A person walks past Curzon cinema in London.
A Curzon cinema in London. Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Life

When the Dream of Working in Indie Film Turns Into a Nightmare

Staff at independent movie theatres in Newcastle, Birmingham and London say that a toxic workplace culture is rife.
July 2, 2021, 8:15am

With cinemas finally open again, film lovers across the country are returning to the welcoming darkness of local theatres to make up for lost time. The pandemic’s been particularly tough on smaller, independent, arthouse cinemas – more than 200 of them received government grants and are relying on the support of loyal customers in coming weeks. But for many workers, the idea of a community-centred, progressive cinema has always been a fantasy – one that’s been starkly exposed during the past year.

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The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a landmark for north-east lovers of independent film. Only ten minutes’ walk from the city’s Cineworld, but miles away in programming and public image, it is beloved by customers who support through donations, and is seen as socially progressive, running a Feminist Film Club and even hosting the premiere of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, an examination of the brutality of zero-hours employment.

In 2020, it also became ground zero for a reckoning between indie cinema bosses and workers – one that has spread to multiple cities and cinemas across the UK.

Sean Winnie began working at the Tyneside in 2013, making phone calls to raise money for renovations. “Speaking to customers who were donating, I grew to realise just how important the cinema was to people,” he says. Soon, he was offered a permanent box-office role: “That’s where the problems started.”

Unknown to the cinema’s loyal patrons, staff in various roles between 2013 and 2020 were experiencing hostile working conditions, including bullying and sexual harassment. These allegations finally emerged during lockdown, setting off a chain reaction that inspired workers at independent cinemas across the UK to share their own experiences. 

The workers that VICE spoke to feel profit and public image takes priority over their physical and mental safety, while their love of indie film is exploited by bosses who expect them to put up with sub-par conditions for the sake of the cinema’s survival. 

It took Tyneside employees sharing traumatic experiences on social media to bring the issues at the cinema to public attention. In June 2020, a staffer tweeted that they had been sexually assaulted by a colleague and felt failed by the response of cinema management. This prompted an outpouring of other stories, some using #TynesUp.

When the CEO and chair of trustees issued a lacklustre response, a group of more than 200 current and ex-employees of the cinema signed an open letter offering solidarity and demands for change, stating: “We do not feel that Tyneside Cinema is a safe workplace for everyone.”

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After pressure from worker-led group Save Tyneside, the cinema agreed to carry out an independent investigation. The report concluded in October 2020 that the cinema’s leadership had “failed in their duty to protect some of their staff from harm”, causing “unnecessary hurt, distress and in some cases, long-term mental health issues”.

Winnie, who signed the open letter and submitted evidence to the review, says this failure left him exposed to bullying from management and deeply affected his mental wellbeing. It was a “difficult place to work”, he says, with understaffing, last-minute rota changes, regular restructures that put jobs at risk, and lack of support from management when concerns were raised.

“They always managed to convince me that it was just the way it was and we had to put up with it,” he says. On one occasion, Winnie had a panic attack at work. After experiencing a mental health crisis in late 2019, was signed off sick for the weeks leading up to the pandemic. 

Scrolling through Twitter in June 2020, he felt a jolt of recognition as colleagues revealed their own experiences, including allegations that staff had been made to recount details of sexual assault in public areas of the cinema. “I was horrified by what I read,” he says.

In Sheffield, Curzon cinema worker Joe was watching Twitter too: “I was reading different experiences being shared and I could relate to so many of them. That gave me a feeling of: It's not just me suffering alone, this is actually a really big problem.” He connected with Show Is Over, a campaign and support group for workers at the city’s cinemas and festivals.

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Joe had spent nearly five years working at the Curzon cinema in Sheffield. After multiple instances of customers intimidating staff and committing crimes on the premises, he flagged these safety concerns to management but was eventually violently attacked by a member of the public while on shift. When struggling mentally and physically at work in the following weeks, he faced a disciplinary hearing and was told that his assault and injuries would not be considered a sufficiently mitigating factor. 

Big cinema chains like Cineworld are no stranger to workplace disputes, but Curzon, a smaller group, cultivates an indie-cinema image. But as far back as 2014, workers had to strike to obtain the living wage. In 2017, they spoke out again about the removal of paid breaks and lack of staff rooms at some branches. While its CEO claimed that relations had improved, other Curzon workers have had similar experiences to Joe.

One employee who recently quit her role at a Curzon cinema in London, describes a workplace where managers were prioritised over other staff, and those raising issues were often turned into the issue. Both Joe and the London Curzon worker requested anonymity as they fear that speaking out would affect their employment.

“Anytime I did raise a concern, they'd see me as weak or not wanting to do my job,” she says. After raising a concern about social distancing in 2020, her anxiety was dismissed and own conduct questioned. Multiple staff members later raised concerns about COVID-related safety. She also received messages from managers asking staff to delete phone and email messages relating to a workplace safety incident in 2019.

