If a year is a long time in politics, then it feels as if it has flown by in the world of cinema. Somehow 2014 seems to have slipped by in a flash, but the world has changed – as it always does in the space of twelve months, whether we like it or not – so I thought as part of this year’s review I’d try to take stock of a few things, and also provide a few updates on where hot topics of this blog from the past have got to.
A huge amount of column inches on this blog last year were taken up with the Competition Commission referral from the Office Of Fair Trading regarding the purchase of Picturehouse by Cineworld. The decision in October 2013 that Cineworld would need to sell a cinema in each of three affected areas, Aberdeen, Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge was desperately disappointing for many, and not least myself as I live halfway between Bury and Cambridge and these cinemas represent the vast majority of my cinema visiting. (I also know someone that works in Aberdeen, so had a vested interest of some kind in the fate of all three.) Twelve months on, and the Competition Commission and the Office Of Fair Trading no longer exist, having been merged into the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), but that hasn’t stopped the process rumbling on very slowly in the background.
Cineworld plc announced very early on that it would sell the Picturehouse in Aberdeen and Bury, but that it was yet to make a decision regarding Cambridge. In April this year, the first sale took place with Aberdeen’s Belmont Picturehouse being taken over by the Centre for the Moving Image. It’s the same organisation that runs both the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has seen the level of independent programming at the cinema at the very least maintained, if not improved. This was always likely to be the least risky sale as the local council had been involved in the launch of the Belmont in 2000 and had directly appealed to the Competition Commission during their process to ensure that the offering was protected.
Then in the summer, the Bury St. Edmunds cinema the Abbeygate Picturehouse was sold. In this case it was bought by Tony Jones, who’s the co-founder and trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust and who has been the face of the Cambridge Film Festival for as long as it’s been running. Tony was also a co-founder of Picturehouse and seemingly couldn’t resist the opportunity to get back to the coalface with an opportunity to be back in cinema ownership (something he first did in 1968 when he founded the Arts Lab in Birmingham). This has also protected the programming and the new restaurant and bar facilities at the Hatter Street cinema, and the closure of the neighbouring bingo hall in November represents an opportunity for the cinema to look to expand its operations. I understand that the hall next door retains a lot of its original features, and if the plans can be brought to fruition this should represent a fantastic opportunity for the residents of Bury St. Edmunds, with the ability to show more live theatre events and an even wider range of art house cinema. It remains my favourite cinema and I’m thrilled that its future is secure, and I look forward with excitement to seeing what happens to it in the next 12 months.
That just leaves Cambridge, and rumours have persisted around the fate of the cinemas. My position on this hasn’t changed, that the loss of either the Picturehouse – which supports the Cambridge Film Trust and Consortium, who offer a much wider range of programming and educational activity above the already high quality programming of the cinema – or the Cineworld, which represents huge value for money in a city where cinema prices are at the highest of almost anywhere outside London, would affect cinema attendance in the city greatly. While the first two sales have both had positive outcomes, it seems almost impossible that Cambridge will be as fortunate. Rumours and speculation about the fate of the cinema continue, with some positive noises being heard, but at this point nothing concrete has been forthcoming and we continue to await the next stages of the process for Cambridge under the CMA’s stewardship.
Picturehouses, Curzon And The Living Wage
It’s been a tough year for Picturehouses, as you may have seen another of their cinemas repeatedly in the news. The Ritzy in Brixton, one of the chain’s flagship cinemas, saw a temporary closure when the staff took to the picket line in an effort to be paid the London living wage. The campaign to get the cinema chain to pay its staff the full London Living Wage of £8.80, a significant hike over their previous salaries, took a number of twists and turns over the last quarter of the year, with Picturehouses firstly saying that it would pay the salary but would have to enter into a period of consultancy over redundancies of up to a third of the staff, and then Cineworld stepping in to end the consultancy period. The staff appear to have gotten the right result, but it’s been a long and painful process.
This came on the back of the decision by Curzon Cinemas, who have mainly operations in London but have now expanded into regional cinema in a few areas, to pay all of their staff the Living Wage earlier in the year. They had become embroiled in a battle with staff initially over zero hours contracts, which do not even guarantee staff the minimum wage as an average over the week, and action by the cinema staff there (focused around the cinema’s Soho operation, from what I saw in the press) looks to have also had the right result for their cinema staff.
This is good news for the two art house chains, but inevitably will have consequences for the customers of those chains. Much was made in the press about the £1.3 million pound profit that Picturehouses made in 2013, but it’s also become clear through the process that Picturehouse isn’t paying the Living Wage in as many as eighteen of its cinemas, and that £1.3 million pounds would likely pay for the required increase in no more than two or three of those cinemas. My local Picturehouse in Cambridge has also seen a sharp increase in ticket prices since the Competition Commission process started, with a Friday night ticket rising without discount rising from £10 to £11 after two increases in the last twelve months. (This, coupled with a 50p increase in the Cineworld ticket price, has seen the local Vue cinema move from being the most expensive cinema to the cheapest for non-members after their prices haven’t changed in the same period.)
