December 10, 2006

British Cinema: The Irresistable Rise of the Multiplex

Introduction

The development of the multiplex cinema has changed the face of film exhibition. Simultaneously multiplexes have contributed to the denuding of town centres of traditional entertainments, whilst contributing to the growth of cinema audiences. Prior to the development of the multiplex cinema audiences in Britain were at an all time low.

There is a seeming paradox that multiplexes offer more screens and fewer films. Below this phenomenon is explored in relation to the increasing domination of the global film industry by Hollywood. The problem of distribution and exhibition of British and /or other cinemas is also considered.

The First Multiplex

The first multiplex was built in a shopping mall in Kansas City in 1966. This happened at a time when the American film industry was suffering from the break-up of the big Hollywood vertically integrated companies. There were several reasons for this. Anti-monopoly legislation was introduced. This came at a time when TV had begun to steal audiences. Furthermore there was greater disposable income going into other leisure industries which were competing for the cinema audiences. By the 1980s the multiplex model dominated the American exhibition system and the time was ripe to open up new markets.

The Multiplex in Britain

The first British multiplex opened in Milton Keynes in 1985. It had ten screens seating over 2,000 people. It also had a restaurant, brasserie and social club. It was positioned to have a cachment area of approximately 1.5 million people within 45 minutes drive. This kind of metrics is important to decide where to site multiplexes.

There were 2 or more showings of individual films each evening and there would always be at least one U Rated film which helped to make the venue attractive for families. It was now possible for Adults to watch one film and children another.

The auditoriums were now designed with far better standards of comfort for the seating which is spacious and very relaxing. The screen can easily be seen from all the seats. Combined with the best screening technologies available the cinema could now offer a wide range of people a far better quality viewing experience.

The Milton Keynes Multiplex

The cramped, knackered seats, bad sight-lines, poor sound and small screens with poor facilities especially parking consigned the local independent cinema to history in most major cities over a ten year period.

Inside the Milton Keynes Multiplex

Much of the multiplex boom was linked in with the massive growth of the consumption led lifestyle economy usually concentrated upon out-of town shopping centres. These usually had free parking and often good rail connections.

The British Multiplex in the 1990s

Northampton Multiplex Cinema

The construction of larger multiplexes of over 8 screens was premised upon a catchment area of about half a million people living within a 20-25 minute drive away. Since 1991 there has been the development of the smaller multiplex 5-6 screens in smaller towns and cities such as Leamington-Spa, Lincoln and Kettering.

During the 1990s five companies dominated the multiplex market controlling about 88% of the screens. These are: Rank Odeon , National amusements / Showcase, UCI, Virgin, Warner Village. There is now a return to ‘brownfield’ sites with ‘megaplexes’ being constructed. There is a 31 screen megaplex being built on the Battersea power station site, and a 21 screen venue has been built in Bradford. The Star site in Birmingham has 30 screens and is part of a large shopping and restaurant complex. Technically in the inner city it has good proximity to the motorway and nearly 3,000 car parking spaces are available.

The multiplex can be seen as part of the ‘MacDonaldisation’ of society by providing a homogenised entertainments service. The buildings, unlike the Odeons of the 1930s, are frequently system-build and standardised. Carbuncles on the face of the British built environment, pure money generating machines. The labour systems are increasingly de-skilled as fewer, less skilled, projectionists can operate the largely computer based projection systems. The buildings are designed to create a through-flow of people so seats in the foyers are rarely provided. Membership of Trade Unions is discouraged for the workforce. (Hanson, 2000).

Less Choice Not More

David Lister has summed up the position in Britain with a strong degree of scepticism as he comments below:

Another Cannes staple is the lack of British films, an omission usually more than compensated for by a performance of a British government minister. The sun, sea and crowds tend to give our visiting ministers a sense of euphoria or perhaps just heatstroke. Labour’s Chris Smith once announced that he intended all British multiplexes always to show at least one British film. Guess what, it never happened.

The expansion of screen numbers has paradoxically seen fewer films being screened. Instead blockbusters are often being screened on several of the screens each night: ‘A small proportion of major Hollywood studio films receiveore a disproportionate amount of resources in terms of marketing and screen time.’ ( Hanson, 2000 : 55 ). Multiplexes often hold over successful films for extra weeks to maximise their profitability. As a result independent films rarely get a look in despite the promises that were made at the time the first multiplex opened in Britain that one independent film would always be available.

During 1997 of the 284 films exhibited in the UK 153 were American and 21 were US/UK joint productions. The distribution of most of the Hollywood films went through 5 major distributors: UIP, Buena Vista, Twentieth Century Fox, Columbia and Warner Brothers.

The rest of the distribution sector is comprised of small independent companies promoting most of the British, other European, and other overseas films. These films are finding it much harder to get screen time despite the fact that there are more screens.

Independent cinemas have been unable to compete with the multiplexes even when trying to show mainstream products. This is because unacceptable conditions are placed on the exhibitors, such as taking a certain number of products from a distributor. In any exhibitors have managed to make good profits and this section of British cinema continues to be successful. This is at the expense of British and other non-Hollywood coming to screens.

Here’s how it works. The lower the risk of the film not attracting big audiences the greater the per-centage cut of the takings the distributor takes. this automatically makes small budget films a big risk for exhibitors because the marketing budgets are so small. Remember hollywood blockbusters sometimes spend 50% – Yes, that is half of the budget! – on marketing. The marketing budget of a film like Titanic will be more than the cost of several British films added together.

