‘Covid-19 pandemic showed me the fragility of my dream job running an indie cinema’

Part-time indie cinema manager Ben Rive almost quit his day job to be a full-time film fan, but the pandemic has left him glad he didn’t

44-year-old indie cinema manager Ben Rive, a man with a brown stubbly beard, stands smiling, facing the camera, in front of Penarth Pier Pavilion.
Ben Rive, founder and manager of Penarth’s Snowcat cinema, says he feels “very, very lucky” not to have been more badly affected by the pandemic. Photo: Hannah Watkin

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When film fan Benjamin Rive started a pop-up cinema at the back of a friend’s Cardiff pub in 2016, he never imagined it would grow much beyond him sharing his passion with a small monthly audience.

However, by February 2020, Snowcat Cinema was showing daily sold-out screenings at its now permanent residence in Penarth Pier Pavilion.

For Ben, 44, who works full-time as a project manager for Cardiff council, what started as a hobby on top of his day job had quickly developed into something more. 

“I was doing four nights a week at the cinema as manager, plus all the programming, all the promotion, all the poster design, and all the prepping for the films,” says the Penarth-based man with a grin. “It was a full-time job on top of a full-time job – but when 20 hours of that is being at the cinema watching films, it doesn’t feel like work.”

I watched over 400 films for the first time
during the pandemic

Encouraged by his wife Nicola and overflowing with an enthusiasm for cinema, Ben began to consider quitting his job at the council to focus solely on running Snowcat. 

Then the pandemic hit.

“When I had to close the doors, I felt absolutely devastated,” he says, smile fading as he thinks back to cancelling events which were set to be Snowcat’s most successful yet.

“I was very glad I hadn’t given up my day job,” he reveals honestly.

Taking advantage of lockdown

But having recovered from the initial disappointment of the pandemic, Ben, who’s lived in South Wales for most of his adult life, quickly found ways to continue sharing his love for films by holding film watchalongs and quizzes on YouTube to keep in touch with his audience.

Indie cinema manager Ben Rive sits at a cafe table, laughing. He is wearing a beanie hat and brown jumper.
Film fan Ben Rive remains positive in spite of all the worries and challenges the pandemic has thrown at his dream job. Photo: Hannah Watkin

Thinking back to this time he says, “I felt like I should really take advantage of lockdown to try something different… and people’s support really gave me an initial boost.”

Sympathetic to others’ difficult experiences, Ben says he was lucky to have found positives during lockdown. With increased spare time, Ben enjoyed relaxing and going for more walks with Nicola and their two westies, Artie and Penny.

Plus, without the cinema to run, Ben could dedicate more time to exploring his passion for film independently. “I watched over 400 films for the first time in 2020,” he says, scrolling through the list he has on his phone to prove it.

Back to the future

However, the pandemic still brought some low moments. When cinemas reopened in July 2020, Ben realised the Pavilion was still unfit for business – social distancing meant Snowcat could seat only six people. “It felt like my dream was over,” he admits.

Thankfully, it wasn’t, and Snowcat – named after the machines which appear in two of Ben’s favourite films, The Thing and The Shining – reopened successfully in August this year. 

But although running the indie cinema still gives Ben much joy, his future plans have changed.

“I’m much more aware of the fragility of it,” he says, “And I’ve come to terms with the fact it’s never going to be my day job.”

Ben’s favourite films

Favourite film: If I was allowed only one film, forever, it would be Jaws. I’ve seen it so many times! It’s not the best film ever, but it’s my favourite film.

Favourite childhood film: I’m a child of the 80s, so my childhood was spent watching the original Star Wars films, Indiana Jones, and ET.

Film that made the biggest impression during the pandemic: What jumped out at me were the films that I felt should have had big cinema releases, but didn’t. Films like Saint Maud, which stars Morfydd Clarke from Penarth, and Sound of Metal.

Most anticipated future film: The new Paul Thomas Anderson film, Licorice Pizza, looks right up my street. And there’s another film coming out soon with somebody from Penarth in it, a Welsh language film called The Feast. I saw it recently and it’s amazing, so I can’t wait to show it at the Pavilion.