From 2011’s The Artist to 2022’s Empire of Light there is always appetite for film lamenting the death of the silver screen. But in 2020, forced closures meant many cinemas found themselves very near the brink of collapse.
It was a heart-stopping moment for all businesses. Vue’s Dee Vassili recalls the eerie, 28 Days Later sensation of being the last person in the office and seeing cinema screens go dark indefinitely.
Now, thankfully, she is sitting on the other side of the pandemic, celebrating 20 years of both the company and her tenure as chief people officer.
“I took a big risk and it’s been the most amazing experience ever to be part of that journey right from the beginning,” she says.
Starting with around 40 cinemas in the UK, Vue has grown to over 200 sites across Europe and Asia, mostly gained through acquisition of smaller, entrepreneurial cinema groups.
Vassili’s job has been to unite these sites under a cohesive brand, which has taken a lot of restructuring.
“We had to think about how we structure ourselves to ensure synergies – and you think global, so you don’t reinvent the wheel,” she says. “We had things like, one country would be designing a concession stand and another would be doing exactly the same thing, but they both looked very different.
“The challenge for us was how do we create a structure that’s functional without losing the ability to move quickly, so you don’t paralyse your business and it doesn’t become bureaucratic.”
Restructuring was put on hold during the pandemic and so it is only now reaching completion with a shake-up of the HR function.
Drawing on experience gained at Thomson Reuters, Vassili has created a matrix structure for all departments, with centralised functions and global specialists. She is hopeful that creating clear connections between the centralised functions and different territories will create a united brand identity without adding too much red tape.
“Before it was all a bit jumbled up,” she adds. “So, you had a bit of specialism sitting in each country and there was no best practice or standardisation.”
One of the standards Vassili is looking to set is what good leadership looks like.
“When you walk into a cinema, I think you can feel the presence of the cinema manager,” she says. “If they want to deliver a consistent and a sustainable experience to the customer and genuinely care, you see it in the standard of the cinema and in the attitude of the employees.”
To set the standard, she says HR needs to dismantle the notion of a singular hero leader that everyone follows and adopt the principle of ‘everyday leadership’.
“Leadership is not something you do every now and then, or something that this charismatic leader comes and does,” she explains. “If you have responsibility for people you need to be aware that you are a leader every single day and every minute of the day.
“Our role as HR is to create the toolkits, the frameworks, the training, everything that you need to enable the line manager to manage, lead and motivate their people.”
A new training framework will instil this principle more widely across Vue’s customer facing teams, providing a clear track to promotion with all the relevant skills needed.
Putting your people first:
As for her own leadership qualities, Vassili attributes them to being thrown in at the deep end at key moments in her career. In the 1990s, she was the UK HR lead when Virgin retail stores split its Northern and Southern European businesses.
The goal was to break even in 18 months. Vassili quickly learned what a different, commercial language was needed for HR to be valuable in such situations.
“It was the first time that I was sitting in a boardroom situation realising the language you use as an HR person has to change when you walk into that room,” she says.
The opportunity taught her to be more commercial and it has been invaluable to her success, she says. Now, she advocates a similar approach in her current HR team.
“You see capabilities you wouldn’t see when you challenge people and put them out of their comfort zones, but it’s got to be a safe environment,” she says.
“Today within my team, we have what I call a safe house. It’s a circle of trust so we agree that when we go to the office and we shut the door, we say what we want to say, admit we’re having a bad day, or rant a bit, and then we go: 'let’s work out what we need to do'.
“That’s important so that people in my team feel comfortable to be able to come and say what they really think.”
Vassili’s safe house proved vital to bringing Vue through the pandemic and bonded the leadership team like never before. The chain was able to save most jobs at the time through furlough and now, across the bumper ‘Barbenheimer’ weekend – during which the films Barbie and Oppenheimer premiered at the same time – it has seen ticket sales bounce back to 2019 levels – unimaginable just months before.
“During lockdown we saw all of the streaming that was going on and this narrative about the end of cinema – which was nonsense, and we knew that,” she says.
“Barbenheimer has shown cinema is not dead. People have an appetite for experiencing a movie that’s a social environment with other people.”
Five things I can’t live without
A strong cup of tea I love my tea, I’m not a coffee drinker
Laughter If you can’t laugh, intense situations can become heavy
Music George Michael in particular
My amazing family and friends
Film Grease is my favourite I always watch it when it’s on
The ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike has added cause for concern. Vasilli hopes for a resolution as soon as possible, but regardless she is confident in Vue’s ability to keep innovating and bring new experiences to audiences like, for example, event cinema and showing the Women’s World Cup Final in screens.
From a people perspective, she says survival is about how HR adapts policies and practices to meet new employee expectations and environmental, social and governance factors (ESG).
“My challenge is how to take ESG and make sure it’s built into all of the people practices. Otherwise it’s a great initiative, you do this massive communication, and then it falls over because it’s not embedded anywhere.
“It needs to live without the people that initiated it otherwise you’ve failed.”
This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.