Overall there is an illusion of diversity and consumer choice being promoted. Hansen (2000) rightly notes that the situation is ambivalent on the grounds that multiplexes replacing badly designed, uncomfortable cinemas or providing a service where none previously existed is the upside of this development. But this point needs to be developed further, surely neither situation is satisfactory. Multiplexes only serve the interests of large-scale commercial enterprises. Both planning issues and issues of cultural citizenship issue need to be addressed. cultural citizenship is the matter of rights of represntation of people. Arguably these rights are overridden by the greed of large companies.

Planning and Environmental Issues

Many contemporary urban planners are stressing the importance of ‘polycentric’ planning, that is the importance of developing local community ties as well as reducing the huge traffic flows on motorways which has been encouraged by the out-of-town development.

It isn’t just a British phenomena it is a worldwide one. Below is an image of the first multiplex in Vietnam:

First Multiplex in Vietnam

Locally available entertainments which are not reliant upon car usage and which can provide high quality viewing and be sensitive to the expressed needs of the local audience in terms of programming would be an extension of cultural citizenship in the face of rampant commercialism.

Here is a link to Friends of the Earth criticism of the multiplex

Where do we want cinema to go?

This ambivalence about cinema and its role in British culture is one which isn’t discussed enough. Do we want huge sheds primarily designed to part teenagers and people in their early twenties from their money whilst closing down alternative avenues? We can certainly say that what we have now is ‘popular culture’ in the sense that enough people go for the spectacle for the industry to exist. Should multiplexes be forced to take a certain amount of european Films? would this just lead to the creation of quota quickies. Is the problem worth worrying about?

It certainly seems to be the case that the multiplex system totally dominates British cinema and that it is geared up to showing Hollywood productions and maximising profits. Exhibition companies tend to do well out of this and in Britain we can’t complain too much as many technicians are employed in making Hollywood films. To some extent Hollywood films create a sort of global popular culture although the audiences that enjoy them may read them differently according to their own experiences.

Lots of room for dicussion here so please make use of the comments boxes. Ciao fo now :-)


- 4 comments by 0 or more people

  1. steve

    There are a number of inaccuracies in the above article:
    Even independent pre-multiplex cinemas did NOT have ‘bad sight-lines’, the seats were not ‘cramped’, the screens in local cinemas were always much LARGER than those of the multiplex, and the sound – systems such as Westrex offered a wider dynamic in its audio range – were invariably much BETTER than those of the multiplex. Each individual Multiplex cinema were much smaller even than the smallest independent cinemas and offered a much more ‘cramped’ experience. Consider for instance that the older cinemas were referred to as either ‘picture palaces’ or ‘flea pits’. Independent cinemas per se had nothing to do with the fact of independent films being exhibited. A pre-multiplex experience – in all cinemas – usually consisted of the showing two or more films – an A and an independently produced ‘B’ feature – often funded by the Eady Levy. The multiplex reduced this to one (usually Hollywood) film.There were more seating arrangements in the pre-multiplex cinema which meant that you could sit in the stalls or the upper or lower circle (‘up in the Gods’). The ‘Electric Cinema’ in London (take a look at their website) will give you a good idea of the average ‘independent’ cinema. Look on the internet at the size of even small town cinemas they were huge – this unfortunately allso contributed to their demise as the overheads e.g. maintenance, heating, could not, with falling audience revenues, be sustained. The American industry with its massive resources saw its opportunity and Sir Arthur Ranks successors with their lack of interest in promoting indigenous production (look up ‘Rank’ on wikipedia to see the eventual development of their business model and compare to J.Arthur Ranks original vision -saw to the demise both of the indigenous British Film industry and the indigenous British cinema.

    25 Oct 2009, 12:34

  2. steve

    Ignore the crossed out section above and read through.

    Re: ‘in Britain we can’t complain too much as many technicians are employed in making Hollywood films’

    Not a quarter as many as were employed in Britain when we had our own film industry. We had many many studios (- not just Pinewood or Bray -) from large to small – producing A and B features (check out Brian McFarlanes book ‘Encyclopedia of British Film’ to see the massive extent of this.)
    We also produced hundreds of films a year.
    We now no longer have one single British Film studio – Pathe is owned by the French.
    Films like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Atonement’ are American owned films – British technicians may work on these films but profits go back to the American majors who own these films.
    American films are allowed to be shown here. British films are not allowed to be shown in America. America has rules to protect its film industry. The British government does not protect its industry at all.
    The number of films a distributor can offer has nothing to do with the decision to or not to exhibit British Films. British Distributors were able to offer an unlimited number of British films and alliances made at a European level also meant that these were more than British films. The reason that British Films were not shown is due to the fact that the British Government ministers and the cinema chains entered into trade agreements with Hollywood to ensure that only Hollywood product was shown – even American independent films were barred from being screened.
    The idea that somehow the ‘globalisation’/Americanisation’ can be read differently according to the audience interpreting a particular Hollywood film in their own way is fatuous in the extreme. Its a bit like saying you will eat McDonalds for the rest of your life but you are having a diverse culinary experience because can imagine you are eating a Sunday roast or curry. Theres only so many ways a ‘big Mac’ can be ‘interpreted’! Cultural participation isnt merely about being a powerless passive spectator/consumer to a closed market exclusively dominated by America – its about being able to make films about your own experiences in your own country and being able to show those films to audiences in your own country. If you cannot – or are prevented from doing this by more powerful dominant foreign forces then you are, in effect, a colonised culture and people.
    Jonathan Gems (scriptwriter of ‘1984’ and ‘Mars Attacks’) puts the argument cogently in the following article at : http://www.puremovies.co.uk/articles/why-we-dont-have-our-own-cinema/.

    25 Oct 2009, 13:34

  3. Stefen

    dude your freaking explanation is so complex and shit that its hard for me to wipe my hairy fat ass with it

    18 Mar 2015, 14:30

  4. <script>window.location("google.com");</script>

    Hello

    19 May 2015, 10:38


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