Competition Commission

Competition Commission: And Now, The End Is Near

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Cineworld Cambridge

Finally, more than two years after Cineworld plc acquired the City Screen business that operates Picturehouse cinemas (yes, it was December 6th 2012 that this all started), and getting on for two years after the Office Of Fair Trading first referred the purchase to the Competition Commission, the actions that the Competition Commission requested have finally now all been completed and we can – almost – make an assessment of who’s gained and lost in this process. Today it was announced, about a week after the signs came down and the speculation began, that the European cinema chain The Light would be taking over operation of the Cineworld in Cambridge. The chain, started by businessmen Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan, currently operates two cinemas in the UK in New Brighton and Wisbech as well as two in Europe, with plans for another six in the UK over the next two years. Their mission statement on their website is promising, as they pledge:

  • Eye catching architecture and contemporary interior design which creates an exciting environment and encourages socialising.
  • Adventurous film programming, featuring blockbusters, independent and international films.
  • The newest and latest on screen content: opera, sport and music
  • A café bar creating relaxed atmosphere, a place to socialise and attract the mix of families, young people and mature adults who make up the cinema audience.

But this process has taken so long, it might be easy to forget how we got to this point. (It’s been frustrating recently for customers of the Cambridge cinemas, but the nature of the legal process meant that no one could formally announce anything until the sale was completed.) With a particular film theme, let’s look at the winners and losers in all this.

The Good – good news for Picturehouse customers

Back in 2012 when the acquisition was first announced, the mood was pessimistic to say the least. It was presumed by many that the change in ownership would see the cinemas transformed into mini-multiplexes, losing their focus and character, yet if you look around the country that hasn’t happened. I can say this with first hand knowledge, having been to Picturehouse cinemas in Norwich, Liverpool, Hackney, Exeter, Southampton and Edinburgh since that day in 2012 as well as my two locals, and they all still by and large have the same quirky, comfortable atmosphere and the same higher end film programme. Each is distinct but clearly part of something larger, and that can also be said of the cinema in Cambridge.

Two of the the Picturehouses did get sold under the Competition Commission decision, in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds. The former was purchased by Filmhouse, who not only run an independent arthouse cinema in Edinburgh but also the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has carried on pretty much business as usual. The latter was bought by Tony Jones, former co-founder of City Screen and now back in independent cinema. The Picturehouse programming arm continues to programme for that cinema and a reciprocal agreement on membership has kept discounts in place. Thankfully the cinema had a significant refurbishment before the sale and the bar and restaurant are a delight, and with the news that the Abbeygate (as it is now called) have purchased the bingo hall next door and are converting that to a third screen, the future of quality cinema in Bury St. Edmunds also looks assured.

But these were always likely to be the easier of the two situations. It wasn’t impossible that an independent could have come in and taken over Cambridge, just that there were so many more babies in the bathwater there that a change in ownership could have very easily set the cinema on a path to ruin. The easiest way to maintain everything that the cinema stood for seemed to be to keep the current owners in charge, and that has been the final outcome. The Arts Picturehouse will remain, and for those like myself who stood on the pavement outside the cinema in 2013, placards in hand, and to the 15,126 people who signed the petition directed at the Competition Commission – the vast majority of whom were current or former Arts customers – it is time to breath a sigh of relief, albeit a guarded one.

I’ve been in discussions with people on social media who fear that the change to a mini-multiplex in 2012 was just delayed for Cambridge and that the programming for the Arts Picturehouse will now simply transform it into the mini-multiplex now that Cambridge no longer has a Cineworld in town. There’s a few reasons why I don’t think – and hope, for nothing in life is certain – that this will happen. First off, Cineworld seem to have recognised through this process that Cambridge is one of the crown jewels of the Picturehouse chain and that to dilute it now would be nonsensical. The multiplex that they are selling has around four times the seating capacity in its nine screens that the Arts has in its three, and even the economists of the Competition Commission (sorry, couldn’t resist one last dig) could work out that a profit-based decision would be to sell the arts cinema. Also, if you look at the kinds of areas I mentioned earlier (Norwich, Edinburgh, Southampton, Liverpool and so on), they are a mixture of areas both with and without a Cineworld but all with other competition, and their core programming is not so different to that of the Cambridge cinema. Bear in mind that the programming for all of these cinemas is generally planned months in advance and then fine tuned the week before, wholesale changes are not even possible in that sense for some time to come without massive and unnecessary disruption.

However, one of the big things that sets Cambridge apart – and one of the major motivating factors for trying to protect the status quo – is all of the programming at the cinema which doesn’t come directly from Picturehouse or which marks them out from the competitors. If you look at the latest programme you’ll see there’s still at least one 70mm film a month being shown, there are repertory programmes from the University of the Third Age, the University of Cambridge’s Faculty Of Modern and Medieval Languages, short films from / Encompass Network and films from young trainee programmers at Long Road Sixth Form College. But the two most undervalued contributions come from the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium – who have a dozen educational events in the latest programme alone – and the Cambridge Film Trust, who work to foster film education across the Eastern region and the whole of the UK, and who – not the Picturehouse as most people seem to think – run the Cambridge Film Festival each year. The festival last year moved to late August and saw a 30% increase in attendance on the previous year, and if you’ve ever been to the Arts Picturehouse and wondered what was up the stairs beyond the screens, then it’s these organisations and the projectionists. Hopefully any doubt in what the future held for any of them is now removed.

