Jam Jar Cinema is an independent award-winning picture house in Whitley Bay. The three-screen cinema had been on track to welcome around 90,000 visitors in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Here, co-founder Dan Ellis shares his Covid experience and how it’s affected the cinema. Reminding us all that we need to do our bit to help keep the North East open and #BeatCovidNE.
Q. How has your business been affected by Covid-19?
As a cinema, you can imagine just how incredibly challenging Covid has been. Even before the onset of the pandemic we saw films moving their release dates, people nervous to come and a general uncertainty of what the future might hold. Little did we know what was to come.
We couldn’t see how we’d continue to operate but through government support schemes, grants, loan options and furlough we’ve managed to stay afloat, maintain our building and retain most of our employees and audience.
Q. What challenges have you faced?
We have had to make major operational changes to ensure safety which has seen a vast reduction in the number of showings and also our capacity in terms of how many people can come to Jam Jar Cinema. We're still operating with a reduced capacity by choice for safety and comfort as we feel it’s the best way forward as we continue to fight against Covid.
Other monumental challenges relate to our finances and our team. When the first lockdown came into force, we had just expanded and borrowed money to add two new auditoriums. We had to let some people go and that was really tough for me, personally. The more recent challenge has been balancing a full-time operation with a limited staff team in the midst of Covid isolations. That's something that a lot of hospitality organisations have found tough, but somehow we've done it and managed to continue operating.
Mentally, the pandemic has been exhausting and keeping up with all of the changes, tiers, lockdowns and regulations was hard enough but keeping motivated through the winter closure was probably the most difficult of all.
Q. What changes have you had to make in response to the pandemic?
We have followed all of the guidance agreed by the government and the UK Cinema Association. This has included limits on capacity as well as extra cleaning and ventilation in the screen rooms and the wider venue. We have installed screens in the foyer and the team are wearing PPE.
We're also leaving more time between screenings and allowing for a more managed flow of visitors to the venue. We've encouraged on-line booking too and launched our own online streaming service, the Jam Jar Player, as we know how much the cinema experience has changed in the last year or so and we’re focused on accommodating the new needs of the cinema goer.
Q. Why is it important for your businesses to keep Covid safety practices in place after the lifting of restrictions?
I don't want to see another lockdown, or a roll back from where we are. We're doing OK at the moment. It's not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination but we're covering costs and making a little each week - that's a far better position than when we were closed.
My take is that cinemas and destination venues are the beating heart of town centres. People come to us but they also visit bars, restaurants, cafes and retailers. Every business needs to play their part to support the vaccine rollout and ensure we can come through this.
Q. How has the response been since reopening?
Since reopening, audiences are starting to build confidence to visit us again. We're a smaller team and aren't doing as many shows right now but last month we welcomed 3,000 cinemagoers back to the venue, which felt amazing.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. There has been a genuine relief in local people that we have survived so far. People are telling us they feel comfortable, that the venue is welcoming, clean and safe. That means a lot after the effort and cost that's gone into making the venue Covid-safe. There are also people telling us they're not quite ready to return to the pictures yet and that's fine also - we'll be here when they are.
Q. Why are you supporting the Keep the North East Open campaign?
We all need to do our bit to ensure we avoid any enhanced restrictions. I love my hometown, I really care about the people who visit us, our community, our friends and families. No one wants to see anyone get ill, or worse, so if I can do one small thing to plead for people to be sensible and think of others then I’m happy to.
This is our region, our communities, our local businesses and it’s up to us to look after them. Together we can Keep the North East Open.