“Escape to other worlds,” the Cineworld website urges its customers, and even after the announcement that the chain was closing 127 sites across the UK, the company’s cinemas continued to make good on that promise of alternative realities.
At the Stevenage multiplex, a trailer played for Death On the Nile and promised a 23 October release that has in fact been shunted back to December. A few minutes later, a traditionally booming voiceover man celebrated the chain’s revival over footage of popcorn and plush red seats. “The interval is over,” he announced. “Cineworld is back.”
There were a few rueful laughs from behind the masks of the half-dozen ticketholders for Tenet scattered around the auditorium. “Not for long it isn’t,” said Tara Smith, watching the Christopher Nolan extravaganza for the third time in lieu of anything else to do, and nobody even shushed her.
At Hackney Picturehouse, part of Cineworld’s smaller “neighbourhood” sub-brand, they’re giving the popcorn and ice-cream away. The same outdated celebratory promo played before Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (audience: one), along with another, which sounded hopeful and, now, heartbreaking: “At last, the light can shine again,” it said. “More than ever, great stories need a big screen.”
But at the moment, audiences do not agree, or not enough of them, anyway, and so the blockbusters which are Cineworld’s bread and butter have taken flight, seeing the so-so performance of the great white hope Tenet and concluding that they are better off waiting.
Mulan, Black Widow, Kingsman and Wonder Woman 1984 all delayed their release, or skipped the cinema altogether; then the new Bond film, No Time To Die, pushed back to next year, and that was that. The posters celebrating the November release date are still up. But every one of the company’s 127 sites will be shuttered from Friday, with no word as to when they will open up again.
“Needless to say, for the UK [Bond] is the biggest movie of the year,” said Mooky Greidinger, Cineworld’s chief executive. “We were bleeding much bigger amounts when we are open than when we are closed – we are like a grocery shop with no food.” In Stevenage, one member of the team who said she was on a zero-hours contract shook her head as she rang up a Pepsi. “We have literally been killed by James Bond,” she said.
There is more to the story than the treachery of Barbara Broccoli. Cineworld, which bought the US chain Regal in 2018 and inherited a large pile of debt, was already in a precarious position when coronavirus hit; it is now creaking under the weight of £6.6bn owed against a cash balance of £220m. While Odeon and Vue have serious problems of their own, with Odeon moving a quarter of its venues to a weekend-only model, it would be wrong to presume that Cineworld’s crisis automatically means the death of cinema.
Still, said Michael, a manager at a branch in the Midlands, reports that the chain was trying to sell useless pick’n’mix supplies to the staff made it feel that way. “And then to not tell us before we read it in the papers, that’s not a good look,” he said. “Everyone here is miserable. We have no idea if we have jobs to come back to. I know this isn’t true for everybody, but it’s more than just another job for a lot of us. Cinema’s mattered a lot to me. It’s really sad to think of everyone watching Netflix instead.”
In Stevenage, without a lot of options, Peter Slight and Carol Smith have come to see Cats and Dogs Reunited. “We come near enough every week,” said Slight. “We are going to miss it, definitely. This is one of the main things we do for fun, and now it’s being taken away again.” Still, he’s not surprised. “You’re sitting there like billy no mates sometimes. It’s just horrible.”
The sole audience member at the Bill and Ted movie in Hackney, Benita, said she had skipped work to catch a farewell film before the closure. “I’m trying not to cry,” she said. “I’ve been a member for years.”
She remembered coming to see the Martin Luther King biopic Selma with her family and friends. “There were maybe three white people at that showing,” she said. “It was one of the most profoundly touching moments. The way the emotion gets you, what you experience collectively at the cinema, it’s overwhelming. And there’s a whole generation of people, you wonder if they will ever know what it feels like to see something in a full house.”
She wasn’t expecting the same from seeing Bill and Ted on her own, even if Keanu Reeves was in it, but she felt honour-bound to pay her respects. “I’ve heard it’s terrible,” she said. “But I just love the cinema. It feels like a massive loss in my life.”