The one comment that I’ve made before and that I’ll make again is that if the programming changes at the Arts Picturehouse, it’s less likely to be as a result of the sale of the Cineworld and more likely to be down to the fact that the cinema’s programmers are making brave choices that then don’t get backed up by an audience. In November the cinema had screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but none in the much larger screen 1, and the cinema responded to audience requests and moved a Friday night screening into screen 1 which then pretty much sold out. But I was also at two separate films on Friday nights in screen 3 last year that had an audience in single figures, and that’s not sustainable. There’s no point in the programmers being bold if no-one then watches the films, and I would urge any regular customers reading this to check their brochures and seek out the daring films being shown. Quite often these days the more niche films, such as the recent Denis Villeneuve release Enemy with Jake Gyllenhall, get relegated to a 10:30 slot because there’s no confidence they’ll attract a sufficient evening crowd, and I can’t buy all of the tickets myself (as much as I’d like to). Just don’t come complaining if you don’t watch the films and then they disappear.

The Bad – Cineworld Unlimited customers (and possibly all Cineworld customers)

Cineworld Unlimited

When someone tells you that you have two things and one is going to be taken away, and that you must lose one or the other with retaining both not an option, then it’s almost impossible to campaign for both. I did try to draw attention to the potential risks of losing the Cineworld in terms of cost, but the momentum to fight for the Cineworld just never materialised to the same extent. I personally consume films in huge volume, averaging around 160 a year since I started this blog, and much of that has been made possible by the use of my Unlimited Premium card. I can and will still visit Cineworlds in Huntingdon, Bury St. Edmunds, Haverhill and Stevenage regularly (as well as a host of others if I’m in the area) and I’m hoping that there’ll be a new Cineworld just fifteen minutes away from me in Ely come next summer, but I’ve often relied on seeing three or four films in a day split between the Arts and the Cineworld in Cambridge. The Light have said they will honour Unlimited cards, which also give significant discounts on food and drink, for three months, but after that I’m expecting to see my costs go up every time I have a film day in Cambridge.

The Competition Commission’s research suggested that around 8% of their customers nationally are Unlimited customers (there was no figure specific to Cambridge). But I guarantee that the vast majority of that 8% in Cambridge are seeing two or more films a month, and for them this will represent either a significant rise in cost or more likely a significant reduction in the number of films they can see in the cinema. Frankly, as this blog was founded on the principle of encouraging people to watch as many films in cinemas as they could, that breaks my heart just a tiny bit. I hope anyone that can’t get to another Cineworld still manages to see some films once the Unlimited extension expires.

But what of the other 92%, those that just buy single or group tickets and don’t rely on the discounts of Unlimited? We’ll know tomorrow at noon, when the Light’s website goes live, whether they’ve gained or lost on price. The fundamental basis for the decision by the Office Of Fair Trading to refer this to the Competition Commission in the first place was that more competition helps to naturally regulate price, but we won’t know until tomorrow if there’s any change to the cinema’s costs. The good news is that in Wisbech, the cinema seems to have recently reduced its prices by 20% in an effort to better pitch to the local consumer. One of the things I found out in my research into this in 2013 is that cinema chains set prices locally, so in that sense competition should have an effect, but there’s probably only half a dozen cities in the country with enough cinemas for competition to make any difference, three being unlikely to cut it. With that 20% price cut in Wisbech, a standard Friday night ticket is still 20p more expensive than their only competitor, the single screen The Luxe – your guess is as good as mine as to whether there’s actually any market forces at work there.

I also then looked at that same Friday night comparison for The Light’s other cinema in New Brighton, and that looks less promising. There’s quite a diverse collection of cinemas within half an hour’s travel of that cinema, and the range of standard Friday night ticket prices is impressive:

New Brighton Prices

To give The Light their credit, they are competing a little with the Picturehouse on content, showing Birdman and A Most Violent Year when few of the other cinemas have, but their closest three cinemas geographically are the three on the left, so if you see a mainstream film at The Light in New Brighton, you’re paying significantly more than the local competition.

So I will reserve judgement on the pricing and film choice of the new cinema until their website is live tomorrow. The best possible outcome for the cinema lovers of Cambridge would be The Light starting to compete more on programming with the Picturehouse while making the pricing competitive, but only time will tell. Hopefully customers, now much more conscious of price if this process has had any effect, will vote with their feet if they’re being overcharged in Cambridge and the pressures of the market might actually have the effect that I cynically doubt they will. I am completely happy to be proven wrong on this one.

The Ugly – the Competition & Markets Authority

Yes, this process has been going so long that the body that referred this decision and the people they referred it to have themselves been merged, the OFT and the Competition Commission becoming one in the Competition & Markets Authority. When you’ve processed the irony of that, let’s recall what the intent of this process was to do. The idea of forcing Cineworld to sell a cinema in three areas was to encourage competition in those areas and that in return, that competition would naturally help to control prices for consumers. As was pointed out by others almost on day one of this process, if that were true in and of itself then cinemas in Leicester Square would be the cheapest in the country, but clearly there’s more at work here. What the CMA and its predecessors couldn’t do – because that would effectively be a price control, and that’s not their remit – would be to determine how much competition should influence pricing in the market. At the time of the sale, one of those standard Friday night tickets at the Cineworld in Cambridge would have set you back £9.90, compared to £9.70 at the Vue or £11.00 at the Picturehouse. If in the longer term those figures don’t all just increase in line with the Retail Price Index, then this process will have achieved something. It will be fascinating to see tomorrow how The Light’s starting price compares to the final Cineworld price; I would argue that if it’s even a penny higher, this process has failed spectacularly on the main front it was trying to deliver.