Curzon, who have committed to the Living Wage, opened a new cinema in Canterbury this year – an area that drew focus after it hosted the infamous Russell Brand / Nigel Farage Question Time episode last month, and Russell Brand visited the food banks in Canterbury, so you could hardly describe it as an exclusively prosperous area – and the standard ticket price there for a Friday night for non-members is £13.50. We can only hope that the higher prices for these cinema chains are being channelled back into the pockets of their employees, but it’s clear that if we expect the staff who look after us to be paid well, we are likely to have to support that in some measure. I’m not a fan of boycotting cinemas, because you’re directly impacting the staff in the first instance and just making their situation worse, but at the same time public pressure needs to be brought to bear on the cinema chains to ensure that any price increases are being used to pay the staff a suitable salary.
And that doesn’t just apply to the two higher end chains. I’ve looked at job adverts in the last month for entry roles at cinemas in the Cineworld, Vue, Odeon and Showcase cinema chains, and in every instance – including some jobs being offered in places such as Wood Green, which I believe should be on London Living Wage – the starting salary is listed as £6.50 per hour, the national minimum wage as opposed to the Living Wage (which is now £7.65 nationally and is due to rise to £9.15 in London). It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you visit a multiplex chain, the person serving you is likely to be living below the poverty line if they aren’t receiving a decent amount of overtime and bonuses. Think on that next time you complain about your overpriced popcorn – as that, not the ticket prices, is the main source of studio income – and if anyone has any bright ideas about how we can see fair treatment for all cinema staff, I’d be the first to sign up to them.
The Interview, Paddington And Censorship
It’s also not been a great year for censorship. In the last couple of months we’ve had a North Korean dictator becoming the focus of an international incident with American movie theatre chains forcing the hand of a major studio into a release of their latest film into independent cinemas and online only. I’ve not yet seen The Interview – if it’s like most other comedy product featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco over the past few years, I expect it to be mildly entertaining – but for one scary moment there, it did appear that we were putting censorship into the hands of anyone with the IT skills to be able to hack into your company’s network and then make demands. (And before North Korea declares war on The Movie Evangelist, I’m sure your country’s lovely and doesn’t deserve this essentially harmless satire of the leader of your country. Apropos of nothing, if you haven’t seen Camp 14, a tale of brutal hardship in North Korea’s concentration camps and one man’s struggle to escape to the free west, it’s currently on Netflix UK or available in a cheap DVD emporium near you, and there’s no better time to watch it.)
We proved in this country that we can’t do much better, after we gave a Christmas movie full of reindeer defecation set in a prison a U rating (Get Santa), and then slapped a PG rating on Paddington for the following:
- it could encourage children to hide in refrigerators and to slide down bannisters, because no child would think about that if they hadn’t seen it in a film and didn’t have parental guidance to tell them it’s a bad idea
- at one point Paddington is lying unconscious in the vicinity of some taxidermy tools
- a man dressed very unconvincingly as a woman is flirted with by another man
- there is one mumbled use of the word “bloody”
Clearly the nation’s children are at a terrible risk. No mention of the fact that this is a predominantly white film where the only non-white characters are a calypso band that play incongruously on the street or happen to be an underused henchman, so it’s good that we’ve got our priorities right. *rolls eyes*
In memoriam – the greatest losses to the world of cinema
There have been the usual array of losses to the world of cinema, and I can guarantee that no matter how many I listed someone would feel that I’d missed off a name that should have been included. So instead I will mention the two most untimely deaths that took away performers from us before their time. Robin Williams felt compelled to end his own life at the age of just 63 in August, but six months earlier drugs had claimed the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman at just 46. Both will be deeply missed, but have at least left behind a legacy that’s probably currently still being expanded in a cinema near you with the Night At The Museum and Hunger Games franchises respectively.
Without wishing to appear facetious, there are two other losses this year that will also affect what many of us consume at the cinema. The first is the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, who has enchanted two generations with his films for Studio Ghibli but who advised that this year’s The Wind Rises would be his final film. I still have some Miayzaki to catch up on, but there will always be a soft spot here; Ponyo was the first review and post I ever published on this blog. The other great loss, although not one which will affect me directly, is the Orange Wednesdays campaign, which gave cinema audiences a 2 for 1 offer for over ten years in almost every cinema in the country, but which will come to an end in February. While the offer was said to be in decline in terms of usage, cinema attendances in 2014 are still 50% higher on Wednesdays than other weekdays, a figure that represents around 4% of the total weekly cinema attendance, and I hope another offer from somewhere will help to ensure that attendance isn’t lost.
The Death Of Originality From Disney To DC And Beyond
Not that the film studios are worried, of course; many of them have announced projects for years to come. Both Warner Brothers / DC and Disney / Marvel have announced their superhero slates up to at least 2019, and with confirmation there’ll be a Star Wars film a year for the next five years and a long list of animation plans announced, the cinema landscape for multiplexes over the coming half decade is more clearly mapped out than ever.
Not that I’m sure that’s a good thing. With seemingly every major actor ending up committed to one or other of the franchises, and with 2015 looming as a year in which the most original major studio film (Tomorrowland) is inspired by a theme park ride in the tradition of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies – of which a fifth is in the planning stage – and which will see the year consumed by everything from Avengers to stormtroopers, original cinema looks to be facing its toughest challenge for some years. I can’t encourage you enough to support original, local films wherever you are, to prove to studios and cinema chains that there is still an audience for these films. When even the announcement of the title and cast for the next Bond – which was to all intents and purposes just a giant car advert – gains more column inches than most film releases, maybe we all need to re-evaluate our priorities.
