Local indie cinemas: getting creative to survive the pandemic crisis

Empty Theater. Pic: Felix Mooneeram

Nine months of COVID restrictions and lockdowns have local independent cinemas relying on Government aid, member support and streaming technology to make it through winter. 

With the change to Tier 3 in London this week, cinemas will need to close their doors once again. The next assessment of national tier levels will take place on December 30, meaning London’s cinemas will miss out on the usual Christmas rush.

“Despite the challenges the film industry has been facing, our business model is built around adapting,” said Oliver Meek, executive director at Hackney’s Rio Cinema, which has been in operation under different names since 1909

Before the move from Tier 2 to Tier 3 restrictions in London, cinemas like the Rio were able to secure an exemption from the ‘substantial meal’ rule for selling alcohol. “That was so important for us because food and beverage sales are crucial,” Meek said. 

The Rio was also able to raise over £16,000 from members and local residents on GoFundMe.  There have also been grants from the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport, Meek said: “Long term, without that support, it will be very difficult for us.” 

Lewisham’s Deptford Cinema has not been as lucky with financial aid. Much of the support is based on the legal classification of an organisation. 

“We’re not a charity and we’re not a business, which disqualifies us from a lot of funding schemes,” said Rob Szeliga, a volunteer at Deptford Cinema. The cinema has had to move out of its current location to save on rent and look for a larger space.

In the meantime, like many other indie cinemas, the volunteer-run operation has pivoted. It now runs a streaming service, a film journal and a podcast to keep customers engaged during the cinema’s search for a new property. 

Though essential for maintaining a presence during the pandemic, for some cinema owners, the transition to online services has served as a reminder about the value of in-person community. 

Szeliga said that Deptford Cinema’s streaming service will “diminish or disappear altogether” once a new property is found. “So much of our appeal to customers and volunteers is the embodied experience,” he added.  

Croydon’s David Lean Cinema recently began online screenings to sustain the non-profit theater after COVID and the borough’s bankruptcy put its re-opening date in question. 

David Lavelli, an external relations volunteer for the cinema, said the streaming service and David Lean’s revenue-sharing arrangement with the distributor were a key lifeline. 

Lavelli was anxious to get back to the cinema in person, however. “I really miss the regular patrons and chatting with them at the bar before the show. There’s a very community feel to the place,” he said. 

At the Genesis Cinema in Tower Hamlets, general manager Matt Whiteley’s focus has been on engaging the East London community through the in-house coffee shop, restaurant, and theater space. 

“As wonderful as it is to be able to watch films on your laptop, what we do best is host events and bring people together.” 

“We have a fantastic venue that can be used in lots of different ways and our focus is going to continue to be on that,” Whiteley said.

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