Amid the cinema closures, redundancies and cancellations across the U.K. due to the coronavirus pandemic, institutions big and small are exploring myriad ways to stay in business — some more controversial than others.
Genesis, an independent cinema in East London, remained open until Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all cinemas and theaters to shut down Friday to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Cinema director Tyrone Walker-Hebborn tells Variety that Genesis stayed open in order to “offer a moment of entertainment and escapism” during the crisis. Walker-Hebborn was personally on site every day to manage and assess the situation on a daily basis while the cinema was open.
Genesis took precautions by halving its capacity due to social distancing requirements, advising staff to self-isolate if they displayed any coronavirus symptoms, and requiring all customers and staff to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. At any given time, only 3.5% of the cinema was occupied.
“We’ve witnessed a busy, thriving and exciting place turn into a ghost town pretty much overnight,” says Genesis front of house staff Felicity Walsh.
“There have been a handful of customers defying the government’s advice to self isolate, be that from boredom, loneliness, wanting to help small businesses or just plain defiance — the renegades of our city. The difference in footfall is palpable and the staff are very worried about their jobs and the future of the cinema.”
Going forward, the hope is that institutions such as Genesis have an economic cushion to fall back on.
As part of the economic measures announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on Friday, businesses like Genesis can now claim 80% of staff wages up to a maximum of £2,500 ($2,930) per person from the government.
The government measures will also bring relief to retained staff of giant cinema chain Cineworld and the independent Curzon cinemas. Cineworld — which has already come under fire for reducing wages for some staff — is working to establish a hardship fund for employees, while Curzon CEO Philip Knatchbull is setting up a plan to avoid redundancies for three months. The Vue cinema chain also has measures in place to protect employees financially.
The BFI Flare festival at the BFI Southbank cinemas that was due to run March 20-29 was canceled at the last minute due to coronavirus concerns, and the cinemas shut down. Several LGBTIQ+ titles from the festival are now available to stream on the BFI Player, including Levan Akin’s “And Then We Danced,” Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s “Don’t Look Down” and Daniel Karslake’s “For They Know Not What They Do.”
Elsewhere, James Collie of speciality documentary distributor Violet Pictures and filmmaker Jan Dunn (“Gypo”) have set up the U.K. Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund to provide fast support to cinema workers on zero-hour contracts in need, located in London and Kent.
The fund, which aims to raise £20,000 ($23,154) through online donations, will be administered and disbursed by the Kent Film Foundation. Applications are open and funds will be distributed equally to applicants from March 23. Across the pond, New York’s Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund has raised more than $67,000 — just $6,000 shy of its $74,000 target.
Elsewhere, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) was the first major U.K. arts organization to close down; however, it continues to pay staff, including those on zero-hour contracts.
“Independent cinema was in a fragile moment historically, from an exhibition, distribution and programming point of view in the U.K., before the coronavirus,” ICA head of cinema Nico Marzano tells Variety. “Now, with the virus, unless the government and global institutions step in and support independent cinema, we are really risking a big shrinking of the sector.”
Marzano is worried that if the crisis lasts for three or four months, many jobs will be lost.
“There is support while the virus lasts, but I’m wondering what will happen afterwards,” says Marzano. “There is so much programming that will be lost, and so many festivals will be postponed or canceled. We need some support beyond the crisis.”