Movies@: Ready to launch
It would be remiss to cover promotion of indie cinemas without mentioning Graham Spurling. In Ireland, there’s a fixed date for cinemas reopening: 10 August. Movies@ has set itself apart with a cross-platform creative count-down campaign that uses classic movie posters through the years. At the time of writing (with 72 days to go) Vietnam, the Summer of Love and two World Wars were producing great material. “I’d normally count down to CinemaCon,” says Graham, “So this comes naturally, but it’s a pressure to think of something daily!” Like others, the independent nature of the business helps. “I have no corporate hat to wear so am free to do what I want, but it’s been tough facing another 70 days before we open. And then it’ll be meagre before normal returns.”