During an evening shift, she was threatened by a customer and had to call the police. In the aftermath, she struggled with severe anxiety: “That whole event did have an impact on me being at work. I was extremely nervous all the time. To them, that was just another excuse.”

She alleges these mental health issues were disregarded, and she was expected to seek support from a manager she’d previously made a formal complaint against. After suffering from sustained work-related anxiety, she eventually left.

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A Curzon spokesperson said that assault and customer aggression are rare at cinemas, but staff will sometimes encounter these situations when working with the public. The company says it has very occasionally hired security at branches for specific events but this is unnecessary as standard practice. 

Curzon added that it has always treated staff “correctly and compassionately” when dealing with mental health and safety issues and said that staff can raise issues anonymously through its annual staff survey as well as via HR. It also told VICE that management would not ask staff to delete messages.

In Birmingham, cinema workers were also watching what was unfolding on social media. The city’s independent Electric Cinema had enacted a mass redundancy when the pandemic began. By December, some of its ex-workers created a Twitter account (@ElectricRethink) to share their experiences.

“We didn't have a union and it's very stressful to take on your employer as individuals,” says one of the ex-employees, who shared messages showing that in March, as the government furlough scheme was announced, cinema owner Tom Lawes told staff they would all be made redundant and not furloughed. This was, they say, a culmination of “difficult” working conditions. 

Another ex-employee who worked at the Electric Cinema for around a decade, eventually in a senior role, said they never had an official contract or job description. “The culture of the place was chaotic and often stressful,” they said. “Often people were doing lots of extra things for no extra reward.”

The Electric Cinema in Birmingham

The Electric Cinema in Birmingham. Photo: Jamie Gray / Alamy Stock Photo

Former staff described feeling undermined by the owner’s actions and disposable, yet felt there was nowhere to effectively raise issues. “Because there's no board, no HR department, just one man making the decisions, that means there's no accountability,” the ex-employee said. “What [Lawes] says goes. It's very hard to work in those conditions.” Both former workers requested anonymity as they feared reprisal from their ex-employers.

Lawes told VICE that The Electric never needed a board or an HR department as it was a small independent business. He added that he believed he would not be able to reopen the cinema any earlier than autumn 2020, and on that basis decided to only furlough three members of staff and make everyone else redundant.

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In all four cities, the revelations exposed a gulf between public perceptions of progressive, community-focused cinemas and their internal treatment of staff. Customers of the Tyneside and Electric cinemas have been vocal in their dismay and desire to see change. 

Workers hope this feeling will finally force cinemas to prioritise staff. “The only way this could work is if the people that love the Electric can help us and put pressure on the owner,” says the ex-Electric Cinema employee. (Lawes told VICE that he was looking to sell the cinema and may not reopen The Electric at all.) 

Their former colleague added: “Independent cinemas can sometimes drop below the radar. People look at it romantically and don't look at staff welfare and how these businesses are run. Maybe [cinemas] get away with things because of that.”

That romanticism also attracts many employees. “You get drawn in by film as something you'd love to work around,” says Joe. “But the reality is completely different.” He once enjoyed watching free films on his days off, but “in those final months, I didn't even go to watch films anymore. I don’t think I could ever go back there. My only association with it now is trauma.”

The love of the sector is also used to excuse low pay and insecure contracts, say a number of workers. An underdog mentality among cinema bosses feeds into this, says a senior manager in the industry who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from his employer.

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“People in indie cinemas don’t want to think ‘We’re part of the problem’, because they feel they're beat down already and that they're doing something important,” he says. “That breeds some pretty ugly results – they’ve taken an ‘ends justifies the means’ approach to everything.”

These conditions make it difficult for workers to speak out. Joe highlights that the person you’re complaining to, or about, is often in control of the rota which determines your hours. With low-hour contracts and regular restructures, Winnie says: “There was no stability. People didn't want to speak out for fear of losing their job.” This instability has, if anything, been exacerbated by the pandemic.

But now that indie cinema workers across the UK have seen their experiences are replicated across the sector, they’ve taken action. After the independent investigation into the Tyneside, workers there asked the British Film Institute (BFI), its primary funder, to intervene. 

A number of workers said they would like to see an official process, where independent cinemas receiving public funding through the BFI would be regularly evaluated to ensure they’re upholding industry guidelines on bullying and harassment. 

In January and February, virtual workshops – including one at the London Short Film Festival – also brought together front of house workers from independent cinemas to outline the issues and potential routes to tackle them. These are being followed up by a survey of workers to assess conditions nationwide.

The Tyneside Cinema, at least, is pressing ahead with change. Its new CEO Simon Drysdale has promised to enact all 74 recommendations from the independent report, and told VICE that he has established a new staff community group, and is “working on a recruitment programme for a new chair and new trustees”.

Cinema workers all over the country are hoping that the re-opening of independent cinemas doesn’t mean a return to the status quo. “All we can do now is point out what happened and make sure people don't forget about it,” says one of the Electric’s ex-employees. “The cycle can't start again.” 

@ohrhealy