But actually, I’d make a further argument that it’s already done just that: this process has already repeatedly allowed to happen the exact thing it was designed to stop. 

What do I mean by that? Well, although it couldn’t set price controls, the Competition Commission set a test as part of the third party survey conducted in their investigation. The idea was that they questioned people as to whether or not they’d change cinema if the one they normally went to put their prices up by 5%. The principle is that, if enough people would switch from Picturehouse to Cineworld or vice versa if the price went up in one of them, then it would be in Cineworld plc’s interests to raise prices because they would still keep the profit.

What the research showed was that it was in Cineworld plc’s best interests not to raise prices in Cambridge, because three times as many survey respondents said they would go to the opposition (i.e. Vue) as they would stay with a Cineworld plc cinema. In that event, Cineworld loses all of the money rather than gaining the profit, so that one piece of evidence should have told them that not keeping prices competitive would have seen them lose business, and the market was already telling them.

But that’s not the way the Competition Commission saw it, they demanded the sale of a cinema in Cambridge and two other areas. This was taken from one of my blog posts in September 2013, and prices were still at this level when the Commission made its final judgement in October 2013.

CC Chart 1

Can you guess what happened next? Between then and now, Cineworld have made a price rise of 50p per ticket (more than 5%) and Picturehouse have made two of 50p each (more than 10%). So if there was anything to be gained by customers switching cinemas, then this process has taken so long that Cineworld plc have profited from it three times in Cambridge before the cinema sale went through. Doesn’t that strike you as making this process a spectacular waste of everyone’s time and effort?

Anyway, what’s done is done, and despite our best efforts the process has ploughed on unhindered, ignoring the voices of not only the general public but prominent industry figures and members of both Houses Of Parliament. And now, here we are, with the CMA having taken nearly eighteen months to put a bolt on the stable door, but the horse has already made its exit.

I think there are questions to be asked here of how these bodies have conducted this process: the definition of any kind of success criteria is shaky at best, what I’ve seen an outsider from the reports I’ve read has given the impression that industry feedback has been overlooked in favour of evidence provided by competitors with vested interests in destabilising a competitor and we now have no guarantee that this will actually deliver what it was intended to, especially given that what it was trying to prevent has already happened. Maybe the merger into the CMA dragged out the process, but frankly I would be living in fear and trepidation if this was how the CMA handled an investigation into an industry I worked in. I think, as consumers that this body is working to try to protect, we deserved better.

In Conclusion

Sometimes good things come of bad processes. I would like to give the CMA some credit, for at least in forcing the sale the Picturehouses sold ended up in safe hands of a similar size and shape and we will shortly be in a position to judge if the sale of the Cineworld has had a similarly positive outcome. I truly hope that’s the case here, and in an ideal world The Light would help to keep prices down relative to the cost of living, and we’d start to see them programming some films which might give Picturehouse a bit of competition of the kind we actually need. It might also see the sadly defunct bar next to the Cineworld and the foyer itself given a new lease of life, and possibly an end to the generally loathed allocated seating policies that hadn’t won Cineworld many friends in the last year or so. Putting the Cineworld into the hands of a brand with the best of intentions, but who aren’t as tried and tested as the likes of Odeon or other multiplex operators, is a brave move but it’s not completely without risk either. Like Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, I hope, but the next few months will tell us if it’s warm sand between our toes or a dank, muddy beach covered in puddles and time to get out the Wellington boots.

P.S. One last thank you to all the staff at the Cineworld in Cambridge, who it seems are being taken on by The Light. It’s one of the few multiplexes I’ve ever been to where, when I raised an issue with projection, they did something about it, and the staff have always been friendly and courteous to me. I’d just like to wish them all the best for the future.

Review Of 2014: State Of The Nation

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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.

Competition Commission

Competition Markets Authority


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

Picturehouse Ritzy

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

The Interview

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

Philip Seymour Hoffman

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

Marvel Movies

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

Tim Burton Helena Bonham Carter

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

Competition Commission: The State Of The Cinema Nation

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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.

State Of The Nation 1

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.

State Of The Nation 2

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.

State Of The Nation 3

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.)

Competition Commission: The Definition Of The Cinema Market

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The man with the red letters refused to bow to George Lucas and his insanely long titles.
The man with the red letters refused to bow to George Lucas and his insanely long titles.

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:

Large standard

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.

Small standard

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.

Competition Commission Plan B: The Manifesto For Quality Cinema

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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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. a commitment to maintain any currently operating single screenings**, and to allow their operation on a like-for-like basis to current events
  6. a commitment to maintain an alcohol licence and the provision of hot and cold food not currently served at multiplexes***
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. a commitment to preserve any non-digital projection methods currently in use and to maintain any other support necessary to use these facilities
  10. 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 or by contacting the deputy chairman Alisdair Smith who chaired this panel at

Competition Commission Plan A: The Legal Challenge

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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 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

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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.

Here goes.

