Independent cinemas “shielded” from the blockbuster effect

Image above: Cinema at Watermans

A string of postponements of what should have been blockbuster movies from the autumn 2020 schedule has hit the cinema industry hard, but independents are to some extent shielded, Watermans arts centre Marketing Director Erica Weston tells Matt Smith.

On Sunday 4 October Cineworld announced the temporary closure all of its UK venues, with the company warning that industry has become “unviable”. The following day Odeon said they would be closing a quarter of their cinemas on weekdays across the UK.

The big cinema chains were reacting to the news that the release of the new James Bond movie No Time To Die was being put back for a second time. It is now due to premiere in April 2021. Large portions of the American cinema market have been shut down. Studios are holding off releasing films during the pandemic in the hope of making a better profit later on., so the pipeline of big blockbuster films has run dry. Other releases that have been pushed into 2021 include Disney’s Black Widow and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.

Whilst larger cinema chains are clearly struggling, this isn’t the case with smaller, independent cinemas such as the one at Watermans in Brentford. At least not yet anyway.

“Big blockbusters don’t affect Watermans quite so much”

Erica Weston, the Marketing Director of Watermans, told The Chiswick Calendar:

“Big blockbusters don’t affect Watermans quite so much because we’re an independent arts cinema and our audience tend towards more independent films and smaller titles.”

The cinema is only operating at a third of its capacity of 120 seats, due to coronavirus restrictions.

“We have been filling that capacity quite well, and to expectation to date, which is quite encouraging” she said. “But the main problem is, which is what Cineworld have been saying, is that the pipeline of new films is really, really bad.

“A lot of production had stopped over the full lockdown and so I think it will be interesting to see what comes over the next few months. At the moment we have been ok because the smaller films have been released and they’re less American centric.”

Adapting to change

Images above: Erica Weston; Watermans Arts Centre

The benefit of Watermans having an independent cinema is that they can create a programme week-by-week which has been very closely tailored to their audiences tastes.

“We can be really agile and really responsive to what they’re enjoying and we know them really well so that’s helped us to weather this.

Watermans took a survey about how customers feel about returning to the cinema with Covid-19 still circulating. They found that a third said they were completely unbothered, some were nervous but not completely opposed to the idea and some were not considering coming back at all in the current climate.

“Something else we are doing is we have protective screenings on Mondays, which is for people who were shielding and who are being extra careful. The idea is if you’re in a room with other people who are taking extra care, then you’ll feel safer than you would normally and that’s been quite popular.

“The more that people see other people go to the cinema, the more they’ll be inclined to go themselves. Which is why films like James Bond are important because it gets people out to see how safe the cinemas have been made.”

“Obviously, long-term, any cinema will say that’s it not sustainable only to have 20-30% capacity.”

No more discounts

Prices have stayed the same at Watermans but discounts such as £6 Mondays and The Chiswick Calendar’s £6 Tuesdays have been scrapped because the arts centre can no longer afford to give discounts.

“We’ve kept our £6 families, because we know that families have been very hard hit by Covid in terms of jobs.

“Basically we have just simplified our pricing structure.”

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