A couple of weeks ago I was in a multiplex. It was one of those chains where they force you to buy a ticket for your seat at the same time as they try to force concessions down your throat. The woman in front of me had a small child who pestered her (no, that’s unfair, she asked nicely) for something to eat and something to drink. This took several minutes while the counter clerk scurried between various sticky gadgets squeezing out different kinds of junk. One particular machine was on the blink and the operation had to be repeated several times. In the meantime, feeling restless I tried to move my feet only to find them stuck to the floor. The woman protested to the poor girl behind the counter who explained she’d mopped the floor twice but someone else must have spilt cola. Eventually the woman got her tickets – an adult and a child for an early Saturday evening showing of Jurassic World. The total cost for the ticket and concessions was nearly £31. I’m guessing the tickets cost £13 or £14 for the two, including a premium to see a new film on the opening weekend. That means around £18 was spent on popcorn, cola and something else I couldn’t see. Eventually we all prized our feet from the floor and I paid £15 for two Senior tickets (this was Scotland not London – but still more expensive than Bradford) to see Spy.
This was a small 8 screen multiplex. The auditorium was healthily filled at around 60% for an 18.00 hours screening. It was clean, the seats were comfortable, the projection was fine and we enjoyed the film. Everyone behaved well and no phones went off. It was a pleasurable visit marred only by the wait to buy a ticket and the sticky floor. My real problem is with the pricing policies, the crap food and drink and the treatment of punters at the counter (for which I don’t blame the staff). This little incident underlines the fact that the chains make half their profit from popcorn and it doesn’t really matter what they show as long as people come – and they buy concessions.
At around £8 average for a standard ticket (going up to £15-17 in some parts of London’s West End) the UK now has some of the highest ticket prices in the world. The premiums for 3D, new films etc. are a rip-off. The chains should be thinking of lowering prices to bring audiences back. Cinema is not the worst entertainment offender on pricing. Back in the 1960s, when cinema was still a mass entertainment form in the UK, three things that working-class youth liked to spend its wages on all cost more or less the same. A First Division football match, a stalls seat in the cinema and a pint of beer all cost between ‘One and nine’ and ‘half a crown’ (8p and 12.5p – most young people earned less than £15 a week). The equivalent now might be £30-£50 for the Premier League, £8 for a cinema ticket and £3.50 (or less) for a pint. And we thought it was the brewers who were screwing us!
I don’t like the popcorn cinemas sell. But I recognise that people enjoy it. The real gripe is the amount of sugar, fat and salt in it and the ‘supersize me’ portions. Mostly these are too big and quite a lot of it gets left on the cinema floor. The other gripe is that the punters are being royally duped. They pay pounds for a foodstuff that costs pennies. The chains have to make a profit but film culture would be much healthier if the profits came because of high demand for films that people really want to see. In the current business model that isn’t the case. Admissions in the UK (and the US) are not rising, even though the population is growing. The exhibition sector is heading for the buffers unless it can attract more admissions.
The specialised sector is just as bad. The ticket prices are, in the newer cinemas, even higher and the emphasis is still on food and drink even if it is marginally more healthy food. The Everyman chain seems to be the worst offender in the UK. As one friend told me after being enticed into the Everyman in Leeds, it took him some time to realise that, yes it was a cinema, not a restaurant. I ought to write something about this outfit. Much of my film education was spent in the Everyman in Hampstead, one of the best repertory cinemas the UK has ever seen. The new owners from 2000 have taken the brand and created a chain of new and ‘acquired’ ’boutique cinemas’. The chain claims to be reviving ‘independent cinema’ but as far as I can see shows mainly Hollywood films and live theatre. It advertises its menus alongside its film titles and seems more interested in promoting armchairs and access to bars than anything to do with film culture. Some of the cinemas it acquired include those revived in the 1970s by Romaine Hart including the Screen on the Green in Islington and the Screen on the Hill at Belsize Park (see Anne Billson’s blog for a little entertaining history of the cinema built on the site of the Haverstock Hill Odeon). Now Everyman has got its hands on the great old Odeon at Muswell Hill. These are some of the most important cinemas in my viewing memories – I feel violated in some way. If you have an independent cinema near you, make sure you support it and try to keep it out of the hands of a chain.
I don’t like watching films on a TV screen so my fears about exhibitors are disturbing on a fundamental level. Fortunately for me there is one example of a publicly-funded local independent where with tons of leg-room, a proper mug of tea, a slice of cake and an eclectic film programme, I can really relax and watch a film on a big screen at a very reasonable price. Long may the Hebden Bridge Picture House (not part of the Picturehouses chain) thrive.