EXCLUSIVE: Vue International CEO and founder Tim Richards wants to avoid “the nuclear option” of temporarily closing his cinemas in the UK and other overseas markets amid recent shifts to the landscape. However, in the wake of the news that MGM’s No Time To Die was pulling out of November and heading to April 2021, Vue, which operates 91 sites in the UK and Ireland as well as another 137 across Europe and Taiwan, “is looking at every single cinema in every single market,” Richards tells Deadline, before the company makes a determination on future plans.
This week has seen exhibition staring at a desolate near future as major Hollywood movies have largely vacated the rest of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with key U.S. film market New York still shuttered. On Monday, Cineworld confirmed it is closing all of its U.S. and UK locations for an undetermined period, while Cinemark and AMC have said they would remain open. The UK’s Odeon is scaling back operations with a portion of its venues set to close during weekdays.
Vue, for its part, is taking a “rolling” approach to the current situation, Richards tells me in the Q&A below. The company, he insists, does not want to darken its screens: “We are cinema operators and we want to keep our cinemas open for as long as we can.” While he is sympathetic to the plight of the studios, he says, “Our plea is, ‘We’re ready to go, we need movies.’”
DEADLINE: How have you been dealing with the news of the past few days?
TIM RICHARDS: We were caught off guard on Friday by Bond moving. We, like others in the industry, have committed huge resources to PPE, to infrastructural changes, new operating systems, staff training — everything to help ensure a safe environment for our customers and staff. We took our employees off of furlough programs and we reopened our cinemas in anticipation of movies that suddenly weren’t there. That’s why, as an industry, it’s hit very hard. It has been a double blow as a consequence.
DEADLINE: So what’s next? Do you expect to close some cinemas, even if temporarily?
RICHARDS: We honestly haven’t hit the landing yet. We are simply doing what we normally do. You know, as a company we are highly analytical so we are looking at every single cinema in every single market and are going to make a determination on what we do next.
We see there are a lot of shades of gray leading up to the nuclear option of closing everything and that’s what we’re trying to explore. We do not want to close our cinemas. We are cinema operators and we want to keep our cinemas open for as long as we can.
DEADLINE: Would you look at limiting showtimes or closing during the midweeks?
RICHARDS: All options are on the table, that’s what we’re evaluating right now.
DEADLINE: Do you know when you are going to make a final determination or is it just sort of rolling?
RICHARDS: It’s going to be rolling. We’re not going to do anything drastic. Our goal is to really fine-tune. We’re focused every hour of every day on liquidity issues, we’re focused on surviving and living to fight another day; that’s our only goal and we want to be able to make it well into 2021 to take advantage of what looks like is going to be an extraordinary year once we get there.
DEADLINE: What is your sense on the stability of the release calendar going forward?
RICHARDS: I don’t think anybody can really crystal ball what’s going to happen in the next few months, but certainty would be hugely helpful. Uncertainty is what kills businesses and if we can plan on a release schedule that will happen, it will help the industry survive.
The problem that we’ve had as an industry is we’ve opened all of our cinemas, incurred all of those costs and then we’ve just been waiting and waiting and waiting and we just need to have some kind of idea of what’s going to come out and be able to rely on it.
DEADLINE: Is there any scenario under which you see a major studio film released overseas ahead of domestic and before New York opens?
RICHARDS: Ultimately, it’s going to be a studio decision, but it’s hard to understand when 75%-80% of box office is generated outside of the U.S. and we are experiencing this huge pent-up demand from our customers. Why wouldn’t studios want to monetize when they can, where they can?
A global day-and-date release right now has to be very challenging, if not impossible because different countries are in different places with the pandemic. So you have to look at the next best thing. Roughly 75%-80% of screens globally are now open. China’s open, Asia is pretty much open, Europe is open, Central and South America are opening… Our plea is ‘We’re ready to go, we need movies.’
DEADLINE: How have your theaters been faring in general throughout the reopening process?
RICHARDS: We have seen a direct relationship between box office and length of time reopened. So, in our markets where we’ve been reopened the longest, take Denmark as an example, customers get comfortable again and it doesn’t happen overnight — it happens over weeks and months and we’re seeing that now where people are comfortable and safe and continue to come out and watch movies again.
The UK was the last to open… We had our biggest day since reopening last Saturday — and that’s without any new movies. Now, that is not a sustainable business model, but it does speak to the pent-up demand for people to go out and see a movie.
DEADLINE: Apart from Tenet and the handful of other new movies that are available, what are you showing?
RICHARDS: We’re showing everything. Even on the alternative side we signed up with football and music events, and the studios have been really helpful in opening up libraries with big films from the past.
Again, it speaks to the demand when you have successful launches of films that have been on terrestrial TV for 10 years, I mean, forget PVOD and SVOD, these have been on terrestrial and people are coming out to see them on a big screen. We have managed to demonstrate that we are, as an industry, different than nightclubs or bars or restaurants. We are absolutely different, we are a safe harbor for families and customers to go and watch a movie.
Well over 80% of our customers have told us that they were more than happy and felt comfortable and safe while watching a movie and would recommend it to their friends and family.
DEADLINE: What is the overall situation like in the UK right now? A decision could be made for you as to closing some cinemas if restrictions become tighter…
RICHARDS: I think that we’re going to live in a world of isolated hot spots for the foreseeable future. Testing, tracing, treatments and ultimately a vaccine — any combination of those will instantly be transformational for the industry. But until that time, we are going to have hot spots. There may be a situation where there is a two or three week lockdown in a specific area where we may not be able to open two or three cinemas or we may have restricted hours in it. But very high confidence level that we are going to have all or almost all of our cinemas open in all of our markets… I do not see a scenario, again, where we are on full lockdown in any of our markets.
DEADLINE: In terms of financials, what is your current status?
RICHARDS: I mean, we’re struggling like everybody else. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to make it through this. I think a very large number of independents and smaller regional circuits will not make it, these are cinemas that are closed and will not reopen again.
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