As cinemas in the UK consider whether or not they should stay open for the foreseeable future, a few words on treating their staff properly.

As you’re likely aware by now, Cineworld and Picturehouse screens around the UK will go dark later this week, with all of their sites closing down. This was nominally in response to the news that the new James Bond film, No Time To Die, has been delayed into next year. But conversely, there’s been a sense from multiplexes that the Bond delay was more the final straw. Since then, Dune has also moved into next year too.

Over the weekend then, the Sunday Times had on its front page a story that Cineworld was set to close down until next year, affecting the jobs of over 5000 people. The news thus came out on social media on Saturday evening, albeit with no further details.

Furthermore, and I’ve been contacted by a lot of Cineworld staff in the last 24 hours, it was the first the vast majority of the company’s employees had heard of it. A holding statement was then released by the firm on its Twitter feed on Sunday, suggesting that it had not made a final decision on the closures. Less than 24 hours later, it had.

Now, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for cinemas trying to stay in business at the moment. You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a brutal year, and the film exhibition business has had little support to keep going. Thus, when the UK government announced that cinemas could reopen, they were faced with a difficult choice: open their doors and potentially incur bigger losses, or stay shut and play it as safe as possible. Most opted for the former.

Whilst they did their bit though, the majority of major film studios abandoned them, delaying their releases into next year. None seemed to sting as much as Disney not making a print of Mulan available in September, as it instead launched the $200m blockbuster on its Disney+ service for a premium price. I still find it staggering that it couldn’t even muster 50 prints for cinemas if they wanted. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll send it again: thank goodness for the ‘smaller’ distributors who have gone out of their way to keep supporting cinemas with new films.

Against this backdrop, it’s understandable that cinemas would struggle. Furthermore, whether you agree or not the industry should receive government support to keep going, it wasn’t forthcoming (save for Boris Johnson on Monday telling people they should go to the cinema). And as big films kept getting put back, the hard truth is that re-releases and smaller movies weren’t giving the big chains the footfall they needed. It’s not tricky to see the crumbs leading to the decision made by Cineworld.

Yet there’s no excuse for a lack of simple courtesy.

When cinemas did start reopening their doors, it was in large part thanks to a monumental effort by their staff. Staff who had to undergo extensive fresh training, take on extra duties, and also face the added wrath of certain patrons who, er,  ‘weren’t so keen on government guidelines’. Their efforts meant that cinema doors could open again, and there have been some box office successes as a consequence. Tenet has done well in the UK, but also look at a film such as After We Collided, that’s now pulled in over £2.5m over here.

Furthermore, I’ve seen little but widespread praise for the way cinemas have handled themselves and how they’ve introduced fresh protocols. My local, the Empire in Rubery, Birmingham, has been wonderful. Really well organised and a delight to visit.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to put so much effort in then, and then to find out on Twitter that your job was under threat. Furthermore, for no clarification to then arrive until Monday morning. It was only then that Cineworld confirmed it was closing its venues, and that also the Picturehouse chain that it also owns was affected.

As much as Cineworld’s boss has protested the news was leaked in a message to staff, the point was it was out there. And in a year when the mental health and anxiety of many of us has taken something of a battering, I’d suggest that it’s not then fair to keep people waiting another 36 hours to find out what’s going on.

On Monday morning, seemingly tied to the official confirmation that Cineworld was release, staff got an email. “I received the email about 20 minutes after I saw the press release”, one employee told me. “As of yet, staff still do not know what it means for us”.

“I found out what was happening initially on Twitter on Saturday night”, another told us. “And we’ve been kept in the dark since then. There has been zero consultation with staff, people had to go into work yesterday not knowing if they were going to have a job today”.

These are just a flavour of the messages I’ve received.

Here’s a flavour of what was sent to staff (again, that many people forwarded to me)…

Again, I have a lot of sympathy for the position Cineworld found itself in here, truly. I want the chain to succeed and for the big screen to thrive.

But I have even more sympathy for the staff affected. I think lessons need to be learned going forward here, and – simply – the staff of cinemas treated a lot better. The amount they put up with, for a wage that’s hardly having anyone booking an exotic holiday, deserves

Odeon has handled this a lot better. It wrote to Limitless customers attending some of its multiplexes over the weekend to let them know their cinema was moving to three or four day opening hours, instead of the full week. But I’ve now had reports from staff that they knew this was coming in advance. Furthermore, Odeon has been in touch to confirm that it communicated the news to staff well in advance of Limitless customers finding out.

If you’ve got to deliver bad news – and lord knows, none of us like doing it – that strikes me as a far fairer way forward.

I hope for lots of things. I hope that cinemas somehow come through the next year in tact. I hope that the likes of Cineworld, Odeon, independents, and all the screens around the UK can find a way to thrive. I hope that there’s a way through this.

But – on top of health and wellbeing – I hope that cinema staff get a better deal out of all of this. That they’re treated fairly, that they’re told news that affects their livelihoods before the rest of us find out. And that ultimately, they get the appreciation they deserve, but don’t always seem to get.

Images: BigStock

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