With the U.K. terror alert lifted to critical, industry insiders predicted that West End cinemas and travel would likely be the hardest hit amid the jitters caused by the wave of bungled terror attacks that greeted Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his first few days in office last week.
Entertainment-related events, including Sunday’s Princess Diana tribute concert at Wembley Stadium organized by her sons, Princes William and Harry, proceeded as planned during the weekend, albeit with heightened security.
Britons generally seemed rattled but unbowed by the discovery of two car bombs in central London and the related attack on Glasgow airport on Saturday in which two men slammed a Jeep Cherokee into the main terminal. The SUV exploded into flames but the stash of gas in the trunk did not. Authorities said they believed the incident was related to the botched effort to set off a coordinated series of car bomb attacks near popular London nightclubs.
In a televised interview, Brown, who took the reins from Tony Blair on Wednesday, told viewers that the terrorism threat facing Britain is “long-term and sustained,” and he acknowledged that “we are dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with Al Qaeda.”
As of Sunday police had made five arrests in connection with the latest terror outbreaks, including the driver and passenger in the SUV that rammed the Glasgow airport. Despite a weekend of fast-moving events, film execs were not overly concerned about an immediate downturn in business.
“I’ve worked here for over 15 years and, in my experience, the Brits are generally resilient,” said Timothy Richards, CEO of exhib chain Vue Entertainment. “We’ve been here before with the IRA problems in the late 1980s and early ’90s…People will still come out. They do not want to let the terrorists win.”
Andrew Cripps, prexy of Paramount Pictures Intl., said “Shrek the Third” beat the distrib’s projections in pulling in £4.4 million ($8.8 million) on Saturday as the grim news of the terror plots unfolded. At the same time, sustained rain during the weekend spurred auds to take cover in theaters.
“Unfortunately, British audiences are used to terror threats,” Cripps said. “Perhaps audiences need to laugh. If there is any adverse impact, it is likely to be on the more serious fare.”
Showbiz insiders concurred that the terror alarm will hit West End cinema trade the hardest.
Panic first spread in the early hours of Friday morning as two car bombs were discovered in Mercedes automobiles parked in the central London thoroughfare Haymarket. The first car, loaded with an amateurish but lethal concoction of patio gas canisters, gasoline and nails, was discovered outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub by paramedics attending an unrelated emergency call. Bombers appeared to have targeted ladies’ night at the popular Asian fusion nightspot.
A second hired Mercedes, also jam-packed with explosives, was discovered illegally parked close by. Security experts suggest the second vehicle was likely primed for a secondary explosion to cause maximum carnage in the immediate aftermath of an initial blast, as happened in the terrorist bombing of a disco in Bali that killed more than 200 people in 2002.
Cineworld’s Haymarket site, very close to Tiger Tiger, was closed all day Friday but is now open for biz.
“Whenever a cinema is forced to close, it is a problem, as people do not know when it will reopen,” noted Andrew Turner, Cineworld director of film booking. Although expecting a quiet weekend in the West End, Turner was not all doom and gloom: “Luckily this weekend’s product is not that West End-driven.”
According to Turner, the movie that was likely to be worst affected by frayed nerves is Eli Roth’s grisly horror pic “Hostel: Part II.” When Islamic terrorists successfully attacked the London transport network almost two years ago, the biggest box office loser was Neil Marshall’s critically acclaimed homegrown horror feature “The Descent.”
But Richards of the Vue chain disagreed.
” ‘Hostel’ appeals to young males, who are the least likely to be deterred by the terror threat,” Richards said.
The insistence on business as usual for cinema and other entertainment fare was echoed by cinemagoers with whom Daily Variety spoke Sunday. Outside the Odeon Panton Street, there was a strong sense of defiance.
“I am aware of the high alert and, of course, I feel a bit apprehensive about coming into central London so soon after these car bombs were discovered, but I feel we need to continue to live our lives as normally as possible in the face of this threat; otherwise the terrorists have succeeded in their aims,” said twentysomething Hannah from west London, who was with her friend Amy to catch the Aussie arthouse offering “Ten Canoes.”
Saturday’s attack in Scotland — like something out of a horror movie, according to witnesses — has caused widespread travel chaos across the U.K., with extra security measures causing delays and closures at Blackpool, Birmingham and Liverpool airports.
Brown’s new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith released a statement urging greater vigilance from the public.
“I must stress we must not let the threat of terror stop us getting on with our lives,” Smith said.
That message, of the importance of showing resolve in the face of attempts to sow unease about going out in public and taking part in high-profile planned events, has been taken up by the entertainment community.
London’s annual Gay Pride event went ahead as usual Saturday, although policing was beefed up along the route. Despite torrential rain throughout the day, organizers reported healthy numbers turned out.
Organizers of the Wimbledon tennis championships reported no changes to its schedule.
Sunday afternoon’s Concert for Diana, Princes William and Harry’s musical and dance tribute to their mother on what would have been her 46th birthday, drew 65,000 concertgoers to Wembley Stadium. At least 450 police officers were on hand to ensure extra-tight security at the six-hour show, which featured Elton John, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, Joss Stone and Nelly Furtado.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)