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Phoenix staff tell trustees: ‘We don’t have faith in you, and we don’t support your plans’ at public meeting about cinema’s future

PUBLISHED: 19:11 28 October 2018 | UPDATED: 17:22 02 November 2018

James Kessler QC. Picture: Siorna Ashby

James Kessler QC. Picture: Siorna Ashby

@siornaphotography

The division between Phoenix Cinema staff and trustees was laid bare as a worker launched a blistering attack on bosses, telling them: “We don’t support your plans.”

Queues stretched around the block before the meeting. Picture: Siorna AshbyQueues stretched around the block before the meeting. Picture: Siorna Ashby

The meeting over the cinema’s future frequently became heated, as frustrated audience members shouted questions and comments. There were several calls for the Phoenix Cinema’s board of trustees to resign.

They sat stoney-faced as feet away assistant technical manager Nathan Cable, reading a joint-statement, launched into piercing criticism of plans for the Curzon Cinema to take over the venue.

In a speech that got a standing ovation, Mr Cable said: “The trustees keep moving forward with the plans as if it is a done deal. One of the things that concerns us is the unwillingness to consult with the staff and the community.

“[Head of trustees] James Kessler QC told us the implementation date was November 1. There seems to be a rush to push this through before this date. There are other options.

The audience listens to chair of trustees James Kessler's presentation at the start of the meeting into the future of the Phoenix Cinema. Picture: Siorna AshbyThe audience listens to chair of trustees James Kessler's presentation at the start of the meeting into the future of the Phoenix Cinema. Picture: Siorna Ashby

“Community is the most important thing in this day and age, and we need to stick together. We believe both short-term and long-term fundraising strategies should be implemented to secure the trust’s future, its ethos and the cinema’s true independence.”

At the start of the meeting Mr Kessler laid out the proposal. Under the agreement, Curzon would keep the current programme of events, while the Phoenix would keep the freehold and run the educational events. He said Curzon would also have the money to carry out repairs, and secure the future of the cinema. At the board meeting where the proposal was discussed, trustees voted 7-3 to pursue negotiations.

Despite concerns it was too late for the board to change their mind, he said a deal was yet to be signed. Alison Gold, a trustee on the board, said: “We’re here to listen. We all want the Phoenix to thrive.”

However the trustees quickly faced flack from Mr Cable, who said many staff had found out through the internet, rather than being told by management.

Anthony Tasgal reads out a letter from former trustees of the Phoenix Cinema. Picture: Siorna AshbyAnthony Tasgal reads out a letter from former trustees of the Phoenix Cinema. Picture: Siorna Ashby

The 250 people in attendance also heard that immediately prior to the trustees approaching Curzon with a deal, the board voted to remove the attending and voting rights of senior managers at the venue. The meeting heard when executive director Rob Belfield, who is covering for Kate McCarthy, was told about plans, he was told he would face disciplinary action if he told his predecessor about the move. Current Chair of the trustees, James Kessell QC said he stands by the process.

Another point of contention was the severity of the problems with the Phoenix’s finances. At one point, Mr Kessler told the room the cinema could soon “be in a position of not having enough money to pay our debts.” He also said the Curzon couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be any job cuts, and continued to say that if the cinema remained independent, job cuts were almost certain.

Trustee Alison Gold told the Ham&High after the meeting that if the issues weren’t addressed, the cinema could close, and under charity law, the board could be held liable.

A balance sheet was handed around before the meeting, which showed the venue had been losing money since 2014. Up until September 30 this year, the cinema has lost six times as much money as the trustees had budgeted for. It had expected to lose £9,743 up until the end of September, and was instead £61,614 down.

An audience member is left searching for answers from the panel of trustees. Picture: Siorna AshbyAn audience member is left searching for answers from the panel of trustees. Picture: Siorna Ashby

However Charles Rubinstein, who previously headed up the Rio Cinema in Dalston, said it had overstated the losses and sense of “panic” that was being conveyed.

Mr Rubenstein said: “The losses in the last few years are rather small, and losses including the depreciation of the buildings do not show money leaving the business. Everybody knows that the last quarter of the year is the best part of the year for the cinema, so this isn’t a fair representation.”

The board of trustees also came under fire for not actively fundraising since 2010, despite the cinema being a charity. A current crowdfunder by the Save the Phoenix campaign group has reached £3,700.

A letter from ex-trustees and read by former board member Anthony Tasgal said current efforts were “inadequate” and they “couldn’t understand why the Board has gone against decades of tradition by not exploring a fundraising”

Phoenix Cinema staff members Rob Belfield, Jelena Milosavljevic and Nathan Cable. Picture: Siorna AshbyPhoenix Cinema staff members Rob Belfield, Jelena Milosavljevic and Nathan Cable. Picture: Siorna Ashby

However, speaking from the stage, trustee Joni Tyler said fundraising couldn’t be used as a way of solving the Phoenix’s longer-term issues.

Speaking to the Ham&High afterwards, Mr Cable admitted there was a disconnect between staff and trustees.

“I think the board don’t really know what they are doing,” he said. “We don’t have any faith in them to get this right. I don’t think they really understand how complex it is for a modern cinema to function.”

A final decision on the takeover will be taken by the board of trustees at a meeting on Wednesday evening.

Trustees listen to questions from the floor. L to R. Alison Gold, Marta Montague, Jane Appleyard, Joni Tyler, James Kessler and Paul Rossi. Picture: Siorna AshbyTrustees listen to questions from the floor. L to R. Alison Gold, Marta Montague, Jane Appleyard, Joni Tyler, James Kessler and Paul Rossi. Picture: Siorna Ashby

Were you at the meeting? What do you think about the future of the Phoenix Cinema? Email letters@hamhigh.co.uk with your thoughts.

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