Why Yorkshire’s independent cinemas still have reel hope for future

The film industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic but Yorkshire’s independent cinema bosses continue to be optimistic, despite the latest lockdown. Chris Burn reports.

Dan Westgarth at The Station Cinema in Richmond. Picture Tony Johnson

Even before the third national lockdown was announced at the start of this week, the coronavirus pandemic has been an extremely testing time for the nation’s cinemas.

Recent analysis by Comscore revealed that 2020 was unsurprisingly the worst year in history for cinema admissions since records began in 1928 as ticket sales fell by 76 per cent following months of closures, partial reopenings at much-reduced capacities, and multiple blockbusters either being delayed for release or put straight onto streaming platforms.

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But despite the extremely testing times, which have led to major questions about the long-term sustainability of cinemas, those in charge of independent venues in Yorkshire say they can see a brighter future on the horizon.

Dan Westgarth at The Station Cinema in Richmond. Picture Tony Johnson

In the run-up to Christmas, The Station Cinema, in Richmond, was one of the few cinemas to remain open in the county while North Yorkshire was in Tier 2 and the rest of the region was in Tier 3, where cinemas were closed.  

The independently-run cinema with three screens that opened in 2007 in the town’s former railway station building managed to put on a French film festival as well as special festive screenings of The Polar Express while it was open following the November lockdown which also shut cinemas.

Manager Dan Westgarth says the latest lockdown carries somewhat less uncertainty and worry than the original one did in March 2020.

“It is disappointing but we were expecting it. It is just about planning ahead for when we can reopen. We have done this twice before so we know we can come back. It is just about being positive.”

The Station Cinema in Richmond. Picture Tony Johnson

One of the central reasons for that optimism is because the cinema received a grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund. Westgarth explains: “Rishi Sunak is our local MP and he gave us some really nice words of recommendation to put in our application. We were lucky enough to be awarded £64,469.”

He says that money – combined with the furlough scheme – provides “piece of mind” that there is a way through until restrictions are lifted again. “The furlough scheme has been massive – you cannot underestimate how important that has been that we can pay the team and not make redundancies.”

Westgarth says the reality of how challenging things would get became clear when the latest James Bond film No Time To Die had its initial April 2020 release delayed at the start of March.

The national lockdown followed just a few weeks later and by the time the cinema reopened its doors again in summer it was to the very different world of social distancing. The Station invested in extra cleaning, an air filtration system and scheduled more time between screenings, while showings were only at around a quarter of their normal capacity.

Ian Wild chief executive of Sheffield's Showroom Cinema. Picture Scott Merrylees

Westgarth says reopening showed them how much the cinema meant to the community. “People really missed coming to the cinema when we closed in March. The best thing to me was in July when we had just reopened and our first film was Brief Encounter. We had an elderly couple in who hadn’t been out since March but they felt safe enough with us to do so. They came to watch a film together and support us.

“The outpouring of support has been fantastic. We have had people wanting to volunteer, people making donations.”

Cinemas were dealt a further blow in autumn when the new Bond film was postponed once again - with its intended November 2020 opening moved to April 2021.

The move led to Cineworld temporarily closing more than 600 sites in the UK and the US as chains struggled to coax customers back through the doors after the initial lockdown.

Westgarth says while major chains were shutting their screens, his team were determined to stay open as long as they could.

“We wanted to go as long as possible. We were the first cinema to open back up in the area after the initial lockdown.

“People in the industry were waiting for Bond to save us but the delay in hindsight was the right decision when the next lockdown came in November.

“It is about getting people’s confidence back that it is safe. That has been the biggest challenge.

“Films getting cancelled and delayed has knocked every cinema but we have been trying to get new material and show things we might not normally show.

“We have got some really loyal customers who had been to three to five shows over Christmas, we have seen an uplift in visitors. It is escapism and that is what people want at the moment.

“The week before Christmas we were about 50 per cent of what we did this time last year which is amazing given the restrictions on numbers.”

Westgarth says despite the current situation, he believes there will be a hunger for people to return to the cinema in the relatively near future. “I think once the vaccine rolls out and people’s confidence gets back, it is going to be massive – particularly once all the blockbusters start falling. It is just waiting for that one big film to kickstart it.”