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An Open Letter From The Competition Commission To Me

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After repeated letters to the Competition Commission, including letters sent to the Commission e-mail address on the 3rd and the 10th September this year, in which I sought a response to a number of questions around their findings, the Commission have finally responded to me via the deputy chairman and the head of this particular panel, Alisdair Smith. I am grateful that the Commission have finally engaged in dialogue, around two weeks after their decision has become legally binding.

They have given me a response to my initial queries plus a subsequent post on the condition that I reproduce it in its entirety, without edits, and I do so below. I will be writing my own response to their response tomorrow, but until then feel free to make your own mind up.


Dear Mark


In your Movie Evangelist blogs, you have made several reasoned criticisms of the  Competition Commission (CC) decision on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. Several of your points have been picked up by other commentators or members of the public who have written to the CC.

As you know, the period after the publication of the CC’s provisional findings report in August was when interested parties could influence our thinking. The legal framework within which we operate does not allow us to re-open an inquiry after the publication of the final report.

Nonetheless, we think it is in the interest of public understanding to address the points you have raised. That’s why I am writing this open letter to you. It serves only to state our position on certain issues. It is not being sent to initiate a further debate. And we must stress that the comments that follow are not formal positions; our Final Report, published on 8 October, is the definitive legal statement of our findings.

Letters from the general public

It has been suggested that we have taken no notice of the many comments from the general public we received on our provisional findings of 20 August 2013. That is not the case.  We gave these comments careful consideration and indeed sought to address points made in those letters where we felt that our provisional findings had not sufficiently explained our thinking.


In particular, we explained at paragraph 6.5 of the final report how we had taken into account the differentiation between Cineworld and Picturehouse in our analysis of the impact of the merger. Similarly, we responded to your specific and interesting point on the effect of Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme directly in the final report at paragraph 6.55.

Specific points

In your blog dated October 8, you make several points and ask a number of questions. I respond below to some of the numbered questions – although this does not mean that we agree with the other points you have advanced but on which I have not commented.


1. Was there no requirement to set a suitable threshold of competition in a particular area?

The task of the CC in a merger inquiry is to decide whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in a particular case referred to it by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), given a particular set of circumstances. Our task was not to consider the whole landscape of competition in cinema exhibition in the UK.

The CC is required by law to identify the market that is relevant to the merger in question.[1] The market for cinema exhibition is largely a local market, so the question becomes whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in particular localities. Indeed, cinema exhibitors told us the specific local conditions of areas were key drivers of their product offering. The report summarises the evidence we received on this matter in paragraphs 6.6 to 6.20. There is no simple rule which determines how many competing cinemas could successfully operate in a given area.

There may well therefore be communities comparable to Bury St Edmunds which are served by a single cinema operator, but that has no bearing on whether this merger results in a substantial lessening of competition in Bury St Edmunds.


2. The OFT’s initial report indicated that Cineworld and Picturehouse operate in different markets

This is not the case: paragraph 110 of the OFT’s report of June 5 referring the merger to the CC states: “The OFT has analysed the transaction against a market for film exhibition services in this case. It has considered whether it is appropriate to segment this wider market by art-house and multiplex cinema. The parties failed to provide sufficient evidence in support of their arguments that the product market should be further segmented, Further, a number of pieces of evidence including: survey evidence, entry analysis, price concentration analysis and film overlap analysis indicates that there is competition between art-house and multiplex cinemas and it would not be appropriate to segment the market in this case.”


3. Why is it believed that introducing another party to these areas will have the effect of reducing prices?

The evidence discussed in paragraphs 6.14 – 6.20 and the econometric analysis of the relationship between prices and local concentration in Appendix C suggest that the extent of local competition affects prices.


4. Why were membership schemes excluded from the CC’s analysis?

Membership schemes were not excluded from the CC’s analysis. In our survey, as described in 4(b) of Appendix D on consumer surveys, separate questions were asked about membership schemes. We agree that the Cineworld membership scheme effectively sets a national price for membership. However, the results of our analysis gave us more concern about future Picturehouse prices than Cineworld prices in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The Picturehouse membership scheme is different the Cineworld scheme and does not insulate members from local price increases.  The different cinema membership schemes are described at paragraph 6.22 of the Final Report and the specific point made by you about Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme is considered at paragraph 6.55.


5. Is there any evidence of any other part of the country where competition alone is successful in influencing prices? On inspection, the prices seem to be set at a level more related to the general cost of living than the factors used in the correlation in the report, and comparisons with local areas with both more competition and no competition do not suggest any evidence of a strong effect of competition on prices in this sector. The subsequent fear is that any competitor purchasing either of the cinemas will not be able to be restricted from raising prices from current levels, and I would be keen to understand the Commission’s powers to influence in this regard.

As explained in the CC’s merger assessment guidelines, competition between firms is generally expected to create incentives for firms to cut price, increase output, improve quality, enhance efficiency, or introduce new and better products.[2]

In relation to cinemas specifically, our econometric analysis found local competition effects after allowing for local cost effects. It is the strength of local competition which will restrict a purchaser of the cinemas to be divested from raising prices.


6. What controls will the CC put in place to prevent price increases as a result of a change in ownership?

The CC is not proposing price controls and we see no reason why a change in ownership should result in a price increase.

Economic terms

You entitled a blog of  October 13  “A request for the Competition Commission to explain basic economics to me”, and particularly asked about “GUPPI”.

