As moviegoers hurried into the Cineworld Leicester Square cinema in London on Thursday evening, eager to catch final screenings before what could be a six-month closure, some staff couldn’t believe the beeline of customers before them.
“I wasn’t expecting all these people,” says one slightly stunned front-of-house employee from behind a mask, glancing nervously over his shoulder. Staff have received strict instructions not to speak to press, and most comply, fearful that doing so will affect any potential redundancy pay.
It’s been just over five days since most Cineworld employees discovered, via social media, that their jobs were at risk as the company planned to temporarily shutter all U.K. and U.S. cinemas, affecting some 45,000 jobs. For the 5,500 impacted in the U.K., there’s little clarity on prospects after the credits roll on tonight’s final screening. New reports indicate that some salaried and contracted staff — excluding those on zero-hours contracts — are being asked to accept indefinite unpaid leave or redundancy by Oct. 12.
The mood inside has been, understandably, sombre and uncertain. But 7:30pm showings of a reissued 1988 post-apocalyptic Japanese anime movie “Akira” and Cole Sprouse-fronted teen romance “After We Collided” usher in a wave of moviegoers. All films are priced at £4.75 ($6), and loyalty card members are keen to make the most of Cineworld’s Unlimited program while they still can.
Most guests realize it’s their last outing here for a long time. Others are blissfully unaware. As they breeze past the COVID-19 signage next to the entrance, and bound up the illuminated steps to scan tickets — scenes from Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” now in its seventh week, light up the staircase — it’s hard to believe this could be the end, at least for a while. Even that oddly quiet “Tenet” debut at Leicester Square on Aug. 26 couldn’t have prepared most for this.
“It’s a drastic move,” says moviegoer Eric Thue of the closures. “There are lots of people who’d like to go to the cinema even though there’s a pandemic. Not everyone shares the same fear of going out.”
The 26-year-old videographer for the University of Greenwich has seen around 10 films, including the “Harry Potter” movies and “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” since Cineworld began reopening screens on July 31 following a four-month shutdown. But Thursday’s screening of “Akira” may be his last outing for some time.
“If there’s nothing new coming out, I’ll probably stay at home watching Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon, and maybe try to watch some older films that I haven’t seen,” says Thue, “because if I go to the other cinemas, it’s just going to be older movies anyway.”
For 25-year-old Aaron Szyls, going to Vue, which is fully functional for now, or Odeon, which is largely open, isn’t an option. “I’m a very loyal customer,” he grins. “I’ll just wait at home until Cineworld opens again. I got a 65-inch television a month before the pandemic, so I’m ready.”
The Starbucks employee has been parked at Cineworld since midday, watching back-to-back movies and making the most of his membership. For his final screening, “After We Collided,” he invited a couple of friends along, “to celebrate the last day.”
“In the past, when companies are shut down, they [mark the occasion in some way],” Szyls says, “but right now, I don’t see it [at Cineworld]. I guess there’s nothing to celebrate. They gave free popcorn for the membership holders and some nachos, but I don’t know if the staff got anything.”
Sarah L., another Unlimited member, describes a “sad” but “calm” atmosphere. “The guy who gave me my popcorn told me it was their last day, but if you didn’t ask, they didn’t tell you.”
The 26-year-old UX designer flits between Vue and Cineworld, but after hearing how staff were treated in the last week, her opinions of the latter have changed. “Knowing what they’ve done to their employees, I would reconsider going to Cineworld,” she says plainly. “I have a membership, but I wouldn’t like that [what happened to them] to happen to me.”
And yet, many Cineworld patrons aren’t surprised. “I work for a big corporation and I don’t expect much,” says Anthony Johnson, a 50-year-old software engineer. “There’s not much they can do. A company of this size having no income? It’s very hard to do.”
A security guard at the casino next door has been monitoring the ebb and flow of traffic at the cinema for the last two months. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “There’s been just one movie this whole time where there was a queue down to the Lego store [a block away].”
That movie wasn’t Nolan’s “Tenet,” the so-called cinema savior that has grossed just $307 million worldwide to date, but rather Chinese war film “The Eight Hundred,” which has so far pulled in over $441 million. The film has collected only $19,516 in the U.K. since its Sept. 18 release, but reportedly had fans lined down the street in Leicester Square.
Best known for glitzy film premieres, any ordinary year would have seen this area — which houses cinemas from all three major cinema chains: Cineworld, Odeon and Vue — packed with fans for the BFI London Film Festival. This year, employees at Odeon, which hosts many of those screenings, walk uneasily around a deserted foyer, much like those at Vue.
Odeon is beginning to field queries from former Cineworld Leicester Square patrons, curious about the AMC Theatres-backed chain’s loyalty offerings. Some ask if they can keep coming here to watch films. “I tell them they can come here for now,” shrugs one employee. Odeon has yet to close any of its movie theaters since reopening but it has switched around a quarter of its cinemas to weekend-only hours.
“We’re holding out until Christmas,” says the Odeon employee, “though I’m not holding my breath for ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’”