Very few cinema chains in the UK are now not facing some uncertainty over their future: here’s a snapshot of the picture in one part of the world.
There’s a line in the first Die Hard movie, as Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is getting gradually more and more frustrated by the resistance offered by Bruce Willis’ John McClane, where he snarls that “sooner or later, I might get to someone you do care about”.
For film lovers in the West Midlands area of the UK, from where this piece has been written, there’s not much chance that a venue they care about hasn’t been affected by the changing state of cinema exhibition. And the West Midlands is far from unique.
Since – and even slightly before – the pandemic hit us in 2020, it’s no secret that cinemas have been struggling. Even now in 2023, with the majority of people entirely comfortable with venturing out, ticket sale numbers are falling some way short of where they were in 2019.
As such, outlets such as this one have been reporting on the struggles being faced by the cinema industry over the last five years or so. It’s not been the most joyous job, but also, most of us on the whole feel quite remote from the story of Odeon parent company AMC trying to reorganise a $10bn debt mountain. Or of Cineworld heading out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US.
More recently though, the stories have been getting much closer to home.
Specific to my area of the world, venues started tumbling way back in 2020. It was as soon as the pandemic hit that Bromsgrove’s Artrix went under, and whilst four years on from that there’s now a board fighting to bring it back to life, the venue remains dark.
Around the same time, the Electric Cinema in the middle of Birmingham went off radar, and it took some time for new owners to come in and bring it back to life. But sadly, no such fate has befallen The Lighthouse Cinema, which closed its doors in November 2022, after a very challenge period of time for the venue. Again, there’s interest in bringing the place back to life, but it too remains dark for the time being.
That, already, is three independent venues within 20 minutes driving distance of me that have hit the buffers in the last few years, and only one so far has bounced back. And perhaps we sort of expect independents to have a fight a bit more of a day-to-day battle to stay in business? Maybe that’s why stories don’t always cut through when perhaps they should.
Yet this is far, far from the whole picture. As we’ve seen over the last few years, it’s all areas of cinema exhibition that have been feeling the pinch, and it’s been thrown into sharp focus by the struggles with the big chains as well.
Again, this is just a snapshot of one area, but in 2021, the long-running Showcase Cinema in Walsall – viewable from the M6, if you’re someone who gets stuck in traffic jams there a lot – shut it doors. This year, the whole building was demolished. It’s now being rebuilt as a car showroom.
The Empire Cinema in Rubery is just about still going, but administrators are now searching for a buyer as they try to keep the site going. Six Empire cinemas have already shut down, and it’s anybody’s guess whether someone will become up the presumably-profitable multiplexes that have been kept going.
Plans to bring back to life an Empire site in Sutton Coldfield, which had been gathering interest, are now presumably completely dead, although there’s an active Facebook group still trying to do something about that.
Cineworld and Picturehouse? Well, the entire UK side of the business has now entered administration as well, as it seeks to get on top of the sizeable debts the business is operating under. Over 120 sites in the UK are affected by this, and a whole lot of staff who are left wondering whether they’ll still have a chair when this particular piece of music stops.
Elsewhere? Odeon is part of the aforementioned AMC group, and continues to tread water. Vue looks in decent nick, given that it refinanced its business back in January of last year. That’s when its creditors took over the chain, as reported here. Reel Cinemas remain active.
It looks like there’s a future ahead for Vue, Cineworld, Reel and Picturehouse, plus there’s no threat that I can read to Odeon in the immediate future. But still: gathering all of this information has made me appreciate still further how perilous the cinema exhibition industry has become. Every single chain cinema near me has had a brush with problems over the last few years. Only one independent I can think of has remained pretty much in tact with no obvious threat. Heaven knows what the story behind closed doors there though: given the problems everywhere else in the industry, I’m not assuming it’s been plain sailing.
Now I’ve been lucky. I’ve been within 20 minutes – not withstanding traffic – of a bunch of venues where I can watch films. I have a car, I can drive, and I can just about navigate a modern car park (apart from one in Stockport, but that’s another story). There’s been some degree of choice, and I’ve always appreciated that.
I’m still lucky: I still have choice. Those living in Sunderland and Wigan at this moment don’t have a multiplex cinema at all in their towns. These are not small areas in the middle of nowhere either, with no disrespect meant to lovely small areas in the middle of nowhere. It’s just I’m talking areas of the country with very sizeable local catchment areas, who don’t have a multiplex anymore. That can’t be right. It isn’t right.
And yet it’s happening, and it’s happening around us. It might not be on your doorstep yet. I can sense it’s getting closer to mine, and I went out at the weekend to visit the Empire in Rubery and a small Reel venue in Quinton. It feels the best thing I can do.
Hans Gruber was, thankfully, wrong about many things. But he called this particular subject correctly, assuming you go along with my clunky paraphrasing of his point. That we do notice more when things we read about are suddenly happening closer to us. I’m certainly guilty of that, and the only way to keep cinemas going is the obvious one: to support them.
To all the staff currently affected by all the uncertainly, sending you the very best and hope you’re on your feet as soon as possible. For those without a cinema close to them, likewise I hope that gets resolved as quickly as possible too. And for those of us lucky enough to have screens offering a range of films in our vicinity? Well, one of the lessons of the last few years is they might not be there tomorrow…
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