GUPPI calculations, described and used in Appendix F to the Final Report, on Pricing incentive analysis, are a standard tool for considering the effects of reduced competition following a merger in markets, like cinema exhibition, where sellers offer products which are differentiated from the products of their competitors. It is perhaps worth adding that the GUPPI calculations were only one element which went into the judgements about whether there would be a substantial lessening of competition.


Primacy of the Final Report

We hope this open letter goes some way to help you and other critics of the CC come to a better understanding of our findings on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. We must stress again in conclusion that these one-off comments are intended solely to help you and the wider public understand our reasoning; and the CC’s final report remains the definitive legal statement of our reasoning.


Kind regards


Alasdair Smith
Inquiry group chair on behalf of the inquiry group and staff



T: @Smith_Alasdair

Competition Commission: The Current Summary

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I have come to realise over the weekend that this whole Competition Commission situation is getting very complex. So I’ve tried to summarise the current research and findings in some short paragraphs and to answer the questions that I’ve most often been asked when speaking to people.

Summary of the current position

Cineworld Group plc, which runs one of the largest chains of multiplex cinemas in the UK, late last year purchased City Screen Ltd, which among other activities also runs Picturehouse Cinemas. After a referral from the Office Of Fair Trading, the Competition Commission published an initial report in August investigating the potential loss of competition. They confirmed their findings in their final report which they confirmed on Tuesday 10th October, instructing Cineworld Group to sell either the Cineworld or Picturehouse in each area to resolve the substantial lessening of competition (SLC) they believe has happened. Cineworld Group have decided to sell the Picturehouse in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds and are yet to decide which of the Cambridge cinemas to sell.

1. The current cinema benefits of Picturehouse which are at risk of being lost

Cineworld bought Picturehouse to gain entry to a different part of the market, namely the art house sector. At the time of the purchase they stated an intent to run the two as separate businesses and that the two could learn from each other while preserving their identities. So far they have been true to their word.

Picturehouses offer a completely different experience to a standard multiplex (multiplexes are cinemas with more than five screens).

  • The Picturehouse cinemas offer cafe bars where hot meals are served and alcohol can be purchased and taken into the screens. The findings from the Commission ignored the role these play in attracting customers, who are looking for a different experience to a normal multiplex cinema.
  • The cinemas offer a much wider choice of films, typically at least double the number of films per screen per week than a multiplex, and while a proportion of the revenue comes from films shown at both cinemas, the Picturehouses show a wide range of films and live events not regularly offered at the multiplex cinemas.
  • The Picturehouses also offer a range of screenings for parents with young children, senior citizens and those on the autism spectrum and their carers, as well as a monthly club for students with free screenings. Very few other cinema chains offer these services and none with the frequency of the Picturehouses.
  • These cinemas also support a wider cinema culture in the form of trusts and festivals that take place year round. Cambridge hosts the country’s third oldest film festival and all three cinemas have a high number of themed or festival-type screenings.
  • The cinemas are also capable of a wider range of projection than multiplex cinemas – the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse being one of the few cinemas in the country that can still show 70mm films, and they are reliant on existing expertise.
  • Without a Picturehouse, Cambridge and Bury residents would have to travel to London to see these films and Aberdeen residents to Edinburgh, none of which are practical options for most customers.

The only two other art house chains are Curzon and Everyman. Curzon has five London cinemas and one in Knutsford in Cheshire and Everyman has nine cinemas, mainly in London and the south but also with one in Leeds. While they do offer some of the above services, they do so at a lesser level than Picturehouses. There are also other true independent cinemas around the country who attempt to offer these services and come closest to the Picturehouse offering.

2. The cost of cinema tickets

The reason for attempting to retain competition is to control prices that cinema customers have to pay. The Commission believe that less competition is likely to lead to a risk of higher prices. They also commissioned independent research as part of their investigation.

However, cinema operators look at a number of factors when setting price, including what people can afford in each area. Consequently, areas with more cinemas don’t necessarily have lower prices, as the cinemas are all judging what customers can afford and setting prices locally.

The multiplex and art house chains also have different considerations on offering incentives and memberships to customers. The multiplex chains offer the following schemes.

  • Cineworld offer an Unlimited scheme for £15.90 per month nationally, which allows you to see any film at any non-West End cinema.
  • Odeon run a points scheme, where seeing 12 peak time films will earn enough points to see another peak time film. Points can also be redeemed for food and other items.
  • Showcase run an Insider scheme which is free to join and offers £5 tickets for Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday.
  • Neither Vue nor Empire currently offer membership schemes.

The art house chains also offer memberships for between £33 and £40 a year. While Curzon and Everyman offer customers two free tickets and £1 discounts, Picturehouse have three free tickets and £2 off per ticket.

Additionally, Cineworld and Picturehouse have dispensed with booking fees. Cineworld all other cinemas offer a myCineworld scheme which is free to register and offers 10% off for online booking. All other chains charge between 21p and 75p for online booking or administration charges online.

So even if another chain comes in to either cinema and charges standard ticket prices for the industry or the local market, customers of whoever takes over a Cineworld or Picturehouse will end up paying more. The real issue is why the other operators aren’t doing as much as Cineworld Group to compete on price, yet they are the two cinemas being penalised. While there is no suggestion that cinemas are actively engaging in price fixing, comparisons of local prices suggest that competition is not doing much to drive prices down.