Tim Burton And Helena Bonham Carter, And Moving On
And then in the last few days an announcement which also struck close to home and fits with the same theme of priorities: Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, one of the last decade’s most enduring cinema partnerships, are separating. They met in 2001 on Planet Of The Apes and have completed another half a dozen films together since then. It struck a chord with me as it was the same year that I first started dating the future Mrs Evangelist, and after nine years of marriage we are now also entering into a separation. She’s been a regular mention in the blog over the years and I’ve always fit my cinema attendance around her, so at this point I’m not sure whether this will mean more or less time in the cinema for me in 2015 as I work out the next stage of my life. But I know one thing – the support I’ve received from people through everything I’ve done with this blog over the past four and a half years has been immense, and I head into 2015 ready to embrace whatever the future has in store, as long as it’s not homogenised, heavily censored films in overpriced cinemas with poorly paid staff. Ahem. Or maybe 2015 is the year we remind ourselves what’s important. See you on the other side, once I’ve got the remainder of my review of this year out of the way.
Coming soon (probably in this order):
Tomorrow – The Top 25 Performances Of 2014
Monday – The Top 30 Scenes Of 2014
Tuesday – The Man And Woman Of The Year
Wednesday – My Top 10 Old Films Of The Year
Thursday – The 40 Best Movies Of 2014
Friday – The 40 Most Anticipated Films Of 2015
The fight against the Competition Commission’s decision goes on, although since much of that continues to go on in darkened boardrooms and we occasionally get whispers of the latest developments, it’s hard not to feel a little disenfranchised at the moment. So with my own involvement in the campaign reaching a temporary lull, partly because of allowing the likes of Cineworld to pursue their own appeals and partly because, to paraphrase Derek Zoolander, I’m really really ridiculously busy right now with things that don’t relate to the inside of a cinema, I felt it was an ideal opportunity to dig deeper into one of the aspects of the debate that’s bothered me most.
When coming to the conclusion that the Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas were in direct competition, one of the pieces of supporting evidence revolved around the fact, supported by evidence from some of the cinemas, that the divide between art house and multiplex cinemas is breaking down and that digital projection allows cinemas to program a wider variety of films. Here’s some relevant paragraphs from the Commission’s final report on the issue.
Distributors are responsible for the marketing of the films they handle. Their aim is to maximize a film’s profitability through promotional activity, the timing of the film’s theatrical release and the subsequent exploitation of DVD and television rights.
Although the number of film releases has increased rapidly in recent years, the majority of new films do not achieve widespread release. Films are generally classified as mainstream or specialized (or non-mainstream), the latter category including foreign language and subtitled films, feature documentaries, art-house productions and films aimed at niche audiences. The BFI told us that the definition of specialized films included both films which were obviously specialized but also a range of films which were not inaccessible or challenging but which appealed to a specific demographic. Specialized films generally account for about 8 per cent of box office revenue.
Cinema exhibitors told us that digital technology had delivered a number of benefits: it had given a high-quality experience to customers, enabled the growth of 3D, and made it easier to change programming and advertise with shorter lead times. Odeon commented that the full benefits of this had yet to be realized, as there was potential to programme even more flexibly… In particular, Odeon anticipated that digital distribution would reduce the requirement for a fixed number of shows per week (historically a minimum of 21) and might result in any digital cinema being able to programme more varied content each week.
That gives some general background on how the industry currently sees itself. Now, something a little more specific from the cinemas, and the only paragraph I can find in the report that shows the cinemas are in competition in terms of programming, above and beyond a revenue comparison.
Non-multiplex cinemas are typically located in town centres. Some of the non-multiplex cinema chains and independent cinemas focus more on showing specialized films. Some of these cinemas show exclusively specialized films (and are typically referred to as ‘art-house’ cinemas), but the majority show a mix of mainstream and specialized films. Vue told us that in its opinion there were only a very small number of cinemas that played only specialized films, for example the Cornerhouse in Manchester, the Watershed in Bristol and the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. Odeon said that there was no longer a differentiation in the eyes of the industry between ‘Hollywood films’ and ‘art-house’ films and that the distinction between different types of cinemas had been eroded by more complex fragmentation, with cinema exhibitors trying to meet commercial targets by programming the most successful films for each cinema on a week-by-week basis. A number of parties told us that they expected to see more overlap in future between film programming in multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas as digitization allowed all cinemas to be more flexible in their film programming.
So the view of the industry appears to be that the barriers are falling down. This must mean that access to the specialized films is becoming ever easier for customers, right? Although given that they only make up 8 percent of the market, maybe they’re not commercially appealing enough. What it doesn’t indicate is whether price or choice is viewed as more important. There is one paragraph that does comment on this, however.
Similarly to the parties, Everyman told us that Picturehouse offered a different experience, product and programming mix to Cineworld. However, Everyman also stated that it competed with both Cineworld and Picturehouse in that they operated in the same industry but did not currently operate sites in locations where they competed directly against one another. Everyman believed that if it were to compete with Cineworld and Picturehouse it would be on a mixture of product offering and quality of service and that price would not play a major factor. We also received a considerable number of letters from the general public stressing the differences between the product offerings of the Picturehouse cinemas and the Cineworld cinemas in Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. A smaller number of letters commented on competition between cinemas in Aberdeen.
