Independent cinemas in Lewisham hopeful for survival despite Covid

Catford Mews Cinema
Pic. Catford Mews Cinema

Independent cinemas in Lewisham believe they are doing better than chain-cinemas like Cineworld or Odeon during the pandemic because they don’t rely on big blockbuster movies.

Cineworld recently announced it will temporarily close 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse sites in the UK, shortly after studios MGM and Universal said that the James Bond film No Time To Die would be pushed back to April 2021.

But those running some of Lewisham’s cinamas say they haven’t been hit by these changes.

Olly Ruff, Collective Cinema founder said: “Your Odeons and your Vues are reliant on the Hollywood blockbusters which have more or less dried up. I think the independents like Catford Mews… they’re in a better place. They’re not so reliant on the Bond films and the big Hollywood beasts, to get people through the door.“

Ruff – whose own cinema is shut – praised Catford Mews for staying open, saying they’re growing strong for doing more unusual screenings like Blue Story. 

Federica Pugliese, Programme and Marketing Manager of Catford Mews agreed with Ruff.

Pugliese said: “I think it’s affecting multiplexes rather than smaller independent cinemas… multiplexers rely on… big titles… quite heavily.”

“I think a lot of people who are very fond of their local independent cinemas, so this is a very good thing when it comes to these difficult times.”.

Lewisham cinemas, Catford Mews and Collective Cinema – who both opened in 2019 – have experienced lockdown differently. The main difference is that after restrictions lifted in August, Collective Cinema decided to stay closed while Catford Mews re-opened.

Lewisham is home to only four cinemas, despite being a former cinema hub. All 4 cinemas have only been open for the last 6 years – Curzon at Goldsmiths University (2016), Deptford Cinema (2014), Collective Cinema (2019) and Catford Mews (2019). 

Deptford Cinema are having to vacate the space they currently reside in, however, they will hopefully set up in another venue while Curzon at Goldsmiths reopened Saturday 25 September.

Until 2016 when Deptford Cinema opened, Lewisham was the only borough in London without a cinema. 

According to Lewisham’s Lost Cinemas, there were over 20 cinemas in the 30s, including King Hall which was bomb-damaged in world war two and Gaumont Palace which was the largest cinema in Lewisham at 3050 seats. In 2001, the last cinema in Lewisham – ABC cinema – closed.

When ABC cinema in Catford closed in 2001, locals, protested for years after because the locals wanted it to remain a cinema. It eventually turned into a church by the Brazilian-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, much to the campaigner’s disappointment.

Catford Mews has had a lot of support from the local community since it’s September 2019 opening.

Catford Mews cinema
Pic. Catford Mews

Because of the declining cinema industry in Lewisham, Pugliese claims that this might be the first multi-screen cinema that Lewisham has had in over a generation.

Despite the former decline in Lewisham cinemas, it doesn’t look like history will repeat itself. Both aforementioned cinemas are not worried about closing down because of the pandemic, unlike the chain cinema Cineworld.

Collective Cinema
Pic. Collective Cinema

Because Ruff rents space in the two churches Collective Cinema screens films in – St Margarets in Blackheath and St Augustine’s in Honor Oak – there are no overhead costs. Therefore, his decision to re-open will be based on the social distancing restriction guidelines. 

Ruff said: “Their churches are just not the easiest buildings to control social distancing in, particularly when you think about the fact that seatings [is] pews. Pews are… very hard to actually keep people apart on,”

“I was hoping that social distancing would be more relaxed [by now] and it feels like it’s going the other way right now because of more restrictions coming in. When you add in things like the cleaning, the amount of extra work and the uncertainty over being able to keep people socially distant, it just made it not really viable for me to do it.”

Because Collective Cinema doesn’t own the space, Ruff believes it would be too difficult to control the environment. Additionally, Ruff didn’t believe it was morally right to even ask the churches he rents the space from.

He said: “It didn’t really feel right that they were only having 30 or 40 people maximum at the Sunday service and we’re trying to get 100 people in to watch a film.” 

On the other hand, as Catford Mews didn’t have any spacing problems, the cinema decided to re-open on September 13th with secure precautions, such as social distanced seating, masks, online bookings and easy access to hand santitiser.

Catford Mews
Pic. Catford Mews

Pugliese said: “People feel safe in the space and feel safe to use the space. For example, there’s people working remotely here all the time.”

Pugliese also confirmed that there had been no outbreaks, but they were briefly worried that this pandemic could be the end of Catford Mews. Unlike Collective Cinemas who could comfortably open any time, Catford Mews had more pressing concerns.

She said: “I think there might have been some fears [of Catford Mews shutting down]. Obviously being such a new venue before the announcement of the funding but the recovery funding …  is a huge help to keep running the venue steadily enough for the next few months,

“There’s been quite a lot of support – people are have been very supportive especially on social media…there’s a really good response from our regular customers. That’s really heartening.”

For now, it doesn’t seem like independent cinema’s are under immediate threat. Both Catford Mews and Collective cinemas are certain they won’t shut down any time soon.

Ruff said: “There’s no rush. For me to bring it back immediately because this is a side project for me. I really enjoy it and I love doing it, it’s been a great 18 months of setting up and getting it running, but I’ve got my day job and I’ve got my wife, my kids, and they’ve got other things going on.”

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