London’s cinemas ‘can only last so long’, says leading independent venue as Tier 3 bites

Tim Robey
·4-min read
The Prince Charles, in the West End, has faced repeated openings and closures - Leon Neal
The Prince Charles, in the West End, has faced repeated openings and closures - Leon Neal

As London’s cinemas close their doors for the third time this year, one of the West End’s beloved mainstays must heave another heavy sigh and go dark. This is the Prince Charles Cinema (PCC), the last true repertory house in town, which has been keeping film fans happy whenever it’s been allowed in 2020, with its patented mix of cult favourites, brand-new genre releases and, at least in theory, seasonally relevant strands.

For starters, a large wodge of Christmas programming will be wrapped up and salted away under Tier 3 regulations: the eternal is-Die-Hard-a-Christmas-film? debate, it seems, will be taking a year off. (In fact, there’s just about time to catch a final 70mm screening of Bruce in his Santa hat, tonight before the PCC’s closure.) 

The cinema’s managing director, Ben Freedman, admits that December tends to be a busy month, and acknowledges some of the same ruefulness that hospitality venues all over town will be experiencing. “It will be another dent in a dented ship,” he puts it. “But the ship’s still afloat.”

According to Freedman, the PCC’s management team have had a 12-month contingency plan ever since cinemas were first shuttered in March. Braced for impact, they’ve weathered each new lockdown or Tier-3-ing with a relatively philosophical outlook, but have also prepared themselves, unlike some of the country’s major chains, to reopen during more relaxed phases, and saw steady business under Tier 2. PCC patrons have thereby seized big-screen chances to see Tenet and Mank, to name two of the year’s more hyped releases.

“It’s never as easy as people think, just to open and shut on cue,” Freedman clarifies. But it sounds like they’ve got the hang of it by now. He’s had faith in the cinema’s built-in audience to come back when they’ve had the chance, brushing off streaming fatigue to embrace the communal experience they’ve been missing, even a few mandatory seats apart. This enforced slashing of ticket sales, with seats in the main auditorium being reduced from 300 to just 60, makes it impossible for the cinema to make a profit – but they can at least break even.

“We’ve had customers tell us they’ve felt safer here than they have at home,” Freedman tells me, when I raise the most frustrating statistic for cinema owners grappling with loss of business: the absolute dearth of evidence that Britain’s cinema screens have been Covid hot-houses. Not one instance of viral transmission has to date been pinned on a film venue. 

Mank, starring Gary Oldman, is one of the few recent major releases - Netflix
Mank, starring Gary Oldman, is one of the few recent major releases - Netflix

Independent cinemas across the UK have suffered from being lumped in with pubs and restaurants, despite all their efforts to enforce mask protocol, air cleaning and a level of stationary social-distancing very few pubs could match. Only thanks to furlough have many such venues clung onto solvency without laying off staff – not one employee, in the PCC’s case, which Freedman announces with relief. 

Another thing that helped was the building’s landlord agreeing to cut the rent by half. And this has enabled money to be funnelled into anti-Covid measures instead. “We’ve tried to be as careful as humanly possible,” Freedman explains. Not many auditoria in the UK can boast five Rensair machines, nicknamed R2D2, Mary Poppins, and so on, which zap germs with ultraviolet light.

Although the PCC is partly inoculated from worries about what to show by falling back on old films, the uncertainty over post-Christmas rulings is going to make for a generally nervous industry in the first part of 2021. The release schedule for December was already quite threadbare, with the exception of Wonder Woman 1984, thanks to distributors’ (now justified) concerns that cinemas wouldn’t stay open long enough to receive whatever they were going to put out. January, February and March have a solid crop of awards-pedigree films earmarked for release, many of which may have to switch to streaming-only alternatives. 

Come April 2, all eyes are once again on No Time to Die, a stubborn holdout for the big screen, delayed multiple times, on which the PCC and every other cinema will be relying to get punters back in. But this is all assuming that the vaccine’s rollout and further tiered restrictions have enough of a palpable curve-flattening effect to restore confidence nationwide. 

“You can only last so long,” Freedman warns, adding that he’s not expecting “light at the end of the tunnel” until “more likely May, or maybe even June.” That’s already past the end-point the PCC had planned for when we first went to crisis stations. Any more protracted than that, and things really do start to get worryingly dicey.