So at least one independent cinema chain, and the customers of the cinemas themselves, appear to contradict the views of the rest of the industry that these lines are blurring. But don’t worry, the rest of the industry was keen to contradict its own customers one more time.
By contrast, Vue and Odeon did not draw such clear distinctions between the positioning of multiplexes and independent cinemas. Odeon told us that it was constantly evolving its cinema offer and attempting to ensure that each cinema catered for the widest demographic and taste and gave examples of refurbishments and upgrades it had carried out to meet specific needs. Vue stated that ‘a cinema is a cinema’. These views were echoed by Curzon: it believed that there was a large overlap between cinema types, with 60 per cent of customers willing to go both to multiplexes and independent cinemas.
There is clearly a marked divide between how much of the industry perceives itself, and the opportunities that digital distribution can provide, and how the customers in the affected areas see this. But are Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge unique cases, or symptomatic of a greater national divide?
There is only one way to find out, and that’s to look at what cinemas across the country are currently showing. To do that, I’ve taken a snapshot of the fifty largest urban areas in England and Wales. I will admit up front that I’ve taken a slightly different approach to the Competition Commission; they effectively stuck a pin in the centre of an area and drew a twenty minute circle around it to consider how far people would travel. I’ve considered urban areas, simply on the basis that it’s easier for me to work out, but also on the presumption that public transport would allow access for anyone within that urban area to see the films listed. The full list of areas can be found here, and Cambridge – our test case in terms of the Commission debate – is the 45th largest urban area on the list.
I’ve then looked at the films showing this week, between Friday 29th November and Thursday 5th December, in any cinema in each of those 50 urban areas. I’ve narrowed the field slightly; I’ve looked at those films given some form of general release in the calendar month of November, so either in this week or the four preceding weeks. I’ve taken my list from the films listed at Launching Films. (Cinema listing times have been taken from Google’s cinema listings pages.) There are a handful of mainstream films, including Thor: The Dark World, Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa and Captain Phillips that were released prior to this date that are still showing in the majority of areas. A number of cinema chains have had advanced previews this weekend, including screenings of Frozen in a number of cinemas. As well as that, the Picturehouse chain had advanced screenings of Nebraska on Sunday, Cineworld had The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty on Monday and Showcase had previews of Additionally, I’ve ruled out live events and Bollywood films for now to make the count easier – I’m hoping to automate the counting process with some of my IT knowledge from my day job, so that in future I can cover those too.
So of those films released in November, there are a total of 30 still showing somewhere in one of those 50 urban areas this week. I believe they break down into three distinct categories: the mainstream films, which are showing exclusively at the multiplex type cinema (or their smaller cousins); there are the specialized films, which are showing pretty exclusively at the Picturehouse or independent cinemas; and then there’s the crossover films, those films likely to be showing in almost any cinema that has the capacity. This last list is the shortest, and they can be easily categorised at this time of year by the approach of awards season. If you had to go through the list of thirty and pick out the four most likely to be on awards ballots come January next year, it would be these four. Consequently, they have a broad, cross-demographic appeal that neither of the other lists can claim.
Here’s the list of films, and the number indicates how many of those urban areas are still showing the films in question.
So if you want to see time travelling turkeys or futuristic child slaying, you’re in luck as those are the two films guaranteed to be showing everywhere this week. If you live in Barnsley, you may have to make do with those, as it’s the one area not showing Carrie and no longer showing Gravity. You also can’t see Saving Mr Banks there, and if you live in Slough you’ll also have to travel. So this shows that there are effectively eight films fighting for the largest share of the box office, showing in more than two-thirds of areas, and whether or not you can see the other films is a form of cinematic postcode lottery. In terms of the overlap between cinemas, only one film provides any evidence: Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, a film from a small but prolific American director with a more mainstream cast, had one-off showings in thirteen Vue cinemas on Tuesday night. It certainly shows the potential of digital alluded to in the report, but it’s hardly being exploited to the full benefit of customers yet.
But it’s not one that relates to the size of the area that you live in. Of the thirty films, I couldn’t find five of them showing in London this week, but there were still screenings at other cinemas around the country. But this is how the urban areas break down in terms of the proportion of those 30 films you can see this week in your area.
While the larger areas have congregated towards the top, there are a few anomalies. The people of the larger areas of Birkenhead and Luton would likely be looking at a long journey to catch most of the films listed, although in Luton’s case there are a high proportion of Bollywood titles on offer as well; Birkenhead residents are faced with a trek to at least Liverpool to catch a wider variety of films. At the other end of the spectrum, Ipswich performs very well thanks to a community based cinema, and both Oxford and Cambridge perform especially well. Cambridge manages to come out joint second, despite having only three cinemas, and actually has performed consistently well; if you look at the list of specialised films in the first table, every one of those films has shown in Cambridge during November. A total of 24 of those 30 films have shown in Cambridge at some point in the past three months, a figure which makes me very glad to live where I do. You can then add in special, one-off screenings of classic releases or themed events, which would put another four onto the Cambridge total this week alone; the areas with cinemas engaged in such activities are almost all in the first column of that second table.