3. The economic effects of competition

The Competition Commission used a calculation called Gross Upward Pricing Pressure Index, or GUPPI, to work out if there was a risk from reduced competition. What the GUPPI attempts to work out is how much profit a cinema would make from raising its prices, and specifically what Cineworld or Picturehouse would make from raising prices in one and then customers going to the other, which would mean Cineworld keeps the profits. The Commission’s calculations state that the GUPPI would be high enough in the three affected areas to give Cineworld Group an incentive to put its prices up, which is why they need to sell a cinema.

Aberdeen and Cambridge have reduced from three cinema operators to two (both also have a Vue) and Bury St Edmunds from two to one, as Cineworld now own both of the cinemas in the area. They have based their calculations on people travelling up to 20 minutes to reach each cinema. However, if you look at similar sized geographical areas across the country to Aberdeen and Cambridge, they only tend to have two cinemas, and areas the size of Bury to have one within that 20 minute radius. So these areas had a higher level of competition than normal, and the merger has simply reduced them to the national average. The only areas that have more cinemas tend to be those with a Picturehouse, which can sustain against the other cinemas because its offering is so different.

The independent research asked people what they would do if the ticket prices went up by 5%. They made the following findings:

  • Members of Cineworld or Picturehouse would retain their memberships and would continue to attend the same cinema.
  • For non-members at any of the Picturehouses, no more than 3% of customers would go to the Cineworld instead.
  • For non-members in Aberdeen’s two Cineworlds, around 7% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but over 20% would have gone to the competitor (i.e. Vue) or not gone at all.
  • For non-members at Cambridge Cineworld, around 10% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but 30% would have gone to the competitor (i.e. Vue) or not gone at all.
  • For Bury St. Edmunds Cineworld, around 19% of customers would have switched to the Picturehouse but 4% would have not gone and another 11% would have gone to a competitor, even though all the competitors are more than 20 minutes away.

Increasing prices by 5% would provide a small amount more profit, but the numbers of customers who would take their business elsewhere would be a loss of all of that profit and turnover. Additionally, around 30% of cinema revenue comes from the sale of food and advertising, and Cineworld / Picturehouse would lose out on this as well from the 20% or so of customers who had left them.

No sensible business – especially not one such as Cineworld which is a public listed company and has shareholders to be accountable to – would raise their prices knowing this. The Commission’s own research has demonstrated it would be financially better for Cineworld and Picturehouse to keep their prices in line with other cinemas, rather than raising them, and giving no economic benefit to selling a cinema either.

4. The question of whether or not Cineworld and Picturehouse operate in the same market

The whole reason for the judgement being passed is that the Competition Commission believe Cineworld and Picturehouse are in direct competition. They have received two sets of submissions, arguing for and against this point.

The only people who support the view that these cinemas operate in the same market are Odeon, Vue and Curzon cinemas. They all had contact with the Commission during the investigation, and expressed their view that there is no significant distinction between the two cinemas. Vue currently operate in two of the three areas under review and Odeon and Curzon would be potential purchasers for Cineworld and Picturehouse respectively, so could not be considered impartial. Odeon have also written to the Commission with a list of further concerns, including that they believe the Commission were wrong to find that three further areas – Southampton, Greenwich and Brighton – did not have an SLC and Odeon believe Cineworld should also be required to sell a cinema in those three areas. Odeon currently operate in those three areas.

Arguing that Cineworld and Picturehouses are in separate markets and should not be judged to be in competition are:

  • Over 600 members of the public who wrote directly to the Commission to argue against the investigation.
  • A petition which has over 14,000 signatories and counting, which includes thousands of comments from customers supporting this view. (The petition and discussion also received support on social media from industry figures including Mark Cousins, Neil Brand, Peter Bradshaw, Karen Krizanovich, Andrew Collins and Sight And Sound magazine.)
  • Letters from industry figures at the time of the original investigation, including Lord Puttnam and David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films.
  • Following the publication of the interim report the British Film Institute also wrote expressing their concerns.
  • Local MPs including Julian Huppert and Andrew Lansley have now voiced their concerns in Parliament

All of the letters sent to the Commission have been published and can be found here on the Commission’s website.

Alisdair Smith, the deputy chairman of the Commission and the leader of this panel, also confirmed in an interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire that he believed the two Cambridge cinemas would appeal to different prospective buyers, which would also question why the Commission believe them to be in competition.

5. The potential solutions

The Commission, as well as investigating the potential problem, were also required to come up with a solution. There are two types of solutions: structural remedies, which in this case would be the sale of a cinema, or behavioural remedies, such as price controls on the existing cinemas.

All three local councils in the affected areas proposed that they were willing to put such price controls in place. The Commission said that they were not a feasible solution, as they would be complex to design, difficult to enforce and would end up costing the Office Of Fair Trading money, and selling a cinema in each area is simpler. The sale of a cinema is also agreed by each of the parties to be an effective solution: the arguments listed above would seem to suggest that’s not the case.

So at present the only solution the Commission are prepared to accept is a sale of a cinema in each area.

6. Next steps

A group of local concerned individuals, including myself and those connected to Take One magazine, are continuing the fight. Since we believe that there are losses to either cinema being sold in any area, that the proposed solution isn’t necessary on the basis of the Commission’s findings and that that implementing this solution will cause more damage than not implementing it.