A further challenge to the industry’s recovery is WarnerMedia’s announcement earlier last month that its entire slate of 2021 films will arrive on the HBO Max streaming service at the same time as in cinemas in the US.

But Westgarth says the magic of a night at the cinema cannot be replicated by streaming.

“You can’t beat that experience of the popcorn, the lights out, and the shared participation. There is something magical about watching something together on a cinema screen.”

Another Yorkshire cinema hoping for a better year is the four-screen Showroom, in Sheffield, which is one of Europe’s largest independent cinema.

As a registered charity and Sheffield’s only independently programmed cinema, the Showroom also received money from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.

Chief executive Ian Wild says its £536,449 has helped secure its future for the coming months.

“Obviously it made a huge difference in that it gives us the knowledge we can keep going until the end of March whatever happens and we are not in the position of having to make people redundant.

“Without that award, I don’t know what we would have done. We might have had to close the business until we could think about reopening.

“Without the furlough scheme we wouldn’t have lasted very long in the initial lockdown. Along with a lot of other smaller businesses, it has kept us going.”

Wild says that it was “quite late in the day” in March 2020 when he realised exactly how much Covid was going to affect the industry.

“It was probably early March. We closed on March 18 and we had probably a week of wondering before of whether we would have to.

“I was lucky enough to go to the Berlin Film Festival in February and saw so many fantastic films which we were really looking forward to showing. Shortly after we got back, we realised there was a real problem.”

Its annual Sheffield Adventure Film Festival had been due to take place in late March, with many screenings sold out, but closure happened just before it was held.

He explains: “We were closed for exactly six months from March 18 to September 18 and we reopened for just six weeks and six days. Being open was fantastic, we put a lot of effort into reopening and we spent a lot on safety measures.

“Once we reopened it was a great experience. The staff really liked being back at work and the customers were certainly very happy to come back.

“What was noticeable was we had a growing audience in the six weeks we were open.

“At first it was mostly younger people, but towards the end we started doing earlier matinees and a lot more older people  were feeling more confident about returning. The final week before we closed was out best week since we had reopened.

“I think people were looking to get out of the house but also maybe have a bit of escapism.”

Speaking before the latest lockdown was announced, Wild says there had been hopes of the Showroom opening again early this year before the emergence of the new strain of Covid which means even an Easter reopening is now looking “optimistic”.

“We are ready to open but want to be safe to do so,” he says.

“We keep writing plans then ripping them up and starting again. We have done a whole different set of scenarios about what we think might happen. But broadly, there are a lot of really good films for us to show and a backlog of films that were held back. We think it will take some time to build our audience back to where it was, we are thinking about the process over a year. We have budgeted for gradually increasing audiences over a year after we reopen.

“We reduced our capacity so that obviously reduced the number of people that could come but quite a lot of our screenings were selling out at 25 per cent of their normal capacity. We were reaching the point when the reduced capacities were holding us back as we could have sold more tickets.

Wild says the challenges posed by streaming were already in existence before Covid. “The question for cinemas is can the experience be strong enough to attract customers? If you think of cinemas as not just a place to watch films but somewhere for a night out, having a drink and maybe a meal before, that in some ways is more important than the actual film.

“I think with the ‘experience’ part of the night out as well as the quality of the films we show, there is a chance we can attract customers back. It seems to me people don’t want to stay in their homes watching TV right now – they have had enough of that.

“What has been quite extraordinary has been the amount of support from our customers. People are committing to renew their memberships and making donations. It is fantastic and we are trying to think of how best to thank them when we reopen.”

Big films pencilled in for release in 2021  

Cinemas around the country have sat empty for much of 2020 but that could be set to change in 2021, with a slew of blockbusters waiting in the wings as soon as we can return to multiplexes.

Many of the most anticipated films of last year – including the James Bond outing No Time To Die, Marvel’s Black Widow and the long-awaited Top Gun: Maverick – were delayed amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

No Time to Die is currently due to be released in April, the same month as A Quiet Place II, while May features Black Widow, as Scarlett Johansson’s superhero finally gets a standalone film.

Another adrenaline pumping adventure arrives in July with Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel 35 years in the making starring Tom Cruise.

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