So the diversity of films available in Cambridge is significant, and is the rival or the superior of any city outside London. But when the Office Of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission are fighting for the interests of customers over price, who is protecting the interests of customers over choice? Not the Department Of Culture, Media And Sport, who seem to have no interest in this debate (and a number of us have written to them, and received dismissive replies). But what are customers truly seeking? What’s most important to cinema customers in terms of what their local cinema offers them? If only we had some form of survey to answer that question, such as the independent survey undertaken by GfK for the Competition Commission as part of their investigation.
This is slide 31 from their full presentation, available here. It shows that, of the 21,000 people surveyed, the choice of film is the single biggest driver to their reasoning. It would have been fascinating to see if that survey had given people the choice of one or the other, price or choice, to see which is the single biggest factor.
So the residents of the Cambridge area remain worried that their privileged position of cinematic choice is being put in jeopardy in an effort to protect them from a potential price rise. But my survey also shows that the ideas of the cinema chains such as Vue, Odeon and Curzon that the barriers of the marketplace are breaking down are nowhere near coming to fruition. Only two multiplexes, one in Cardiff and one in London, are showing Blue Is The Warmest Colour this week, a film only released a week ago and winner of the Palm D’Or at Cannes this year. Almost everything else on the specialised list is studiously being avoided by the big cinemas outside of London, and while the likes of Odeon and Curzon are diversifying heavily in their London outlets, that pattern is the complete opposite of the rest of the country.
There is still a clear divide in terms of cinema exhibition, with Picturehouse, Curzon’s London cinemas and a selection of independents (Manchester Cornerhouse, Leeds Hyde Park Picturehouse, Watershed Bristol, Showroom Sheffield, Newcasatle Tyueside, Broadway Nottingham and a few others) on one side showing a wide mix of crossover and specialised films, and the remainder (Cineworld, Odeon, Vue, Showcase, Reel, Empire and Everyman, plus smaller independent cinemas not in large urban areas) showing a mix of crossover and mainstream films. The only stipulation from the Commission is that cinemas have to be sold as a going concern, so any sale of the Picturehouses in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen could be to a cinema operator in the second list, not showing specialized films or at a drastically reduced rate, and at present no-one is fighting that corner on behalf of the customers who rate that more important than the price concerns raised by the OFT and the Competition Commission.
This survey isn’t intended as a critique of any one particular cinema or chain of cinemas, but a call to all of them to be doing the most they can for their customers. I intend to run this survey on a regular basis, hopefully at least monthly, in an effort to understand if there is any movement in the right direction, and that movement needs to be on a national basis, not just in one area. In a world where these specialized films make up just 8% of revenue already, does that seem commercially appealing to new operators of cinemas when the regulatory bodies are prioritising competition over choice? So who is going to fight for choice in our cinemas, not just in Cambridge or the other affected areas but across the country? The BFI? (Here’s a copy of their letter to the Competition Commission on 30th August, expressing just these concerns, but which didn’t carry the same weight as the cinema operators in the final analysis.) Maybe it should be other local independent film trusts and film clubs? Maybe it’s the customers of the cinemas, who surely should have the most influence over the operators if they put their mind to it? Or does the answer simply start with you?
(In case you're interested in more detail or want to check my workings - a move that I'd always encourage - here's the spreadsheet I compiled with my review of the 50 areas: State Of The Nation Spreadsheet - November 2013 Any and all feedback welcome, as always.)
I’ve written a huge amount about the Competition Commission’s decision making process over the past few months, but one thing has been at the core of all the debates, and that’s how you define a cinema and its market. The Competition Commission and The Office Of Fair Trading have taken counsel from the people who ought to know how this works: the industry itself. However, the definition that they’ve come up with is one which simply differentiates between multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas, and has missed that there are other types of cinemas out there.
I do wonder if there had been a more accurate definition of the different types of cinema in the marketplace that we wouldn’t be in this mess now. What I do strongly feel is that, no matter the outcome of this process, that if we get into this debate again over any future mergers or acquisitions that the cinemas need to understand their own market and their customers better.
So I believe the market actually consists of five main types of cinema:
Cinemas that focus on American and high profile British films currently on general release, typically with five or more screens. They may have some form of social area, and serve a small range of food and drink concessions to be taken into screenings. They will usually be found in either out-of-town areas in areas of high population concentration and are likely to form part of a large chain. They will focus on digital projection of films.
As Large Standard (similar range of films shown and food and drink offered) but with less than five screens. They may be found either in or out of town, typically in smaller towns that cannot support a Large Standard cinema. They will typically be required to upgrade to digital projection if they haven’t done so already.
As Large Standard (similar range of films shown via digital projection and food and drink offered), and may form part of a Large Standard cinema. They will offer increased comfort and at-seat food and drink in return for ticket prices higher than those of a Large Standard cinema.
Cinemas that show a mix of both American and high profile British films, as well as world cinema and lower profile British films. They will offer a greater range of special interest events and showings of classic films, will have an alcohol licence and will offer hot and cold food for consumption in a dedicated area. They will also retain analogue film formats wherever possible.
Cinemas that will focus almost exclusively on world and low profile British cinema at the expense of American and high profile British films. They are most likely to have screenings of older films or special interest events. They will have little or no focus on food or drink offerings, and will also retain analogue formats wherever possible.
