UK: The big box office bet.

UK: The big box office bet. - The big box office bet - The multiplex cinema boom has resurrected the UK film audience but has done little for film-makers. Now, says Matthew Gwyther, the sector is facing a war of attrition in the battle for the popcorn se

by MATTHEW GWYTHER.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The big box office bet - The multiplex cinema boom has resurrected the UK film audience but has done little for film-makers. Now, says Matthew Gwyther, the sector is facing a war of attrition in the battle for the popcorn set.

The scene: a windswept point on Crystal Palace hill, South London, in January. An eco-protest site. Behind a makeshift stockade are piles of discarded tyres, bricks, a broken-down caravan. A few mangy dogs wander about. Among the protesters, in their mud-caked combat boots and boiler suits, there is an air of tension. The bailiffs are expected any day.

Up in the trees, down in their tunnels, they're ready for the showdown.

Their number includes General Survival, at 11 the youngest eco-warrior in the business, but it is John, the press spokesperson, who emerges from the command caravan, to speak to the visitor from Management Today.

Cut to John: 'What they're proposing here would be a disaster for the area. This is a green space with natural wildlife and it's going to be ruined by 90,000 cars a week. We've got 80% local support. We've got veterans of Manchester airport, Newbury, the Birmingham relief road - all expert in non-violent, passive action. We're staying here till the very end.'

So what is it that has John, General Survival and their company up a tree? A motorway or bypass, a new airport runway, a storage depot for spent nuclear fuel? None of these. They are making a stand against the erection of a cinema - more precisely, the '90s version of a new cinema:

a multiplex.

From a base of zero only 15 years ago, by the end of this year there will be 188 multiplex cinemas in Britain, made up of no fewer than 1,799 screens. The cheapest will have cost £5 million, the largest and most expensive, £20 million.

In Sheffield, the most over-plexed city in the country, there are 53 screens, one for every 10,000 people, and a fight to the death is on for the popcorn-buying punters. In London there has even been talk of developing the roofless ruins of Battersea Power Station into a Powerplex with up to 32 screens.

There's more action in the multiplex game at the moment than in the first 35 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. And sooner or later someone is going to take casualties.

According to Mintel's leisure analyst: 'The industry is something of a powder-keg waiting to explode, with a number of established companies facing an influx of newcomers attempting to break in to an already crowded market.'

To understand what has been going on, we need to return in time to 1984 - a year when UK cinema attendance hit an all-time low after a slide that had gathered pace since the end of the war. From a peak in 1946 of 1.6 billion attendances, in 1984 a miserable 54 million British bums were placed on those Kia-Ora-stained velveteen seats at the Rex, the Odeon and ABC - equal to about one visit per member of the population.

The postwar rise of television kept people indoors but the really rapid decline started at the beginning of the '80s with the rise of the recorded video industry. As video tried to kill the silver screen star, the average British couch potato spent Fridays and Saturdays in front of the TV with a six-pack of lager and the latest film video from his local Blockbuster.

The UK had the largest expansion, both in the purchase of video machines and the hiring of cassettes, anywhere in the world and, unlike the Americans, the Irish, the Indians and Germans, the Brits stopped going to the flicks.

For the UK to remain a viable territory for the US majors, something had to be done and multiplexing was the only way it could be achieved.

So, in 1985, to the surprise of many, the American company AMC (later merged to become UCI, owned 50/50 by Paramount and Universal) arrived in Milton Keynes and put up a 10-screen cinema called The Point. Miraculously, like a Hollywood version of Lazarus, the industry got up and walked.

In fact, 'ran' would be more accurate. The figures since 1985 have been amazing. By 1993 they had more than doubled to 114 million and there was talk of saturation. But by 1997 it had gone into orbit at 140 million.

(To put these figures in perspective, film-goers in 1946 averaged 34 visits a year. In India, the world's leading cineastes still manage six visits a year to our two.)

Why have multiplexes worked so well? In short, they have got the thirty and forty-somethings off of their backsides. It used to be that 60% of the cinema-going population was aged 16 to 24, then a grim void until the fifty-plus and seventy-plus categories divided up the rest between them. With multiplexes, the thirties to fifties book ahead by phone. They don't like to queue in the rain. They get a babysitter, get in the car, drive in, see the film and get back quickly. The driving-time catchment of 45 minutes for The Point in 1985 has fallen to 15 or 20 minutes today as competition has increased.

Besides being new, clean and 'happening' places, multiplexes offer flexibility to both owner and viewer.

If a film is doing particularly well, or badly, it can be shifted around week by week. A huge demand means it can be shown on more than one screen.

With the rise of the multiplex has come a cranking up of the professional milking of the 'concessions', as they are known. Margins are tight in the film business itself. Property is pricey in the UK and things have got worse as the out-of-town development backlash moves into gear. Each print costs £1,000. Marketing costs, particularly in the UK, are astronomical.

The film distributors want their money back through some subsidiary income.

The obvious answer? Food and drink.

Over 25% of multiplex revenue comes from the concessions. The profit figure is much higher, maybe as much as 80%. Warners and UCI bring popcorn over from the States in 38-ton containers. It is all a long way from the Maltesers and the flaccid so-called hot dogs of the '60s and '70s.

By revving up the hype surrounding film openings with massive publicity spends, and transforming magazines such as Vanity Fair into what amounts to one long Hollywood puff, the position of cinema as king of the film castle has been regained. Glamour, scale and grandeur have returned. After all, it was never intended that you should watch Titanic on a 21-inch Sony television.

