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December 10, 2006

British Cinema: The Irresistable Rise of the Multiplex


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 :-)

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