One of my favourite things to do on a Sunday evening at 6pm is to walk up the road to the Everyman Cinema, sit down on a plush sofa with cushions, order supper to my seat and watch a movie. It’s the best way to end the week. In a busy world with the demands of work life and home life, there’s something to be said for a place to watch a film and get served dinner on some (very comfortable) seating.
This gets to the heart of the changes that cinemas, big and small, multiplex and independent, have been going through in recent years. The silver screen is about more than just the film; cinemas are fundamentally just as much about experience as they are about product (in this case, the movie).
The death of cinema has been proclaimed for decades, from the end of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood films and the decline in film attendance in the eighties to the rise of home streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Recent articles have featured doom laden titles such as ‘Hollywood as we knew it is over’ and ‘why Martin Scorsese’s Netflix Deal Is The Future of Cinema (And That’s OK)’.
Perhaps this is because the film industry is one that lends itself to hyperbole. But these doomsayers ignore that cinema has proved time and time again to be an enduring and successful medium resilient to the myriad challenges it has faced.
Clearly streaming services are changing things – the release window (the time between a film coming out in cinemas and then being made available to the general public) has been shrinking for years, from 27 weeks in 1999 to 15 weeks now, with a significant number of smaller movies having even shorter timetables.
But, despite the many challenges posed by digital and the rise of alternative platforms, the cinema industry has remained successful and profitable. In fact, 2016 was a record year for the box office, seeing a 17% rise in revenues on 2014, and the over 900 films had theatre releases in the UK.
Cinemas are, despite the prognostications of Hollywood doomsayers, in rude health. The mortal blow that keeps being predicted is yet to arrive. Streaming services are not yet making an offer that cinema goers cannot refuse.
This is because, like my local Everyman, theatre companies are adapting to this new reality. Independent cinemas, which account for nearly a quarter of all movie screens in the UK, are undergoing a revival catering to those looking for a high-end, authentic cinema experience. Curzon, with its lush armchairs and the original 1960s lighting system in its flagship Mayfair location, is one of a growing group of small boutique cinema operators taking the main screen across the UK. Alongside small brands such as Everyman, and single-site operators such as Ciné Lumière and Rio Cinema, this group is focused on bringing back some of charm of going to the cinema.
This isn’t just about comfier seats (although that does matter!)– the whole offering has been updated and revamped. At Everyman, which nearly doubled in size in 2015 to reach 16 locations, this includes serving wine and various beverages in a glass to customers sitting on upholstered sofas. And of course, there’s popcorn and fizzy drinks for the classic cinema experience.
Secret Cinema have pioneered the idea of film screenings as special events in and of themselves, hiring actors and constructing sets to create the most immersive experience possible.
At the other end of the spectrum, larger operators are also focusing ever more of their attention on quality of experience. Vue not only has its Imax range and Sony 4K screens, but has diversified its seating to combine the best of being at home with the experience of seeing a movie at the theatre.
Odeon has introduced its Lounge service, which provides luxury drinks and food along with a smaller, more intimate screen. At the restored bar in the Odeon at Swiss Cottage you see people dressed up for dinner and a film. It’s an event, like going for a celebratory meal.
Larger cinema operators are also consolidating to weather the cyclical nature of the market. Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda has spent the past few years creating a global cinema empire, owning not only the largest and second-largest cinema operators in China, but also the US-based AMC Entertainment, which in turn owns Odeon – Europe’s largest cinema estate. Most recently, Wanda acquired the Stockholm-based Nordic Cinema Group from Bridgepoint for £745m, making it a subsidiary of the Odeon estate. In January, Wanda reported a 25% increase in income to RMB64.1bn (nearly £7.5bn) within its culture group, which consists almost entirely of cinema operators and film distributors.
Moreover, cinema companies large and small have embraced live performances. National Theatre Live, which screens across the UK and internationally claims to have sold 5.5m tickets across 2,000 venues since its launch in 2009. The comments section on the Royal Opera House cinema programme is full of requests for showings in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Montreal and Vancouver.
In any case, the dichotomy between boutique cinemas on the one hand and the multiplex giants on the other may be a false one. Picturehouse was acquired five years ago by Cineworld, but continues to be known for doing things differently. The differentiation in service and price point caters to different markets. Both groups are united however in their focus on what makes cinema unrepeatable. It’s not just the big screen, it’s not just seeing a film you can’t watch at home – it’s the whole experience.
Just as takeaway hasn’t ended dining out, so streaming won’t end cinemas – it just highlights what actually draws people to these venues in the first place.
Certainly, the days when people went to the cinema every week or two like they did in the 1930’s are over – cinema going is more of an event than it ever has been. But cinema companies are focusing on the fact that they’re selling an experience as much as a good. That what knits together a wider array of live screenings with better seats and bigger screens and nicer popcorn is a recognition that while the film itself can be played on the small screen, it is simply impossible to recreate the mood and feel of a good cinema at home.
Streaming services and the cinema industry may in fact be two sides of the same coin, each delivering a service which changes, but does not necessarily undermine the value of, the other.
One thing’s for sure – the cinema industry won’t be saying hasta la vista baby for a while yet.