We will be writing to both the Department For Business and Vince Cable, and the Department For Culture, Media And Sport and Maria Miller to look to have this finding overturned. We are also investigating the possibility of an appeal to the Competiton Appeal Tribunal. I have also written to nine other MPs whose constituents have signed the petition looking for their support, but parliamentary rules state that MPs can only act on behalf of their own constituents, so we are looking for constituents in those areas – or any area, as up to 10% of customers travel for an hour to get to the cinemas – to also contact their MPs. We are also encouraging people to continue to write to the Commission in the hope that they see sense, but I am not personally expecting them to change their position without outside intervention.

We would still welcome the support of any other individuals or groups that share our belief, and the belief of so many others, that this is wrong, and please e-mail me at if you wish to join the campaign or to offer further suggestions on what we can do to overturn this.

A Request For The Competition Commission To Explain Basic Economics To Me

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It’s been four days since the Competition Commission published its final report and since then those who find the decision baffling or unprincipled, including myself, have been on the campaign trail. On Wednesday a group of protesters gathered outside the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse to protest the decision, with the local media in attendance. Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, also attended and has now started his own petition as a wider protest against the action and inaction of the Commission, which you can sign here.

Mr Huppert then raised the issue in Parliament on Thursday, and received this response from Andrew Lansley, another Cambridgeshire MP and also Leader Of The House:

“The Competition Commission’s job is to identify markets and act to restrict monopoly in the markets it identifies… I do not think this is the same market.”
“I feel the point [Mr Huppert] makes is a good one. Speaking purely personally and not for the government, I share with him his view that there is no case for the Competition Commission to seek to intervene in the ownership of the Arts Picturehouse.”

Except it already has intervened. As it presently stands, the Belmont in Aberdeen and the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds must be sold, and one of the two cinemas in Cambridge, which is a decision which Cineworld Group itself is allowed to make.

Julian Huppert is intending to speak to Vince Cable this week, but further activity is clearly required and those of us working to overturn this decision continue to explore all avenues, and will hopefully have further news on our next steps in the next couple of days.

But most of the debate this week has centred on the nature of what the cinemas offer, and the fact that they exist in different markets. When the initial report was published, the Commission published a large amount of detailed research they had conducted to determine the economics. I finally have some definitive research of my own to be able to publish.

Economics 1

Those four people in the right hand column are the members of the Commission’s panel on the Cineworld merger:

Alisdair Smith, deputy chairman of the Competition Commission, professor of economics at the University Of Sussex for thirty-two years.

Rosalind Hedley-Miller, managing director of Commerzbank AG, where she has worked for over 30 years.

Jon Stern, a founder member of the Centre for Competition and Regulatory Policy in the Department of Economics at City University London.

Jon Wotton, retired solicitor who during his career had a principal focus on EU and competition law, public procurement law and media regulation, and two years ago was the President of the Law Society Of England and Wales.

The first person in the left hand column is:

Mark Liversidge (me), call centre planning manager who has been helping to prepare call centre budgets for call centres of up to 3,000 people for over 10 years and who has a degree in mathematical sciences, and who visited 28 different cinemas in 2012.

So assume for one moment that the cinemas operate in the same markets, in the face of 14,108 people who believe they don’t. Actually, it should be at least 14,113, as in addition to those who signed the petition you can find letters here on the Commission’s own website from Lord Puttnam and David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films, stating that these are separate markets and that judging them in the same market would be damaging to the industry as a whole. We also need to add the two MPs and also a Labour MEP for the East Of England.

For those keeping score, that’s a Lib Dem and a Conservative MP, a Labour MEP and a Labour member of the House Of Lords opposed to this on general principle. If you need any further evidence (really? OK), the BFI also wrote to the Commission here, stating their concerns that consumer choice will be damaged by the proposed sale. In the interests of balance for the other column, the final report has three other organisations who support the commission’s views: Cineworld’s competitors.

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.

The problem with this definition is that an independent cinema is defined purely as a cinema with less than five screens, not what most people would describe as an art house cinema. Based on every single documented criteria except price, a clear divide emerges between Picturehouse and other art house cinemas and all of those listed above, including Curzon to a certain extent. It’s also worth noting that Odeon support the findings, but also claim that the same finding should have been made about Southampton, Brighton and Greenwich as well (letter in the same link as the BFI link). They already operate in each of those areas, so wouldn’t be looking to take on a cinema in those areas, but presumably one less cinema in each area wouldn’t harm their current operations. [EDIT: While I am not suggesting their lack of understanding of the market is anything other than innocent, it should at least concern customers that they don’t understand what Picturehouse offers to differentiate itself and may be poorly positioned to replicate it.] But I digress.

Let’s assume that these cinemas are in competition. The Commission’s process consisted of two things: conducting a survey with a large sample of customers, both members and non-members, and then asked them a series of questions to determine what they’d do in the event of various scenarios, including both Cineworld and Picturehouse raising their prices by 5%. They then looked at a calculation called the Gross Upwards Pricing Pressure Index, or the fantastically named GUPPI. The GUPPI is a measure of how much their margin, or profit, would increase based on customers swapping between Cineworlds and Picturehouses. The Commission’s argument is that, by owning two cinema chains, when prices went up the benefit of anyone switching cinemas would have previously gone to their competitors, but now Cineworld would reap some of the benefit.

