Rio Cinema. Photograph: Mark Hillary via Flickr
Rio Cinema. Photograph: Mark Hillary / Flickr

The board of directors at Dalston’s much-loved Rio Cinema have stressed that “no plan or discussion or intention” exists to sell it off to a commercial operator.

The Save Our Rio campaign, which has launched a petition signed by almost 6,000 people at time of writing, have accused the cinema’s board of using the pandemic crisis as a smokescreen to reinvent it as a luxury boutique venue and are calling on Rio members to force the resignations of its current directors.

However, the board, whose members have warned that the pandemic’s impact and resulting social distancing requirements will likely mean “difficult decisions” in reducing the operating costs of the cinema to ensure the Rio’s survival, has dismissed the claims as “implausible”.

A spokesperson for the board said: “There has been no plan or discussion or intention to sell the Rio to a commercial operator. We are baffled by the suggestion.  

“Every cinema chain is currently facing massive financial problems due to Covid-19 and social distancing. What possible reason would there be for such a commercial chain to acquire the Rio?

“In any case, the Rio is a charity that does not own its building – it has a nine-year lease of the site it operates on.

“The whole cinema industry is struggling. The UK Cinema Association has published social distancing guidelines which will mean a huge reduction in capacity in auditoriums.

“In the Rio’s case, this means a 50-70 per cent reduction in capacity: with current costs this will lead to the cinema losing a significant amount of money each month.”

Speaking to the Citizen, the board stressed that losses could be worse than anticipated if key titles are not released, if a second wave hits in September, if nervousness remains among cinemagoers, and if food and drink sales suffer.

The board added: “The Rio is simply not in a financial position where it can sustain significant losses for even a short period.

“We understand that employees are nervous about their future, but equally we are hugely concerned that making no attempt to reduce costs has a reasonable chance of leading the charity to insolvency, which would mean the end of the charity and no jobs for anyone. Our overriding aim is to ensure the Rio survives and thrives for many more years.”

According to sources inside Hackney Council, the Rio currently only pays £6 per square foot to the Town Hall in its capacity as a not-for-profit charity and voluntary sector organisation, and any idea that it could transform into a commercial concern without council agreement is “plain stupid”.

However, Save Our Rio claim that the current board aims to have the cinema showing only mainstream films with no community, festival or school screenings, and not stocking locally produced food and drink.

The campaign has slammed any suggestion that the cinema is low on funds due to the global pandemic, as the board have stated, claiming that with furlough, fundraising and business support schemes, as well as sale of memberships and receipt of donations, the Rio is in fact in an “even better financial position than at the start of lockdown”.

Save Our Rio said: “During lockdown, the cinema has actually covered all its expenses and is in an even better financial position that at the start of lockdown. This shows the dedication of the Rio team and its supporters.

“Sadly we cannot say the same for the board, who instead of helping with fundraising, have done nothing other than create doom-laden scenarios not based on any actual data or government guidelines, and have instead sought to threaten and demoralise the Rio team.

“We therefore take great exception to their statement this week sent to members, which was misleading, evasive and contained many false statements. Sadly we cannot contact them to qualify some of the spurious things they claim.

“As members, having worked so hard with the staff and management of the Rio in the last four years, we feel betrayed by the disingenuous and false statement by the board that the Rio’s finances are ‘fragile’, as this is incorrect and also very dismissive of the hard work done by everyone except themselves.”

The board and the campaign dispute the financial situation of the cinema in the lead-up to the pandemic, with Save Our Rio pointing to the venue making a profit for the last two years, while the board say that the cinema has “come close to running out of cash a number of times in the last few years”.

According to the board, the Rio relied on profits from a small number of sell-out event movies such as Joker and Parasite, and now anticipate having to drop the number of seats in their main screen by up to 70 per cent, and in all probability may not be able to open the smaller second screen.

The Rio trustees have also underlined their commitment to “community screenings […] a vibrant and diverse calendar of events, and other charitable activities”, while stressing there are no plans to change the independent’s editorial offering.

The board added: “We have looked at what social distancing means for the Rio’s future. Based on our forecasts, and if costs are kept the same as pre-Covid, the Rio would suffer significant monthly losses on reopening.

“Our limited cash reserves mean we cannot afford these monthly losses. The Rio would likely survive only three or four months if we opened in this way. We are not unique as this is the outlook facing most cinema venues in the UK as reported in the Independent Cinema Office survey.

“It is our job as a board to ensure that the Rio survives for the long run and has sufficient funds in place to fund and meet its charitable objectives that it was set up to promote, serving the local community as it has done so brilliantly for the past 40 years.

“We need to build a viable business model to safeguard the Rio, and at the same time retain its independent spirit, and we are hopeful that this is achievable. We want the Rio to be here for its community for the next 40 years, and beyond.”

The current membership of the board is understood to now be looking at a “new sustainable operating model” contingent on further government guidance, as well as looking at “staffing changes”, with a statement from the board not ruling out the possibility of redundancies.

Save Our Rio continues to call for the make-up of the board to change, saying that 110 members have now written to call for an extraordinary meeting to vote out the current members, and saying that the campaign has “some excellent local people” who could stand as a temporary board until new trustees are voted in.

The campaign added: “We are also very concerned that many of the current board have been invited to join by other recent board members, and have not been properly elected by us, the members, so that we can question their reasons for joining and what they as trustees plan to do to support the Rio and help it to grow and prosper, as it has been doing, or what their agenda is.”

Responding to this aspect of Save Our Rio’s campaigning, a joint statement from the board of directors said that members would not respond to and were made “uncomfortable” by “personal attacks”, adding: “We are unpaid trustees who have full-time jobs who share a love of independent cinema and the Rio as a Hackney institution. The campaign has become both personally targeted against current and ex- board members and aggressive in tone.”

You can find the petition from Save Our Rio here and more at twitter.com/Saveourrio.

You can make a donation to the Rio Cinema here.

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