I believe that 99% of cinemas in this country will clearly fit one, and only one, of these definitions. (There will always be the odd exception: take the Prince Charles Cinema in London, which is probably Independent with a bit of Small Standard by these outlines.) There are two things I don’t think you can apply to these definitions: the first is any sense of membership or ticket price definition, as cinemas in most of these sectors offer memberships which differ wildly in concept and execution and ticket prices will vary by geographical area. The second is live events, such as the National Theatre or the RSC, as these are increasingly being shown across all these types of cinemas. It is the films themselves, rather than live streamed events, that create the separation in definition.
These are the kind of cinemas I see fitting into these definitions:
Large Standard: The vast majority of cinemas owned by the major chains, including Odeon, Showcase, Cineworld, Vue and Empire, as well as the larger cinemas owned by Reel.
Small Standard: Cinemas in small towns, typically where there isn’t a Large Standard cinema present, such as some of those owned by Hollywood or Reel cinemas. They may also be the run by provincial operators such as Everyman who would be operating Quality cinemas in areas such as London.
Premium: The Showcase De Lux screens, Cineworld’s Screening Rooms in Cheltenham or the Odeon The Lounge Whiteleys.
Quality: Picturehouse cinemas nationwide, as well as the likes of Curzon and Everyman cinemas in London and major independents such as the Watershed in Bristol, The Cornerhouse in Manchester, The Showroom in Sheffield and the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle.
Art-house: The ICA or the NFT at the BFI in London.
As digital projection increases, I can see cinemas who are currently small standard looking to make the transition to quality based on a wider range of offerings. The cinema most local to me in Ely, which operates for only one or two days a week, has recently made the transition to digital and they’ve already begun to open up the scope of their events, which is heartening news for locals.
Eventually it may be the case that these definition start to merge, that the distinction between Small Standard and Quality, or between Quality and Art-house, begins to break down. However, change is not always an agent of speed, and this could well take decades rather than years. But for now, there is a fight to protect cinemas in Aberdeen, Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge which fall into the definition of Quality. If under new owners they become Small Standard, then they simply won’t be able to compete with the Large Standard cinemas in close proximity, and becoming Premium cinemas will remove all of the current customer benefits of price and choice that I and so many others have fought to protect these last few weeks. Hopefully the cinema industry will wake up to itself before it’s too late.
It has now been almost four weeks since the Competition Commission published its findings into the Cineworld / Picturehouse merger and determined that Cineworld must sell a cinema in each area. They immediately decided to sell Picturehouses in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds and are still deciding whether to sell the Cineworld or the Picturehouse in Cambridge. Cineworld have now actively been seeking purchasers for the various cinemas and we appear to be approaching a final decision in the next couple of weeks.
However, in the process of reaching their final decision, the reports attempted to define how the cinema market is broken down. It’s at the core of every argument that has followed about how Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas are – or aren’t – different. The definition in the Commission’s final report broke the market down into just two types, multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas, simply by the number of screens. They had the following submissions from other cinema chains in paragraph 4.17 about non-multiplex cinemas:
Some of these cinemas show exclusively specialized films (and are typically referred to as ‘art-house’ cinemas), but the majority show a mix of mainstream and specialized films. Vue told us that in its opinion there were only a very small number of cinemas that played only specialized films, for example the Cornerhouse in Manchester, the Watershed in Bristol and the Showroom Cinemain Sheffield. Odeon said that there was no longer a differentiation in the eyes of the industry between ‘Hollywood films’ and ‘art-house’ films and that the distinction between different types of cinemas had been eroded by more complex fragmentation, with cinema exhibitors trying to meet commercial targets by programming the most successful films for each cinema on a week-by-week basis. A number of parties told us that they expected to see more overlap in future between film programming in multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas as digitization allowed all cinemas to be more flexible in their film programming.
Sorry Vue, but the independent cinemas you list all do what the Picturehouses do, and show films with an appeal across a wider demographic (the Alan Partridge and Richard Curtis type films) and supplement them with a diet of more specialist films. Odeon, you need to consider why there are films you show in the majority of your cinemas and those you don’t, particularly when considering what you show in your London venues such as Covent Garden and Panton St and what you show outside London. If you can’t see the difference, customers clearly can.
If you want a simple definition of films that illustrate the divide, then start with world cinema. I’ve seen films from over twenty countries in the Picturehouses and independents that I’ve visited in the last year alone and they are a staple of these kind of cinemas. You can normally spot when a subtitled film is playing in a multiplex: the cinema will sometimes have to put a sign up near the ticket kiosk warning people that the film is subtitled to attempt to reduce complaints, and the trailer for the film will feature little or no dialogue, so as not to give the game away. You could also add most low budget British film to this divide; I saw Clio Barnard’s outstanding British film The Selfish Giant last week at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, but I challenge anyone to find any multiplex outside London that’s shown it. Add in the screenings last week of classics such as An American Werewolf In London in Bury last Friday and E.T. in 70 mm, both of which were strongly attended and which are the rule at these cinemas and the exception elsewhere, and the quality of film needing to be protected becomes clear.
The report also made note of various cinema chains, including Showcase, Vue, Cineworld and Odeon who are offering whole cinemas or screens in existing outlets based on a premium cinema offering. These have larger and fewer seats and will bring food into screens for you. They charge at least 60% more, and show exactly the same kinds of films being shown in ordinary multiplexes, as confirmed in the report by Cineworld and obvious to anyone who looks at their cinema listings. This is fundamentally not the same as the current Picturehouse offering, and if any cinema owner attempted to convert a Picturehouse to this model, the increase in price would be several orders of magnitude higher than anything that the Commission originally envisaged Cineworld imposing and would lose at a stroke the quality of the current film offering.
It’s clear we need a better definition of types of cinema, if nothing else to stop us getting into this kind of mess in future. But more critically, with the sales of either two or three Picturehouses imminent, there is a clear demand from customers as to what they want from these kinds of cinemas, but the cinema industry itself has singularly failed in its attempts to describe this, and if we don’t make this clear to both the Competition Commission and the potential purchasers, we run the risk of these cinemas being run incorrectly, denying customers what they demand and putting their futures at risk. So it’s now down to us, the customers, to try to make it clear to the cinemas and the Commission how we see this breaking down.
So here’s my definition of a quality cinema, which I believe is a better representation of what the Picturehouse and other independents offer.
Manifesto Of Quality Cinema
A quality cinema is defined to be a cinema that has:
- a requirement to show at least 50% of film or event titles per week on average over a given period that are not shown at the multiplexes, although this may be a single screening for a given title
- in addition to this, a requirement to show an average of one title a week with at least one screening per day that is not showing at the multiplexes on a regular basis
- a requirement to offer off-peak screenings for over 60s for at least one day per week, screenings for parents with young children at least once a week, regular screenings and events for young children and students and provision for autism friendly screenings
- a commitment to offer access to festivals, including any currently operating festivals at any of the cinemas*, and to allow their operation on a like-for-like basis to current events
- a commitment to maintain any currently operating single screenings**, and to allow their operation on a like-for-like basis to current events
- a commitment to maintain an alcohol licence and the provision of hot and cold food not currently served at multiplexes***
- a commitment to maintain streaming of live and pre-recorded theatre and other cultural events other than films on a like-for-like basis with the current operation
- that they be allowed reasonable access to events distributed by the Picturehouse distribution arm in the manner of other similar cinema operators not owned by Cineworld
- a commitment to preserve any non-digital projection methods currently in use and to maintain any other support necessary to use these facilities
- to allow access to film clubs and other societies to host screenings or events such as film quizzes on a reasonable basis
* events such as the Cambridge Film Festival or other festivals where a series of films run under a specific theme
** events such as film clubs, or the regular Staff Pick events at the Abbeygate Picturehouse
*** the Competition Commission do not currently require any new purchaser to maintain the cafe at the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds, which I believe has been an integral part of its current success
The Picturehouses would all currently meet this requirement, and I believe that any supplier, whether a chain or independent, taking these over should be required to agree to meet this set of criteria in principle.
The Competition Commission previously dismissed the option of applying behavioural controls, so this is intended to be something simpler and that wouldn’t require formal monitoring on an ongoing basis. It’s effectively an informal contract between us, the customers and any new operator, and indicates what we believe makes this a cinema we’d want to attend. The independent cinemas listed in the report and mentioned above would also fit into this definition or something very close to it. I still believe that the best option for price and choice for customers, and for their long term sustainability, is for them to remain in Cineworld and Picturehouse ownership, but if this cannot be achieved then I see this as the next best alternative.
The immediate action before any sale is agreed is that I believe the Commission should apply the above criteria as a test to any prospective purchasers. They have repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that there are differences between the Picturehouse and the other operators, and I believe they have a moral obligation to ensure that these differences are maintained while what they perceive to be the competition requirements are restored.
To be clear: the whole objection of the Commission and the Office Of Fair Trading is that the merger allowed Cineworld to profit at the expense of customers. If Cineworld is allowed to sell to the highest bidder without any form of quality control, they will have profited at the expense of customers. The only people who now have any direct power to influence Cineworld over who purchases their cinemas are the Competition Commission.
I have the support in principle of my own MP in seeking such assurances, and will be seeking other support to this view as well. I am prepared to organise a second petition if necessary to support this view. I will be contacting the Commission today with this proposal and I am keen to ensure it reflects public opinion as clearly as possible. At present the only written commitment from the Commission is to ensure that these are run as a cinema by the new owner. The fear is, as it has always been, that if someone attempts to run these cinemas without these kind of offerings that the customers will be poorly served and the cinemas will struggle to remain open, putting their futures in jeopardy. If you feel that anything needs adding to or changing in this manifesto, please let me know.
If you believe that the Commission needs to follow this or similar guidelines when reviewing any potential purchasers of these Picturehouse cinemas, then you can make your feelings known to the Commission either by contacting them directly at CineworldCityScreen@cc.gsi.gov.uk or by contacting the deputy chairman Alisdair Smith who chaired this panel at Alasdair.Smith@cc.gsi.gov.uk.
It has now been almost four weeks since the Competition Commission published its findings into the Cineworld / Picturehouse merger and determined that Cineworld must sell a cinema in each area. They immediately decided to sell Picturehouses in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds and are still deciding whether to sell the Cineworld or the Picturehouse in Cambridge. Cineworld have now actively been seeking purchasers for the various cinemas and we appear to be approaching a final decision in the next couple of weeks.
There remains an option to challenge the Competition Commission’s decision, through the appeals body known as the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT). Anyone with a grievance against such a decision may formally apply to the CAT to review a decision such as the one the Commission have reached. However, this is now entering a legal framework and as such the only way to overturn the decision is to find, in the words of the CAT, “that the disputed decision was based on an error in fact or was wrong in law.”
