England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism

From multiplex to cosy screens: A case study of local cinema resilience amidst post-covid challenges

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Local cinema Credit: Graves (Cumberland) Ltd

Graves (Cumberland) Ltd is a family-owned cinema company with a long-standing history of almost 90 years in the Cumbria region. The company has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but none quite as challenging as the past couple of years. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the cinema industry hard, and Graves (Cumberland) Ltd was no exception.

The company’s Managing Director, Daryl Davidson, recalls that it was a dark time for the industry, with many cinemas struggling to stay afloat. Currently, Graves (Cumberland) Ltd owns four cinemas, two of which are tenanted while they operate the other two themselves.

  1. One of their cinemas, the Ritz Cinema, opened in 2001 from an empty unit in John Peel House. The cinema has three screens and is designed to feel cosy and welcoming.
  2. The Gaiety Cinema is a traditional single-screen cinema that re-opened in 2015 after years of closure due to financial viability.

Over time, the company has changed the number and location of cinemas, for example, having had three different cinemas in Workington before settling into its current town centre location. Originally, all its cinemas were similar to the Gaiety Cinema, located in traditional buildings with beautiful architecture. As trends changed, with a leaning towards multiplex venues, in 2021, the company opened the Plaza Cinemas, a six-screen multiplex, but it shortly had to close due to leasing costs in favour of the smaller, three-screen Ritz Cinema.

Local cinema Credit: Graves (Cumberland) Ltd
Local cinema Credit: Graves (Cumberland) Ltd

This move was also reflected in what the local customer base wanted, following the significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the industry. The Ritz Cinema still has large screens, but the auditoria are smaller, and the banking of the seats is much lower, giving the effect that customers are watching a movie at home but with excellent sound quality, a bigger screen and the ability to switch off and become immersed in the experience.

How times have changed

Over the decades, the company has faced several challenges, but nothing like the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, customers’ habits changed, and the film distributors who were already developing streaming services for home viewing, reacted by accelerating the move to this option. Many former customers signed up for streaming services when their options for going out were restricted, and in turn, new habits formed.

In addition, when cinemas were finally allowed to re-open, film distributors delayed the release of the larger movies, because there was a general reluctance from customers to attend. This was largely due to the restrictions placed on venues via Covid-19 legislation and initial concerns about infection. As a result, many of the small independent cinema operators and some of the larger corporate ones too, struggled to remain financially viable.

Despite these challenges, Graves (Cumberland) Ltd has remained resilient, even though some of these issues are ongoing.

  1. Firstly, there have been fewer big releases in the past couple of years. Films now also go to streaming services far more quickly than they did, and some do not even make it to the cinema screens.
  2. Plus, there have been significant increases in utility costs, and many independent buyers do not have the buying power to negotiate better deals as some of the larger corporate companies have.
  3. These costs, as well as the increases in kiosk product costs, have to be absorbed and are difficult to pass on without making a cinema visit prohibitive to customers.
Bar at the local cinema Credit: Graves (Cumberland) Ltd
Bar at the local cinema Credit: Graves (Cumberland) Ltd

In terms of external support, the company’s mixed business model has meant that it has not been eligible for funding via the Arts Council. Thankfully, the company has managed to stay afloat without any funding from local government, aside from the reduced business rates offered, which Daryl states was ‘essential during and since the Covid-19 pandemic’.

Daryl is confident that cinemas still have a critical place in the local community and that it’s a service that will always remain important for residents, he explains:

“You absolutely cannot replicate the immersive experience you get from a visit to a well-run cinema which is part of the local community. As operators, we have to be flexible in our offering and ensure that the customer experience is great, whilst maintaining financial viability too”.

Of course, in light of the growing pressures on the local cinema industry, there is only so much flexibility available before financial viability comes to a head, and for many local cinemas, the worst outcome has already happened. The latest survey from Independent Cinema Office suggests 45% of the UK’s local cinema industry will be lost by the end of the 2023/2024 financial year.

Check out this heartfelt tribute article to the legacy of Workington’s Plaza Cinema as it closed, highlighting the impact it had on the local area

After 90 years, Graves (Cumberland) Ltd is not just a cinema company. It is a part of the local community, and its cinemas have been a source of entertainment and social gatherings for generations. The company has a rich history, and its cinemas are more than just a business. They are a legacy, a testament to the company’s unwavering commitment to providing quality entertainment to the local community. Perhaps these cultural community hubs deserve some commitment back.

LGIU members can read our full briefing on the role and importance of local, independent cinemas in communities here



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