by Magnus Shaw
When Matt Pledger posted this https://www.facebook.com/ODEON/posts/523396924342167 he couldn't have imagined he'd attract 120,000 "likes"and 10,000 comments, but perhaps he shouldn't be surprised. Almost anyone attending a multiplex cinema recently will recognise the expense and misery to which he was subjected. Which is odd, because cinemas are in no position to be screwing with their customers.
I grew up in a creative heyday for movie making. Star Wars, Jaws, Superman, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Towering Inferno - this is a list I've made before, but the quality of films in the 1970s really was quite astonishing. However, as these films stamped themselves on modern popular culture, the buildings in which they were shown were changing for the worse. There was a time when even the smallest town would have at least one cinema and larger cities boasted two or three - right in the city centre. But as I advanced through my teens, cinemas increasingly gave up showing films to transform themselves into bingo halls. Indeed, it is still possible to see Mecca and Gala businesses thriving in former picture houses. Enjoyably, one cinema in my home town tried indoor skateboarding, then rock gigs (The Jam played there) before succumbing to the lure of Lotto. This was the turn of the eighties, the advent of the VCR and we were pretty much resigned to the demise of the public cinema.
Fortunately, after a decade of terrible decline, there was something of a revival. The multiplex arrived. Although they had been popular, the old theatres were a bit shabby and archaic. There was actually a word for a very old cinema - "fleapit." These new facilities, which sprang up across the country, were purpose-built, shiny, bright and plush. Sited outside city centres, they were often the neighbours of bowling alleys, restaurants and nightclubs. They felt very American and they worked. For the first time in more than ten years the British public switched off their tellies (and video players) and headed out for a night at the pictures. Through investment and commercial good sense, the movie theatre business snatched victory from the jaws of extinction. Film fans breathed a sigh of relief as we were able to enjoy a network of clean, comfortable cinemas with a healthy choice of films across a dozen screens.
Quite when the rot set in, it's hard to say. Nevertheless, depressingly and obviously, the modern cinema has degenerated disastrously and this time, there's no-one to blame but the multiplexes themselves.
Earlier this week I wrote about the ways in which the retail sector is neglecting its customer base. Well, they probably took their cues from the cinemas. At some point, it appears, the theatre operators began to devise ways to maximise their revenues by treating their audiences with casual contempt. More specifically, it dawned on them that they weren't in the film-showing business; they were actually involved in pushing crappy snack food, merely using the movies to gather a sufficient number of people in one place, the better to peddle them popcorn and fizzy drinks at massively inflated prices.
Once this strategy was firmly established (perhaps, eight or nine years ago), all caution evaporated and the multiplex mercenaries really got stuck in. The box office was stripped out, forcing the visitor to attend the snack stand just to buy a ticket to watch a flick. Of course, this is a double whammy. Not only do you get to punt your rubbish foodstuff to each and every attendee, but you can fire your ticketing staff. The resulting tedious queueing and general confusion is an acceptable side-effect because it only inconveniences the customer and so doesn't really matter.
As with so many shops, you'd think the cinemas had nothing to worry about. But, as Matt points out, before the film begins we are always 'treated' to clunky propaganda clips, imploring us not to be tempted by the evils of piracy. The disconnection from logic is so apparent it hardly needs pointing out, but it is so important we can hardly avoid it. Market forces and human nature mean customers will usually choose the cheapest and most convenient option, unless the premium product is particularly worthwhile. Piracy gives you a movie for free, to watch as many times as you desire, on whichever device you find most useful. Reasonably priced refreshments are also readily available from your own kitchen. A trip to the cinema is wildly expensive (perhaps £70.00 for a family's tickets at a provincial multiplex). The movie is only available for one viewing and the audio track from the film in the adjoining screen will almost certainly bleed into the auditorium. Your fellow customers will usually chatter and use their phones throughout the performance, without fear of reprimand and not a single member of staff will have any knowledge of the movies shown, or their projection. And, naturally, the price of refreshments will jacked up to hilarious proportions.
And that's before we factor in the availability of heavily discounted, legal DVDs in the supermarket and the new kids on the block, the rent-by-post and stream-on-demand services (around £6.00 a month). I mustn't condone piracy, but why on earth would any sane person select the public cinema experience over these other options?
Once again, the movie theatre industry is at the precipice. Competition from other platforms and alternative entertainments could easily shove multiplex cinemas into the abyss. Astonishingly, the response hasn't been to enhance cinema-going to create an irresistible experience for the paying customer, but to ensure the visit is sufficiently poor value-for-money and utterly disappointing that the possibility of a return trip is almost eliminated.
Good luck with that business model.
* I exclude independent art cinemas from this critique as they are mostly superb.
Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant.