Empire Cinema CEO Justin Ribbons said his company failed to get the council to suspend rent for COVID related closures, reports Marco Marcelline
The boss of Empire Cinemas said the now shuttered Walthamstow cinema owed a “significant” amount of deferred rent to Waltham Forest Council that administrators refused to cover.
The cinema chain fell into administration on Friday (7th July) and 27 employees at the Walthamstow site were made redundant with immediate effect.
Commenting on LinkedIn, the cinema group’s chief executive Justin Ribbons said that the site carries a “significant” deferred rent obligation to Waltham Forest council and that the council had not been persuaded to suspend it when the cinema was forced to close during Covid. The council owns the building the cinema operated in.
Ribbons made the claims in response to a post by a former employee at the Walthamstow cinema, Peter Amey, who had been its assistant general manager until Friday. Amey had complained about the no-notice nature of the redundancies and lack of communication from head office.
Ribbons stated that the cinema group’s administrators BDO would not accept the Walthamstow site as they “are unable to trade at a loss”.
Ribbons explained: “I have fought for a long time to keep the Walthamstow cinema open and trading since COVID. When we had to bring in BDO as administrators each site was looked at carefully to see if it could continue to trade.” Ribbons added that he had “argued forcefully” that Empire Walthamstow should continue to trade and that the redundancy of the team at Walthamstow is “tragic”.
It’s not clear if the rent was ever paid to the council or not. Neither Empire nor BDO, the cinema group’s administrators, returned requests for comment.
Grace Williams, leader of the council, confirmed to the Echo that Waltham Forest deferred Empire Walthamstow’s rent obligations when the venue was forced to shut during the first Covid lockdown in March 2020. The Echo asked the council when it lifted the rent deferral and why it declined to suspend the rent but we did not receive a response.
The Echo additionally asked the council whether it suspended rent for any businesses in the borough as a result of Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions but we did not receive a response in time for publication.
According to Cllr Williams, the council is currently “looking at options” to bring the cinema space back into use “as soon as possible to benefit the local community”.
During the pandemic, Empire Cinemas Group was able to apply for the government furlough scheme, and was eligible for the Retail, Hospitality and Relief Scheme that reduced business rates bills by 50%.
Speaking earlier via a press release, Ribbons said the reason to close the cinema was because of an “extremely challenging” operating environment and a Covid related income decline.
Six of the company’s 14 cinemas ceased operations on Friday. Other than Walthamstow, these were Bishop’s Stortford, Catterick Garrison, Sunderland, Swindon, and Wigan. The remaining Empire Cinemas in Birmingham, Clydebank, High Wycombe, Ipswich and Sutton, as well as the two Tivoli sites in Bath and Cheltenham, will continue to trade, according to the cinema group.