Tim Richards, chief executive of the Vue cinema chain, is celebrating a major milestone. A million customers a week have flocked back to his company’s 227 cinemas around the world since reopening in May.
Audiences are now between 75 and 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels, back in 2019 when Vue International had a record-breaking year. Major draws have been Peter Rabbit 2, Black Widow and superhero film The Suicide Squad.
The next James Bond film – No Time To Die – is expected to kill off any lingering pandemic distress for the cinema sector when it is finally released next month after multiple, and very painful, delays.
Screen savers: Chief executive Tim Richards is lining up new attractions for Vue
Richards, 62, says: ‘This week we’ll do 850,000 to 900,000 attendance in the UK, on the back of The Suicide Squad. There are some amazing movies coming out – and they’re all driving business. We’re getting off to a very, very promising start.’
It’s a major turnaround for Vue, which had to close all its cinemas across nine countries when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and survived with the aid of Government support.
Richards, who founded Vue in his garage in Los Angeles 22 years ago, calls the decision to shut down for the best part of 18 months ‘a gut-wrenching moment’ and says that without the furlough scheme and access to the £2billion Culture Recovery fund launched by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, his business ‘might not have made it through’. Vue’s 91 cinemas in the UK and Ireland employ 5,000 staff, and there are 9,500 employees globally.
‘It’s been a very difficult time for everyone,’ he says. ‘Looking at what [Culture Secretary] Oliver Dowden has done, we most likely wouldn’t be here without their support. We are still emerging from this badly bruised.’
Richards says Vue International’s big investors, the giant Canadian pension funds OMERS and AIMCo, have been ‘very supportive’ during the crisis and ‘rolled up their sleeves and worked alongside management to save the company’.
He adds: ‘This next 12 months for us is all about rebuilding and laying down a new foundation to move forward. We believe we will be back to our record-breaking levels in 2023.’
Richards, who was appointed by Dowden as chair of the British Film Institute in February, is now due to have a private meeting with the Culture Secretary next month.
The plan, he reveals, is to help lay down a ten-year blueprint for the future of the film and cinema industries. Top of the agenda will be the industry’s relationship with streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max and Disney+.
Two years ago, Richards threatened to withdraw Vue’s support for the Baftas in protest at Netflix’s made-for-TV film Roma winning multiple prizes.
But now he says the streaming giants are not the baddies – in fact, he says, Vue is in talks with all of them, including Netflix, to show their films in his cinemas across Europe and Taiwan. He says there is an opportunity to work together to help all parts of the industry make more money. ‘We are in conversations with all the content producers on all their feature length films and shows, because there is a demand for high-quality feature film and TV at a cinema.’
Appeal: Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time To Die
He adds: ‘Why wouldn’t you want to watch incredible Netflix shows like The Queen’s Gambit or HBO’s Game Of Thrones on a big screen with your friends and family? In the future, you are going to see more of their movies and TV shows in cinemas.’
Richards believes the line between streaming giants, traditional film studios and cinemas is now ‘so blurred, it is indistinguishable’. The logical next step, he believes, is for more streaming giants to buy film studios – or even cinema chains. In May, Amazon bought Hollywood studio MGM for $8.45billion. Richards says more blockbuster deals are on the way.
‘I think the natural next step for an organisation like Amazon would be to purchase a cinema circuit, so then they would have a full circle from production to release. The signs are there and the only surprise I’ve had is that it took so long for Amazon to buy a studio like MGM. We’re going to see more of that.’
Richards is a former Wall Street mergers and acquisitions lawyer who has built up Vue through a series of 16 deals, starting with the Warner Village cinemas in 2003. Once Vue is back on track, he plans to return to deal-making and will look to buy cinema operators that fit with its focus on being Europe’s ‘highest-quality’ cinema estate.
He says: ‘We are very opportunistic. We have the youngest cinema chain in Europe, and the highest-quality chain. We would not be interested in anything of lesser quality than we currently have.’
In the meantime, he has committed to a major investment in refurbishing Vue’s cinemas. A key three-year target is upgrading 25,000 seats to its leather-recliner version, which he calls a ‘gamechanger’. ‘When you sit in one of those, you tell your friends, you tell your family – and then you come back,’ he says.
He is also broadening the type of content that Vue shows into music, sport, comedy and theatre – such as Champions League Football and Wimbledon in 3D. He is a patron of the Royal Opera House and hopes to show its next season, too.
Younger cinema-goers are being targeted by plans to use Vue’s cinema screens for playing video games. A trial is under way in Fulham, West London.
Richards says: ‘Every time we trial gaming at one of our cinemas and we show young people what it’s like to move away from a 65-inch screen to a 65ft screen or an 80ft screen with a 100,000 watt digital surround system, it’s incredible.’
Like rival chains Odeon and Cineworld, Richards is counting on the next instalment in the Bond franchise to pull in the crowds. Predecessor Spectre in 2015 grossed $880million at the box office and Skyfall in 2012 grossed $1.1billion. ‘Bond is the movie that everybody asks me about. We are banking on it, because it is going to be an incredible movie. But there are a lot of other great movies before and after Bond, and that is what is exciting. There are roughly 80 movies that have been time-shifted due to the pandemic and so we are going to be showing three years’ worth of movies in the next 12 to 18 months.’
There were rumours that Netflix and Apple had held talks with Bond’s producer, MGM, to pay around $600million to release No Time To Die straight to streaming services. Richards says the fact MGM held out for a theatre release underlines the enduring ‘importance of cinemas’. He adds: ‘I have been in the business for 30 years and I genuinely believe we are about to enter the next golden age of cinema.’