Nearly three weeks ago, the Competition Commission published both some initial, and then more detailed, findings into the purchase of City Screen Limited by Cineworld Group plc, thus putting Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas under the same ownership. This has been deemed by the commission to have created a substantial lessening of competition (SLC), and the only solution on the table at the moment is to force Cineworld to sell off one of its cinemas in Aberdeen, Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge. There’s been much talk in the last two weeks about protecting what the Picturehouses provide in terms of quality, differentiation, accessibility and ancillary services – not least from me, as I helped to start a petition which has gained 10,000 signatures in a week and a half – but all that seems to be pointing to the logical solution being to sell off the Cineworld in each area. Right? WRONG.
I can say for certain that this blog wouldn’t exist without cinemas that offered the quality and diversity of the Picturehouses, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have existed without the Cineworlds either. Over the years, I’ve blogged on some crazy feats of cinematic endurance, such as seeing seven films in a day or 100 in a year, but stunts like that wouldn’t be possible without the benefits of a Cineworld card. But I’m far from the only person who sees films regularly in a cinema, and if you’re a Cineworld member the benefits are plenteous. The current price of a Cineworld membership is £15.90 a month and in the vast majority of Cineworld cinemas, that’s less than the price of two full adult tickets. You can then see as many films as you like, and that opens up a whole world of possibilities. And if you think I’m the only person taking advantage of consuming films in large quantities, then take a look at Cineworld’s twitter feed to see the kind of company I keep. The first year I saw 100 films in a year? Cost me just over £300 for the tickets.
If this is starting to sound like an advert for Cineworld, then this next paragraph is only going to make matters worse. Any members get 10% off concessions, which instantly starts to make the overpriced popcorn that little bit less overpriced. There are also Unlimited members screenings, where at least once a month anyone with an Unlimited card can get a ticket to see a big name film before it’s on general release. I’ve been to a few this year, and the likes of Trance and 2 Guns have been packed out. (And because it’s an Unlimited showing, there’s no charge, of course.) If you’ve been a member for 12 months or more, then it’s an automatic upgrade to Unlimited Premium, which means there’s nothing extra to pay for 3D films – normally a surcharge of around £1.50, in line with most other cinemas – and you now get 25% off any of the concessions, at which point a bag of sweets will cost you around the same as it would in a high end supermarket, rather than an average cinema.
But of course, the Commission haven’t taken memberships into account when judging the risks or benefits to consumers. Which is why they believe the cinema chain doing the most in the country to encourage loyalty in its members and to give them significant reductions in return is likely to increase its prices by 50p or less in an effort to drive customers up the road to the Picturehouse, in turn increasing the overall profits to the company. Yes, seriously. (Picturehouse being the only other chain of more than 10 cinemas in this country to have a membership scheme which gives direct discounts on actual tickets. ODEON have a points club, but you even have to use your points to pay their online booking fee. Anyone who’s publicly stated they would rather have an ODEON than a Cineworld, and I’ve seen a few, should think on that for a moment.)
Now, you might think that I only know that the grass is green on my side of the fence. But travelling for work as much as I do, I also visit cinemas of the other chains when I’m in the unfortunate position of working somewhere without a Cineworld or Picturehouse in reasonable distance and still want to catch a film. So in the past three years I’ve visited the following cinemas that aren’t a Cineworld.
Vue: Cambridge, Leeds, Edinburgh, Cheshire Oaks, West End, Romford
Odeon: Covent Garden, West End, Panton St, Newcastle
Showcase: Coventry, Peterborough
Empire: Leicester Square
Others: BFI Southbank / IMAX, ICA, Prince Charles, The Aubin, The Barbican, Sheffield Screen Room, The Luxe (Wisbech)
[Picturehouse: Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Hackney, Stratford, Liverpool]
I’d like to think I have a fair basis for judging the on site quality of other cinemas, and there is nothing in terms of the experience of visiting any of these cinemas that leads me to believe any benefits of one of them taking over one or both of my local Cineworlds would outweigh the cost. What all of these cinemas have in common for me is that I’ve only seen one film in them per visit, and rarely – if ever – visited more than one of them in a given month. That’s the reality of what could be facing residents of Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds if we lose one or both. (Aberdeen has two Cineworlds, so the path of what to do there seems a little clearer, as being required to sell one cinema would leave them with at least one Cineworld.)
So what does this mean for the quality argument? Surely there aren’t enough good films around to justify seeing more than two a month anyway? As evidence to the contrary for that point, I now present a sample list from the last five years of high profile films, most of which I would rate highly, that I wouldn’t have seen in a cinema without the Cineworlds of Cambridge or Bury St. Edmunds had I been forced to restrict myself to just the two films that month I most wanted to see.
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Bartlett, Adulthood, Choke, Doubt, Paranormal Activity, Where The Wild Things Are, I Love You Phillip Morris, How To Train Your Dragon, Heartbreaker, Cyrus, Back To The Future re-release, Rango, The Inbetweeners Movie, The Awakening, The Hunger Games, Magic Mike, Pitch Perfect, The Impossible, Cloud Atlas, Olympus Has Fallen, 2 Guns, About Time
But that’s not all that the Cineworlds offer. Outside of four cinemas in the West End, you can use your membership card at any cinema. So that three year list of cinemas from earlier? Here’s my comparable Cineworld list to the other chains from earlier.
Cineworld: Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Huntingdon, Haverhill, Enfield, West India Quay, The O2 Greenwich, Runcorn, St. Helens, Stevenage, Wood Green
And if you add those nine other Cineworlds not affected, then the list of films I wouldn’t have seen without my Cineworld card expands once more:
Black Dynamite, Barney’s Version, Snowtown, Moneyball, Coriolanus, Young Adult, The Grey, The Descendants, A Dangerous Method, The Hunter, Anna Karenina, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, Byzantium, Behind The Candelabra, The East
And that’s just the good stuff. I get to sit through all kinds of nonsense, from Transformers: Dark Of The Moon to Gnomeo And Juliet, safe in the knowledge that I’m paying a flat monthly fee and I’m effectively seeing these films for free, typically at a rate of around 10 films a month. Does this sound like the kind of cinema operation to you about to engage in a large scale attempt to discourage customers away from its cinemas?
If you don’t want to lose Cineworlds in Cambridge or Bury St. Edmunds either, you only have until 17:00 on Tuesday 10th September (tomorrow at the time of writing) to make your feelings known. Contact them at CineworldCityScreen@cc.gsi.gov.uk to make sure they understand there’s no easy solutions to this issue, only a whole host more problems if they carry on their current course, and it’s consumers – not Cineworld themselves – who are the most likely to lose out in all this.