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Times are bleak for the film industry – cinemas need a lifeline to survive

Pandemic closures by Cineworld only magnify some of the industry’s enduring problems, from Disney and Netflix choking indie filmmaking, to government inaction on the arts

With this week’s latest round of disheartening COVID-related developments revealed, and few immediate prospects of salvation, the cinema industry in Britain appears to be on its knees. How did we get here, and what does the future hold for cinema-going in the UK? 

“Tell me is this where I give it all up? For you I have to risk it all, 'cause the writing's on the wall,” sang Sam Smith in 2015, to accompany Daniel Craig’s last outing as 007. The writing was on the wall last week, when Eon announced the postponement of the next James Bond movie, the grimly titled No Time To Die, and this appeared to be where the cinema industry gave it all up. Not long afterwards, over the weekend, the Times broke the story that Cineworld was set to close all of its cinemas indefinitely, threatening the jobs of some 5,000 employees. The news was soon confirmed by the chain, before Picturehouses, the chain of indie cinemas also owned by Cineworld, announced impending closures of its own. 

The move to delay the Bond film, following the wobbly box office results of Tenet and the postponements of several other tentpole films such as Black Widow, was enough to scare off a whole chain of cinemas – understandably so, because for a while now, the survival of cinemas has depended on a smattering of blockbuster films. 

In part, this is due to the rise of the streaming platforms, Netflix foremost among them, which has largely taken people out of cinemas save for a few ‘event’ releases. In part it is due, too, to the dangerous monopoly enjoyed by Disney, which has choked out the mid-budget movies that used to be the meat and drink of the film industry and then created a streaming platform all of its own. The Disney-owned Marvel successfully put the wind up all other producers with its absurdly lucrative franchise-model, creating an ecosystem of risk-averse studios determined to milk existing IP rather than invest in original content. Now, when the franchises are busy saving their own hides, smaller-budgeted films wouldn’t have a hope of keeping cinemas in business during normal times, let alone during a worldwide pandemic.

But the pandemic, from the start, has had a niggling way of bringing things to the fore that were lying just below the surface. Office jobs were shown to be a hoax; we realised how over-reliant we are on cars, and that the state could easily house the homeless. Now the virus seems to be magnifying some of the cinema industry’s enduring problems. Take, for instance, the announcement by Cineworld and Picturehouse, which laid to rest any doubts that Picturehouse is the beating heart of independent cinema: the chain has laudably put to bed some of the unpleasantness of its attitude towards striking workers, but this move shows that it is beholden to Cineworld, its big-buck owner. Bear in mind that Cineworld’s CEO, Moshe Greidinger, pays himself £2.7 million a year.

Also glaring, under the light of COVID-19, is the Tory government’s indifference to the arts. The British film industry has generally been left to its own devices by successive governments, whereas the French state, for example, rightly recognises that its film industry contributes to its worldwide reputation – the French government actively incentivises and supports the production of French films. Now that cinemas are in the lurch, who will step in to save an industry that, for all its problems, is still financially viable, and which contributes to the UK’s aura and finances worldwide? 

“Times are bleak for films, but the big danger is in believing the problem comes down to individuals. Supporting one’s local cinema counts for next to nothing when multinationals and states allow film to be so unregulated and unsupported”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak would not be drawn, emitting some guff yesterday about re-training creatives. The minister for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, had said something similar, suggesting that Cineworld employees could become careworkers. This is a joke. The government doesn’t understand the arts, because they are not in all points driven by the profit motive; but even from a purely financial point of view, allowing for the soullessness of this administration, the cinema industry turns a buck. How can it be allowed to flounder? 

A lot of soul-searching remains for the industry. First of all, the arts need care and support, in the form of attention, promotion, and money. Then, the monopoly of Disney should be broken up, as argued by Matt Stoller, the author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War between Monopoly and Democracy. Then, Netflix has to run into trouble, which is more likely than you might think. Only at this point would it be possible to see a healthy cinema-going culture be reborn, with producers taking calculated risks on original work, perhaps safe in the knowledge that people want to leave their house-prisons to enjoy a unique film-watching experience. This is the rosy view: an alternative one is that cinema-going becomes an ever more gilded experience for the well-off; a boutique, infrequent luxury, while home-viewing comes to dominate the landscape. This would be a pity: streaming has a place, but only the sort of magical, uninterrupted experience that a wide screen and a cinema room can provide, allows total immersion in the medium. 

Times are bleak for films, but the big danger is in believing the problem comes down to individuals: just as diligently recycling bottles is a sweet gesture when there are no government disincentives to fly long-distance, supporting one’s local cinema counts for next to nothing when multinationals and states allow film to be so unregulated and unsupported. Cinemas have worked hard to make filmgoing conditions as safe as possible, but filmgoers’ qualms are understandable at a time of pandemic. It’s not on us to rescue cinema: films need a lifeline from on high.