Cineworld’s shocking decision to temporarily shutter all U.K. and U.S. cinemas in order to ride out the pandemic has shaken the industry to its core and jeopardized the livelihoods of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Cineworld staff say they don’t deserve to pay the price for the company’s failed efforts to reopen and they’re angry about the way their employer has kept them largely in the dark about the situation.
“Most people were watching the news when they found out, ‘Oh hang on, I’ve lost my job,'” one employee tells Variety. “I’ve got to go to work over the next few days, while staring down the barrel of no money for Christmas.”
At the same time, exhibitors insist the move sends a clear, if brutal, message to studios and indie distributors. It’s hard to keep theaters open when there’s nothing to show.
“When [‘No Time to Die’] went on Friday, we all knew we were screwed,” says one senior Cineworld source close to the situation. “Everything that had been in our heads [was finally happening], and given there’s nothing else on the calendar, we just started making plans.”
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News of the Mooky Greidinger-run company shuttering all 127 of its U.K. and Ireland cinemas leaked on Saturday night, with the vast majority of the exhibitor’s 5,500-strong U.K. workforce learning of their potential job losses on social media. The news — which also affects all Regal Cinemas in the U.S., as revealed by Variety — has sent shockwaves across the industry. “Bond was a bit of a body blow for everyone,” says one exhibition boss. AMC Theatres-backed Odeon has reduced its screens, switching to a weekend-only model for 25% of its 120 venues, and it’s believed multiplex chain Vue is also considering its options.
“We’ve been at the mercy of distribution and we now have to make a stand,” says the exhibition source, who notes that Cineworld has been “chugging along” but is swiftly losing money. “The distributors played us. We’ve had the cinemas open, we’ve done our very best, and 10 minutes before a film is released, they pull it. Now we have to say, ‘Until you put films on the calendar, and we know they’ll stay, we can’t carry on.’”
Speaking to Sky News on Monday, Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger said he viewed his staff as “a big family” but that the company had “reached a stage without an alternative.”
“We prepared very [well] with all safety precautions, and at the beginning, we got a very warm welcome,” said Greidinger of reopening cinemas in the U.K. from July 31, and Regal in the U.S. from late August. “But at a certain stage, we didn’t have the goods.” The Israeli executive blames American politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who hasn’t reopened the crucial New York cinema market — a contributing factor discouraging studios from releasing their tentpoles.
Some U.K. distributors who did release films during the pandemic also highlight that more could have been done by their peers. “Cineworld is shut, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been that way if we’d seen more mid-range films released over the past three months. It would have sustained the business,” says Hamish Moseley, managing director of Altitude Film Distribution, which put out Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged” in late July.
Cineworld represents around 25%-35% of market share for mainstream films with full theatrical window release in normal times. “Cineworld was the biggest cinema chain on [‘Unhinged’]. If they’d shut down around then, or not reopened, that would’ve had a huge effect on the gross, which is now at nearly £2 million [$2.6 million],” says Moseley.
On the back of Monday’s news, distributor Studiocanal confirmed that “Saint Maud” would be released nationwide on Friday — “We’re committed to giving audiences the chance to see this film on the big screen, supporting British film and helping to ensure U.K. cinemas are provided with new content,” reads a statement from the company — but going forward, there will be a trickle-down effect that’ll pose “an issue for everybody,” warns Moseley.
For Cineworld workers, however, the damage is already done. Staff, who now await some form of redundancy offer from their employer, say the move is a “big kick in the teeth” for a workforce that fiercely pulled together to get the company’s cinemas open again this summer.
“We’ve done everything we can, and all that’s asked of us!” cries one 47-year-old front-of-house staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“For Mooky to go on television and talk about how we’re all a family? None of us are buying it. If we were a family, we’d be getting information before the press, and our jobs would be guaranteed no matter how long we were closed. Mooky has left the company with no money and we’re the ones paying for his poor judgement.”
Cineworld staff lack any official union backing. Variety understands that some workers, rallied by the indefatigable Cineworld Action Group, are joining entertainment trade union Bectu on an individual basis, but ultimately, Bectu can’t support them collectively. Instead, the union is applying pressure to the U.K. Cinema Association in order to lobby the cinema chains as well as the government. It’s understood the industry organization is holding crisis talks Monday evening.
One 20-year-old, London-based staff member considers the indefinite closure the end of the line for most employees. Morale been low since March, they say, when just days after shuttering due to government COVID-19 advice, Cineworld informed a large number of front-of-house staff they would be laid off, only to quickly backtrack when a furlough scheme was introduced.
“They made us feel so expendable. The first time around, they did it at the drop of a hat, and it’s happened again,” says the front-of-house worker, who came to London from western England at 18 to pursue screenwriting.
“This job felt like a stepping stone. For someone who loves film and media, it was definitely a nice atmosphere to work in,” they said. “Now I’m 20 years old, I’ve lost my job and I might have to move home.”
Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.