I still believe there are a number of misjudgements in the findings, ranging from the actual judgement of what constitutes the market to the economic arguments on which the final findings are based. However, my belief in that and being able to prove that to an appeals tribunal are two entirely different things, and so those working to protect these cinemas have come up with a plan of how to challenge this finding. Time is running out, and if an appeal is to be lodged then there are only four weeks left in which to do so, maybe less if a sale is agreed soon and would happen quickly. I still believe that the most stable future for these cinemas and their customers is if they remain in their current ownership, and consequently believe legal action to be the best route to securing that future – IF we can attract suitable support, and quickly.
The plan is as follows:
- A number of us working together to fight this decision believe we have secured the potential services of a London barrister who is an expert in CAT proceedings and who will review the case to determine any possible successful avenues of appeal based on the case and the evidence we’ve collected.
- This would cost a total of around £600; we have some offers of help with regard to this, but still need more to get it off the ground. In theory, with 14,400 people having signed the petition, finding 120 people to offer £5 each shouldn’t be hard, as it’s still less than 1% of people that signed.
- This would then form the basis for a formal appeal, and we are then looking for further legal help to realise that case. However, the review should provide a stronger basis and make securing such support easier.
- In the event that the legal review doesn’t find enough of a strong case to answer, we would reluctantly focus our efforts on other options (namely Plan B).
- We will need to confirm funding in the next couple of days if we are to make any progress with this plan.
- You should be aware that we have contacted Cineworld to attempt to understand why they are not pursuing an appeal, but have so far had no response.
I am aware that various parties, including some of the MPs we contacted, are still contacting the Competition Commission to try to get them to overturn their decision. Even if we had convinced the Commission that their argument was wrong, they have no powers to set aside their own findings once they are published, and despite Vince Cable stating in the House Of Commons that he was a former customer of the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and generally sympathised with the view, he has no powers to overturn the decision either. The only way currently to stop the actions required by the Commission is an appeal to the CAT.
If you feel you would be able to make any contribution, no matter how small, to the appeal itself in the form of legal support or to the review in terms of financial support please e-mail me at email@example.com. A decision will be made in the next couple of days if there is enough support for this plan for it to move forward. If there is sufficient backing for this plan, I will then advise supporters of a transparent and secure method for making any contributions and keep people updated.
An Open Letter To Anyone Who’ll Listen In Response To The Competition Commission’s Open Letter To Me
This is a long post. I apologise again, but feel the need to be thorough. I will try to summarise at the end if you want to skip to that. Probably after a picture of a kitten or something. If you’re going to read the whole thing, no-one would blame you for getting a cup of tea, then coming back. People have written shorter dissertations than this.
On Monday, around two weeks after it loses the legal ability to make any material difference, the Competition Commission finally issued a response to the questions that I and many others had been asking them since a day after they published their initial report on the 20th August. That date now feels a lifetime ago, and so much has happened since, that it’s starting to become increasingly difficult to disentangle the truth of the situation from the many arguments and counterarguments that have raged ever since. And by arguments, I mean the views of the general public, several MPs, an MEP, at least two Lords, the most significant independent film body in this country and several key members of the film and film journalism communities, and by counterarguments I mean the position of the Competition Commission and my local MP, James Paice, who to this date is still quite literally the only person to have agreed in any way with the Commission’s findings. If you find any more, please let me know, I’m still looking.
So let’s get something clear. In all of this, I still believe that the Commission genuinely believe they are acting in the best interests of the general public. I still think they believe that if they had not acted, that consumers would have been left at risk of a price increase. Not an actual price increase, mind you, a risk of a price increase. Those that know me and have read this blog regularly will know that I’m fond of analogies, and the only suitable one I can think of is trepanning. Sure, there are reasons and occasions why this may be a legitimate and necessary medical procedure, but you shouldn’t go drilling a hole in the head of everyone who’s got a headache; you’re liable to do far more more harm than good. I remain resolutely of the belief that the proposed course of action here will do far more harm, and is far more likely – in fact, guaranteed – to drive up prices, reduce choice and remove the quality of service, than the substantial lessening of competiton ever would have done, and I’m almost more frustrated that the Commission can’t see that than their inability to distinguish on markets.
I’ve tried to remain professional through all this, despite having had to attempt to understand hundreds of pages of documents in a short space of time, many of it written in a legal speak to which I am entirely unfamiliar, in the face of a group of people who to outside observers have seemingly gone as far out of their way as possible not to understand the arguments being made to them, and clinging resolutely to their single defence and line of argument. I am now going to attempt to respond to the points made by the Commission yesterday, and in doing so I apologise in advance if that professional demeanour slips just occasionally, as it nearly did in the title of this post. (Also, dear reader, you keep having the patience to read this stuff, so I’m sure you’ll understand my need to make this as easily readable as possible.) Finally, I’m using edited sections of the full letter here; please refer to the full letter if you need further clarity – it might be worth reading it in full first before you read this if you haven’t – and if you feel I have misconstrued any of the Commission’s points by the edits I’ve taken, please let me know, as my intention is to try to clarify my thinking, not to cloud theirs. Portions of the Commission’s letter are in italics for clarity, and any extracts from the final report are in a smaller font.