What do you want from a cinema? It’s an interesting question and one that seems to elicit a diverse range of answers. Some people want the popcorn, the huge drinks and the 3D glasses, to turn on, tune in and drop out for 90 minutes, and leave at the end without any real idea or where they’ve just spent their money. For these people, we have the multiplexes – your Cineworlds, Odeons and VUEs – nothing intrinsically bad about the films they show, but brand identities that aren’t particularly discernible from one another.
Then there are the people who do want a more personal experience, and maybe a wider choice of films, perhaps even delving into the cinematic archive occasionally, or programming Q&A screenings, double-bills, all nighters, things of that ilk. For these, the two biggest and best chains are undoubtedly Everyman and Picturehouses. In terms of pricing, there’s not a lot to choose between these and the multiplexes, but the experience is vastly different, the latter more akin to theatre, with emphasis on things like customer service and “value for money”. For London folk, the Prince Charles Cinema and BFI Southbank both fall into this category.
Last week though it was announced that Cineworld has taken a controlling stake in Picturehouses, enabling Picturehouses to open 10 more locations across the UK without hampering their independence or their brand identity. It’s all spelt out in very plain terms in this statement from the Picturehouses folk. Nothing to worry about, with Cineworld coming out and saying they want to learn from Picturehouses, which elicited a typically snarky response from Mark Kermode. “They’ve got A LOT to learn”. Alright Mark, maybe, but that doesn’t mean they won’t, does it?
Y’see, the thing is this: people aren’t going to the cinema en masse anymore. Ok, the summer blockbusters will sell out, I even saw a woman arguing over a sold-out screening of Amour last week, but the days of people heading to the movies just to see whatever was showing are gone, and that’s because people are getting ripped off. Simply put, at a multiplex you do not pay for what you get. I remember going to see Inception at the Odeon Leicester Square, their flagship cinema, and paying nearly £15 to be shuffled into a matchbox of a screening room to watch a projection smaller than some of my university screenings. It was laughable. People are catching on though, because if that’s the experience that you’re paying for, then why the hell wouldn’t you just torrent a film and watch it at home?
With this acquisition it seems as though the big cinemas are finally tackling piracy in the most effective way they can – by making their experience better than what you get at home. Odeon have recently launched Odeon Studios, with “deluxe seating” and alcoholic drinks and, shit the bed, Costa Coffee...it’s a start, isn’t it? For what it’s worth, I still love going to the cinema and getting the big screen experience. I remember watching Dog Day Afternoon on 35mm at the aforementioned Prince Charles and being completely moved by the crackle of the frames and the richness and vibrancy of the colour. Now, I’d love Dog Day Afternoon were I to watch it on an airplane screen during turbulence, but I’m still glad I saw it the way it was intended.
It’ll be interested to see how the acquisition pans out, whether Cineworld keep their promise and let Picturehouses do what they do so well, whilst simultaneously improving their service and experience. All I know is this, if the acquisition means that more people go to the cinema to see their movies, then I, for one, am glad.