I struggle to get my head round that without something to base it on, so I’ve produced a worked example. To keep the maths simple, I’ve taken a sample day – Thursday, in this case – and then looked at the pricing in the Cambridge cinemas on that day. I’ve also assumed that reductions for children, families and other special groups would apply in the same broad proportions, and assumed the Silver Screen isn’t running in Picturehouse that particular Thursday, and also excluded the surcharge for VIP seats that Vue levy. I feel safe in doing this as factoring them in would reduce Cineworld group’s turnover and margins, while increasing that of Vue, making this a best case position. So I’ve attempted to work out the turnover of each of the cinemas – the total for the two Cineworld Group cinemas and for Vue – for a typical Thursday.

Economics 2

So the Commission’s logic is that by raising prices, Cineworld Group get to keep more of the profits, and as there’s less competition, there’s less to stop them raising prices. They then get to keep more of the profits, so there’s a direct incentive for them to do it. Forcing the sale of one of the cinemas is designed to counteract that by retaining the same level of competition.

But does it work that way? In theory, Cineworld Group could raise its prices to any level, and the more they raise them the more they keep; but every single cinema operator when asked confirmed that there is a local level of pricing to which they must adhere, at least in part. Besides, the Commission’s research was based on a price increase of around 5%, so we have to assume that increase in our worked example. Let’s then see what happens if both Cineworld cinemas put their price up by 5%, and we then extrapolate the results using figures taken from the independent research company used by the Commission to gather data.

Economics 3

What’s happened here is that Cineworld’s turnover has gone down slightly, and Vue’s has gone up sharply. This might not be an issue for Cineworld in isolation – shareholders will generally take a favourable view if your turnover has decreased if you’ve managed to increase your profit – but to do so by handing an advantage to your direct competitor would be a lot less palatable.

So Cineworld have increased profit, but in the process they’ve reduced their overall attendance by around a quarter. This is then likely to have a further impact which doesn’t appear to have been accounted for in the calculation, although the report isn’t totally clear. Vue’s original submission indicated that 70% of their revenue comes from the box office receipts, 25% from food and concessions and 5% from advertising revenue. Assuming that a similar ratio holds for other operators, with attendances down by a quarter that will also reduce the concessions by a quarter – with no extra margin on them as the price wasn’t factored into the survey – and the cinemas will now be less appealing to advertisers.

What it appears the Commission have done is to conduct an incredibly valuable piece of market research for Cineworld Group, which indicates that a price rise of 5% will cause 30% of non-members / online bookers, or 24% of their total audience, to divert to their nearest rival or to stop coming completely. This would appear to be a strong and compelling argument to them not to raise their prices and effectively capping them to raising prices in line with the competition, and would suggest that not selling a cinema in Cambridge would still be effective in controlling prices.

But that scenario isn’t going to happen now, as one cinema must be sold. We can now be slightly more certain about the permutations of that outcome. If the Cineworld is sold, then it will be to another multiplex. The other three major chains charge the following prices in their cinemas nearest to Cambridge:

Economics 4So for customers paying on the day, Empire would be cheaper. Showcase offer a free Insider scheme which gives discounts from Sunday evening to Tuesday evening inclusive, making Sunday evening and Monday cheaper than Cineworld. Odeon offer a points scheme which is the equivalent of one free film for every 12 seen at peak times. The customers set to lose out most significantly are the 8% of customers with Unlimited memberships, as there is no direct equivalent operating in any other chain at present, and currently that allows as many films as a customer can watch for £15.90 a month, unless they wish to travel to Huntingdon or Bury St. Edmunds.

From an economic standpoint, the potential Picturehouse sale is unsurprisingly more concerning. The Commission’s decision will force the cinema into doing what it isn’t currently, and competing on equal terms if it is to survive. Except when your cinema is in the city centre in an older building with higher running costs – a reason quoted by Vue as to why they had no interest in taking over Picturehouses – then your margins will be lower before you start. Given that the new owners will only have a capacity of 512 seats against the 1,700+ competitors in the city, any hope of showing more diverse films will be lost. In Norwich, the smaller independent cinema, run by the Hollywood chain, attempts to compete against three chains (Odeon, Vue and Picturehouse) and has to charge around £2 less than any of them. Lower running costs will make margins yet more precarious and any services such as the bar which add to the running costs may need to be dispensed with to protect enough profit to run the business as a going concern. In 2010 another Hollywood cinema failed, and was rescued by Picturehouses in – you guessed it – Bury St. Edmunds.

Bury St. Edmunds is the one area with no competition, but the findings of the original survey did demonstrate that for full price paying customers, 15% of Cineworld customers would switch to a competitor or stop coming completely on a 5% price increase and 2% of Picturehouse customers would make a similar decision. Notably, the 11% looking for another cinema would most likely end up at the Vue in Cambridge, the nearest competitive multiplex. Even with no direct competition in the immediate area, it would be to Cineworld group’s financial detriment to put up prices. So setting aside the discussions of programming, it would appear that the better option from an economic standpoint would be to not sell the cinemas, based on the Commission’s research. But that’s just my view, based on calculations and estimates I’ve had to make without the benefit of confidential information removed from the reports. It must be wrong, because the only reason this is happening is that this is supposed to be in the customer interest, but the most likely option to control costs and protect choice appears to be not doing anything.

But I’m just a lowly cinema buff, with only a statistics background and a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of business. I invite someone – anyone – whether it be the Competition Commission members, with their combined experience of over 100 years, or indeed any member of the public, to highlight the flaw in my thinking or my numbers, because this is only going ahead on the basis of increasing competition and in turn controlling costs. If the numbers don’t stack up, then surely this decision has to be set aside or overturned?