The Regent Street Cinema is one of the U.K.’s most iconic cultural venues, but as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put a strain on the hospitality and leisure sector, the 172-year-old movie theater is in a fight for its survival.
“It is really volatile at the moment,” Sophie Doherty, Regent Street Cinema’s content and events manager, tells Variety. “It’s really hard to know from week to week what’s actually going to be released.”
Located at 307 Regent Street, a short distance from the bustle of Oxford Street’s shopping district, the theater has long been considered the birthplace of British Cinema. Though it was opened in 1848 to host live stage productions, it became the first U.K. venue to screen moving images with a short movie by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, and went on to serve as a cinema until 1980. The University of Westminster, on whose land the Grade II-listed building resides, reopened it as a repertory cinema in 2015 after a three-year restoration project at the cost of £6.1 million ($7.9 million).
In the five years since, Regent Street Cinema has screened a wide range of movies, in 16 mm, 35 mm, Super 8, and 4K format, showcasing a mix of indie features and studio blockbusters as well as playing host to special screenings as part of London’s array of film festivals. This year, the cinema was able to stay afloat by making use of the government’s job retention and furlough schemes to protect staff members’ jobs after hospitality and leisure venues were forced to close in March.
“That helped us to work towards reopening, despite being closed,” says commercial director Billy Watson, adding that the cinema has also applied for the BFI Culture Recovery Fund which he believes will prioritize smaller businesses. “Since we’ve moved into October, and the intensity of the pandemic spiking again, I do sense that there’s this willingness to make sure that the independent sector is going to get the awards to help them. Especially from a cash-flow point of view. It’s really crucial.” For the application, Regent Street Cinema had to show its “vision” for the future in a business plan for the pandemic period and beyond — a plan that, fortunately, had already been in the works.
In addition to sustainability of the cinema sector, audience development is also part of the plan. Sophie Doherty and marketing and partnerships manager Sarah Virani were brought in at the end of August to improve upon the latter — especially at a time when people are nervous about enclosed public spaces — ahead of the cinema’s Oct. 1 reopening.
“One of the things I was tasked with was building a new website because the original one was primarily made from a university perspective, rather than a commercial cinema,” Virani explains. “With the new website, we can see what pages people are tracking, and obviously the programming is at the centre of that. But we have spent an enormous amount of time talking about the fact that we are COVID-safe and we’re really following every single guideline from the government to the letter. That page is just getting so much traction.”
Within hours of the announcement that London was in the Tier 2 lockdown bracket, the team worked fastidiously to update the online guidelines and convey the information via social media, though Watson believes the media’s constant focus on the pandemic is causing undue panic.
“The fear factor is so high and so constant [that it’s] part of the problem,” he says. “The traffic during the week is quite flat. It’s not like we start to see this big pick up on a Thursday, and Friday can be just as slow as Tuesday and Wednesday. We were picking up that there is a sentiment to return to the cinema but there’s equally a lot of people that are not ready for that yet.”
Diversifying the audience by diversifying the programming is a key part of the strategy to bring more footfall to the single-screen venue. Virani says the movie theater has traditionally catered to an older demographic, but have found that 25-34 year-olds are increasingly engaging with the cinema.
“We’re trying to widen our audience base a little bit more and engage students, because we are tied to the University of Westminster and it has a brilliant film faculty,” she says. “We’ve got some partnerships in place with them so that the students can see us as their local cinema as well, and try and support us that way. And we’ve got incentives and ticket pricing to reflect that.”
Doherty has led the charge for diverse programming by recently adding indie flicks like “Summer of ‘85” and “Mogul Mowgli,” as well as studio features like Warner Bros.’ Gen Z remake “The Craft: Legacy” to its slate. She’s scheduled 4K restorations including “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Exorcist,” National Theatre Live shows, as well as children’s films “Hocus Pocus” and “Cats & Dogs: Paw Unite” to cater to families during the half-term school break.
The cinema recently hosted the London Film Festival screening of the Kate Winslet-led “Ammonite,” which sold out all 60 of its socially distanced seats.
“To see everyone pack the house for ‘Ammonite,’ it does show that for the right product, people do want to return to the cinema,” Doherty says. “In terms of diversity, I want to be working with grassroots organizations, like Birds Eye Film and Gal-Dem, on big and small films, to do what I can to help their profile, as well as to reach their audience and help their audience to discover the Regent Street Cinema.”
They are also looking to expand their business by securing a second location to show more films at one time. That way, they can also forward-plan more niche events rather than the current one to two-week window. “Every solo cinema in the land tries to find a way to find a second screen because it just gives you that flexibility,” Doherty says. “I could take more risks and give a month’s notice to do a partnership because I know it wouldn’t interfere with mainstream programming.”
Ultimately, Regent Street Cinema wants to be a beloved venue that can thrive without its survival predicated on the need for tentpole releases. “The future that we were walking towards wasn’t just about putting [a James Bond movie] on,” Watson says. “It’s been strange to pin your hopes on something and then have those hopes are taken away. And yet you rally.
“We’re independent; the programming is independent. Maybe it’s the Blitz spirit, but we’re going. We can do this. We don’t need those big guns.”