The owner of the UK’s oldest cinema says the pandemic has created “the biggest existential crisis” facing the industry.
Electric in Birmingham dates back to 1909, but was closed for nearly 22 months due to closure at the start of the pandemic, and finally reopened to the public this week.
It was taken over last year by Kevin Markwick, who also owns The Uckfield Picture House in East Sussex. He has worked in the industry for his entire life and has never feared for the future of cinema in the last two years.
“This has been the biggest existential crisis ever,” he says.
“Not only were we obviously financially tight all the way because no money was coming in, but you still have to pay film distributors for all the outgoing, but also for home entertainment, streaming and things like that. The indecent went with haste.’ It’s not entirely clear that we’ll have a steady supply of films when we come back.”
When Universal’s Trolls World Tour went live streaming in April 2020, it was the first major studio film to skip its planned cinema release.
The industry was crippled by the closure of cinema halls. UK box office revenue was over £1.25bn in 2019 before the pandemic. In 2020 this dropped to just under £300m.
Delay in release date of big blockbuster films The difficulties of the industry have increased.
When the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, finally released last year, it was the first sign of a revival. Spider-Man: No Way Home has also proved to be a hit at the box office.
UK box office revenue rose to a little over £556m in 2021, an encouraging sign in a year when cinemas were closed for several months of lockdown, but still well short of pre-pandemic revenue.
Roger Shannon, Visiting Professor of British Cinema Histories at Birmingham City University, believes the industry may be optimistic about the future, despite changes in the way people enjoy films.
“I think the pandemic has accelerated that technological changes and streamers have become more prominent,” he says.
“Of course we’re all watching movies from our couches… but I don’t think that’s the case either.
“Streamers are really repurposing, reevaluating and reinvesting in studio infrastructure in the UK, which I think bodes well for the long term.
“I think the cinema numbers will recover because I think the appetite for cinema has not gone away and I think cinema will start again with incredibly new ways of telling stories and I think The technological revolution means that stories will be told in different ways.”
Mr Markwick shares that optimism.
“It’s a completely different experience,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how big your TV is—you still need to get out of the house from time to time.”
His daughter Katie, who is the manager of the cinema, doesn’t think that streaming poses a threat to others.
“It’s probably not even a matter of competition, I don’t think I’m being honest because I think we can both exist in the same world,” she says.
“Watching a movie in the cinema is totally different to watching a movie by itself or at home with your family because watching a movie in the cinema is such a communal experience. It all just builds and creates this wonderful atmosphere.”
But she admits that they are in the hands of filmmakers to flourish in 2022.
“We need films that were supposed to come out in 2020, that can really come out,” she says.
“Big blockbusters that will really bring people back to cinema and big blockbusters that are being shown only in cinemas.”
With handling such an iconic cinema comes the responsibility of continuing over a century of success. But so far the signs are good. Interest in the reopening of cinema has exceeded their expectations.
“Everyone is really excited with the phone ringing off the hook and everyone saying ‘When are you open? When can I get back?’ I think people are looking forward to it,” she says.