Cineworld said up to 45,000 employees will be affected worldwide as it confirmed plans to temporarily close its cinemas in the UK and the US.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to return to cinemas and “support” their local theatres, after the closures were confirmed on Monday.
More than 600 sites will be closed across the UK and US from Thursday after the industry was rocked by plans by James Bond studios MGM and Universal to delay the release of the franchise’s latest film.
The current turmoil across the sector became clear as cinema chain rivals Odeon and Vue also stressed that a dearth of blockbuster movie releases had resulted in empty seats.
Odeon told customers it has shut around a quarter of cinemas from Monday to Thursday while Vue said it is “looking at all options” to avoid lay-offs.
Cineworld said it would close 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse sites in the UK, confirming reports over the weekend and sending shares down by as much as 57% as markets opened in London.
It did not specify how many jobs are at risk in the UK; however, on Sunday, the PA news agency understood that 5,500 would be hit.
Overall, around 45,000 employees are affected in both countries, as 536 Regal cinemas in the US will shut down because of the decision.
Chief executive Mooky Greidinger said: “This is not a decision we made lightly, and we did everything in our power to support safe and sustainable reopenings in all of our markets.”
On Friday, the release of Bond film No Time To Die was delayed for the second time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The film was meant to hit cinemas in November, but fans will now have to wait until April 2 next year before seeing Daniel Craig’s final outing in the role.
The movie joins other potential hits which have been delayed by the pandemic.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Greidinger said: “Many significant movies have moved, like Mulan, like Black Widow, like Kingsman – Wonder Woman moved from October to December – and on Friday we got the news that the Bond movie – that, needless to say, for the UK is the biggest movie of the year – also decided to move.”
He added: “From a liquidity point of view, we were bleeding much bigger amounts when we are open than when we are closed… we would be like a grocery shop with no food – we had to take this decision.”
Mr Johnson said there will be tough times ahead following the news.
“Obviously we hope to reduce, to keep the numbers of people who lose their jobs down as much as we can, but clearly there are going to be tough times ahead,” he told reporters in central London.
“Supporting local cinemas – I think we’ve already put £30 million in – but what I would say to people is that local cinemas do now have ways of making their shows go on in a Covid-secure way and I’d encourage people to go out to the cinema, enjoy themselves and support those businesses.”
Elsewhere, Odeon confirmed that about 30 of its 120 cinema sites will shut from Monday to Thursday after audience figures have been slow to recover following the pandemic.
The AMC-owned cinema chain emailed loyalty customers last week to notify them that some theatres will operate on a weekend-only model for the time being.
It is understood that the announcement was made prior to MGM and Universal’s decision to delay the latest James Bond movie but it said cinemas will reopen fully “when the big blockbusters return”.
Vue Cinemas chief executive Tim Richards told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that his company has taken a hit by delays from the studios.
“Our problem right now is we have no movies. This was a big blow for us. We’re likely going to make it through; I’m concerned about the independents and the small regional operators right now that are going to really struggle and when they close, they may not reopen,” he said.
“We’ve tried to retain all of our jobs for the 5,500 employees we have in the UK and that’s still our goal. We’re going to try and find a way through this. This was an industry that was not broken.”
Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “Although the delay of the latest 007 blockbuster prompted the decision, Bond isn’t the villain in this piece.
“The spread of Covid-19 around the world has been a horror movie for the industry and the fresh wave of infections is the latest instalment in what’s been a devastating story for cinema chains.”
She added: “The new jobs support scheme, which will subsidise wages of part-time workers, will provide no lifeline for the 5,500 Cineworld UK employees who will lose their jobs this week and many others across the industry are facing a bleak winter on jobseekers benefit, while they begin the difficult search for new positions in the run-up to Christmas.”
Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said: “This is devastating news for Cineworld workers and cinema-goers, and will have a knock-on impact on towns and city centres.
“The cinema industry was viable before the crisis and will be afterwards, when the film industry recovers.
“The failure of ministers to recognise the value of shut-down businesses, which now includes many cinemas, means they are consigning thousands of workers to the scrap heap.”