On December 9th 2020, a newly created anonymous Twitter account called @ElectricRethink posted a thread about the treatment of workers at the The Electric Cinema in Birmingham. The thread alleged that at the beginning of the first lockdown in March, staff at the cinema were refused furlough pay and that managing director Tom Lawes had advised finding work elsewhere. One of the most striking tweets reads as follows: “No pay was received during notice period and some of the team were ineligible for universal credit. As a consequence the staff have suffered a major loss of income, a loss of independence and good health due to stress.”
The story was at this point a familiar one for anybody who follows news about the British film industry, or simply knows somebody who works at a cinema. From the beginning of lockdown in March, cinema workers have been voicing frustration with their employers. New Twitter accounts cropped up to serve as the public voice of disgruntled workers. The situation implicated the big chains like Cineworld and Odeon. However, what may have surprised some observers was that independent cinemas like Electric had let their employees down as well.
The takeaway from the situation is not that the pandemic had forced the hand of struggling cinemas. Rather, the pandemic had pushed conditions that were already exploitative to unbearable levels. Most disturbing were the allegations of a culture at Tyneside Cinema that normalised bullying and sexual abuse. Workers, past and present, felt compelled to divulge deeply traumatic memories online for the mere possibility of meaningful action being taken. The BBC reported at the beginning of December that Tyneside Cinema would be implementing 74 changes on the recommendation of an independent review. These changes are to be implemented over the next 18 months.
As workers across the country were speaking up, leading figures in the British film industry were more concerned about getting cinemas reopened again, rather than making sure the people working in them were treated fairly. In October, The Guardian interviewed film industry experts on the future of the exhibition sector. The emphasis was on how the sector could compete with the now-unstoppable rise of streaming, but there was no mention of staff, suggesting that any profitability would be achieved by keeping workers precariously employed. According to another Guardian article from the same month, the majority of Cineworld staff were on zero hours contracts.
Part of their argumentative strategy was to conjure up a romanticised ideal of visiting the cinema as an inherent social good where the masses can come together. It is quasi-religious fantasy which in the 21st century is provided at the expense of an underpaid, precariously employed workforce. As with many fantasies about living under capitalism, it can only convince by omitting the human misery that props it up.
In the UK, which in the last four decades has seen a shift toward service industry jobs, the situation with cinema workers is inevitably one about economic class. The stark dissonance in response to the crises that beset UK cinemas reveal the class position of those who speak. On one end, are the defiant voices of cinema workers across the UK. On the other side there are the comfortable complacents: CEOs, analysts, prominent critics, and publicists, who talk about the cinema as an endangered species under threat from streaming. It speaks to a certain attitude among individuals at the top of the industry, an attitude that prioritises institutions over people every time.
What’s required is an exhibition sector that prioritises the well-being of its frontline workers, a feat which would require imagination, an end to zero-hours contracts, and almost-certainly a few well-placed pay cuts at the top. No doubt there are those in the sector who would mock such thinking as a fantasy equal to the myth of cinema as a magically unifying force. However, if the choice ends up being between the death of cinemas as a money-making venture, or a business-as-usual return that relies on exploiting a precariously employed workforce, then I would choose death.
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