Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip Knatchbull is CEO of Curzon, the UK cinema chain that also operates a distribution business and VOD service, Curzon Home Cinema. It was an auspicious start to 2020 for Curzon, with its release of the Oscar-winning Parasite becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in UK box office history, topping out at close to $15M. That followed news two days before Christmas that billionaire Charles Cohen had acquired the company.
Fast forward three months into 2020 and the picture is a little less rosy, as it is for cinemas the world over. Curzon’s UK venues have been shuttered since March 17 as the country scrambles to contain the deadly spread of COVID-19. The bright side for Knatchbull and co is that Curzon has established itself as a multi-faceted business in the last decade, without an over reliance on the strict, traditional theatrical model. Its distribution arm Curzon Artificial Eye, unable to place films in cinemas, is instead turning to online, releasing titles such as Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Truth directly onto Curzon Home Cinema, with a view to letting them play in cinemas once they reopen. It has also programmed a series of Q&As with filmmakers, speaking from lockdown, that audiences can tune into after a communal viewing. The proof has been in the pudding, with the service seeing record-breaking traffic in the last couple of weeks.
Knatchbull said two days after cinemas shut that the company was in a position to avoid any redundancies for a period of three months, a promise that contrasted with UK multiplex giant Cineworld laying off many of its zero hours staff in a sweeping move (a decision it has since reversed after the UK government introduced its plan for state-backed furloughs to avoid widespread job losses). Instead, Curzon staff have taken a short-term pay-cut, and Knatchbull says the government’s policy makes the business sustainable for the foreseeable, with working employees returning to full pay and those unable to work taking the state supported furlough.
DEADLINE: After the virus began to spread on a global scale, did you anticipate that cinemas would be so drastically affected?
Philip Knatchbull: Curzon has a very international outlook, through the distribution business we have partners all over the world. So we were well aware of how the virus was affecting cinemas in China and Korea for example. We knew if the virus came to the UK there would be a significant impact on the business. Of course, on a personal level it is still difficult to fully comprehend until it actually happens.
DEADLINE: What was your message to staff the day you had to shut your venues?
Knatchbull: Our message was that we have built an amazing company and that was down to people who work for Curzon. We wanted to reassure everyone that we would be doing everything in our power to keep the group together. But I also wanted to stress that while our livelihoods are incredibly important, our lives are even more important. This will be an incredibly difficult period to get through mentally and we all have to support each other through it.
DEADLINE: You tweeted that you have a plan to avoid redundancies for three months, which is obviously great news. Can you give us some more info about how you’re achieving that?
Knatchbull: With cinemas closing we were looking at a huge reduction in income and an incredibly difficult situation. But it was also a heartening moment, everyone across the business agreed unanimously to come together and share the burden and take a short-term pay-cut to ensure those at risk could remain in employment. The government intervention has made that more sustainable in the long-term and I’m confident that we will come out of this changed but stronger as as a fully vertically integrated film company
DEADLINE: Were you referring to three months of cinema closures? How long do you think this could go on for?
Knatchbull: We’ve made a plan that would see us through three months of cinema closure. It’s very difficult to predict the nature of this from day-to-day, but this was the most sensible course of action. We keep everything under review as new information arises. I don’t think there is any value in individual business speculating on what could happen. We have to listen to the advice from medical professionals and follow it closely.
DEADLINE: In every crisis there is opportunity – is this a good moment for Curzon Home Cinema to provide some much needed entertainment for people stuck at home?
Knatchbull: Opportunity is the wrong word, there are bigger things going on than film. But cinema provides entertainment, solace and comfort during the good times and the bad. So if we can provide that now then great. I also think it’s important to have an independent voice here, not just the bigger streaming providers.
DEADLINE: What changes could we see to Curzon Home Cinema during the crisis?
Knatchbull: We are looking to increase new content, especially PVOD. Most of that will be new acquisitions through Curzon Artificial Eye but we’ve also been working with a number of third parties to bring films previously intended for the cinema onto the service.
We have also recently announced a series of live Q&As. We started with System Crasher and a Q&A with director Nora Fingscheidt, which was watched by over 5,000 people. Our second one was Bait director Mark Jenkin in conversation with Mark Kermode. This Friday we have Haifaa al-Mansour talking about The Perfect Candidate. We want to keep the magic of collective viewing alive.
DEADLINE: How is your distribution business coping? Did the big hit you had with Parasite firm up the coffers? Are you looking at Curzon Home Cinema opportunities there?
Knatchbull: There is no doubt that the huge success of Parasite will help alleviate some of the financial losses but our distribution arm is already well geared up for streaming with several years’ experience of day-and-date releasing. We’ve always been nimble and thought creatively about distribution strategy. Where appropriate we’ll be looking to release through Curzon Home Cinema with a theatrical element coming in later. We are looking to acquire new titles to release via Curzon Home Cinema.
DEADLINE: So for films that are released online early, you will look to place those back into cinemas once they reopen?
Knatchbull: Yes, I think it’s very likely that there will be a lag between cinemas reopening and distributors committing to significant releases. So there will be an opportunity there for films that have gone online during the closure.
DEADLINE: How are you keeping your employees’ morale up while everyone is working at home?
Knatchbull: We are all in constant contact through email and Zoom. Video calls have been enlivened by the appearance of babies and pets. I will be having a monthly video call with all head office colleagues where I will update everyone and answer any questions.
DEADLINE: What’s the message of support been like from your new owners?
Knatchbull: From the outset Charles Cohen has been very supportive of our knowledge and expertise in the UK market. This situation has been no different.
DEADLINE: What’s your take on the provisional Cannes postponement? You tend to acquire quite a few films from the festival. Do you think it will have a knock on impact on the fall fests?
Knatchbull: Again I don’t think it’s right to speculate, everyone has to have people’s health at the forefront of their minds. I’m sure the industry as a whole will react with resilience and creativity and the festivals will be a huge part of that. Whenever Cannes happens we’ll be there in force. But we are always on the lookout for excellent films at any film festival, so our approach will remain the same.
DEADLINE: Could the impact roll into this year’s awards season?
Knatchbull: I’m sure there will be some disruption but the current period is never a huge one for awards titles. The impact will come from delayed productions. Filmmakers are specialists in working under pressure, so I wouldn’t discount another excellent crop of films for 2021.
DEADLINE: How quickly do you think the industry will be able to get back on its feet?
Knatchbull: One thing the film business teaches you is that predicting the future is an incredibly tricky game. We’ve just come from the run-away success of Parasite to cinema closures in the space of a month. It’s always a rollercoaster and especially so now. But people always crave stories, so in the long term film isn’t going away.