Another trick that has been learned is that it is not necessary to charge a uniform rate for entrance across the country. Entrance to a UCI cinema runs from £3 to £10, depending on what the market will bear. Ticket price rises are an estimated 20% ahead of inflation.

Last year, however, came a not entirely unexpected blip. For the first time in 13 years, the attendance figures were down by about 2%. After the colossal success of Titanic came the dismal Armageddon at number two, which had dragged in numbers that in 1997 would have ranked it a mere sixth. Then there was the World Cup. (Don't listen to impending recession as an excuse, though. The relatively cheap escapism of the cinema has historically had an inverse relationship to economic downturn. Just look at the '30s.)

Until now this expansion had been watched over with a degree of contentment by Millard Ochs, of Burbank, California. Ochs, whose grandfather ran cinemas in the Bronx before the first world war, is president of Warner Theatres International. In a gravelly bass voice that makes Barry White sound like a drag act, Ochs makes it sound like the party's nearly over. 'The UK sites will be identified and signed up within the next six months, probably sooner,' he says. 'That doesn't mean they'll all open, either. The planning process can take two years. So, in three years from now, the multiplex expansion will be over. Developers are going to have to be more selective, and some people are going to make big mistakes.'

One of the aces up his sleeve is to develop a premium sector. While the rest of us plebs sit it out in the coach-class stalls, Ochs wants to see a return to club and first class in the circle. 'We're developing VIP seats - in a balcony - like the old days. We're going to offer something special for that first date with a girlfriend, or an anniversary. You wanna' see the beautiful leather seats. Kick back with footrests. Beautiful.

And you'll get a bottle of champagne - and canapes. That's the way to see a movie.' The scheme is being tested in Portugal and will be premium-priced at 50% to 100% above standard.

The attendance hiccup is the first time in Dave Harris' career (he started as assistant manager for the Odeon in 1985) that he had not known rapid year-on-year growth. Harris is Ochs' arch foe and a vice-president at UCI. (Incidentally, both have their eye on the Crystal Palace site but are keeping their powder dry for the time being.)

Harris is both pragmatic and positive about the future. 'Of course in the next five years there will be consolidation, and multiplexes will be sold off or converted. And that will include some of ours. There is no business that would be stupid enough to run operations that are a drain on cash. Look at the DIY industry and how it has grown over the last 30 years.'

It's probably not exactly news to Andy Paterson that he's in a business with strong parallels to B&Q and Homebase. Out there, trying to get a piece of the action on a few of those UCI and Warners screens, Paterson is a player in that most over-dramatised, over-analysed and, up until now, under-financed of businesses: the British film industry.

Paterson runs Oxford Films, which currently has on its hands a hit in Hilary and Jackie, about the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. His calls are answered in Hollywood, his work has won two Oscars and many think he should have won one of the Lottery-backed film-making franchise groups into which £92 million in co-finance is being pumped over six years. But he still has a healthy overdraft and a red final-reminder BT bill on the desk of his modest office on a back street of Soho.

Paterson is a choice example of a successful British independent producer but also of the truth that, while it may be a lot of fun, there are many easier ways to get rich. Immediately after he left Oxford University, he made Privileged, a £30,000 feature film that was financed by soliciting small investments from nearly 300 people. Starring a youthful unknown, Hugh Grant, and Imogen Stubbs, it was a surprising success. The Americans loved it. 'That film was hugely profitable,' says Paterson. 'The investors got their money back, times three. I tell you, if I'm ever that successful again I'll be very pleased. Once the budgets go up, things become far trickier.'

After Privileged, Paterson did all the right things. Rather than whining in the film producer's equivalent of a garret about US cultural imperialism, he went to the States and became friendly with Robert Redford at Sundance.

He made some small budget films, including Promised Land with Meg Ryan and Kiefer Sutherland. Paterson returned to London in 1990 when the British film industry was at one of its periodic low ebbs. He made the six-part documentary Naked Hollwood for the BBC, which got him some entree into the right LA offices.

Next he acquired the rights to Restoration, a novel by Rose Tremain which dealt with the great plague of 1665. Miramax, the Disney-owned main supporter of vaguely left-field, non-mainstream movies involving Brits, came in with a substantial $18 million to finance it 100%.

Meg Ryan and Robert Downey Junior starred. 'Harvey Weinstein (the Miramax boss) adored it,' says Paterson. Despite the fact it was running at two hours and 45 minutes, he wouldn't let us change a frame - and he's known for wielding the scissors.'

When it came out, this project had taken four and a half years of Paterson's life to complete. It got good reviews in the States, collected $8 million in revenue and two Oscars, but the film 'never quite made the leap to English Patient status', according to Paterson.

Things were not helped by a savaging from the English film critics, which contributed to its taking next to nothing on its home turf.

Was Paterson disheartened by this? 'No. It was the end of my education,' he says. 'I felt finally ready after that. I'd seen every bit of the business and I knew the grim realities.' He's sticking with that red BT reminder and six new ideas for the next project.

And make no mistake, the realities of the British film industry still have a grim side. With all that soft Lottery money sloshing around, large numbers of British films are now being made. They are not always good or successful. Take The Life of Stuff, which was billed as the new Trainspotting.

It relieved the Lottery, BBC Films and the Glasgow Film Fund of £2 million.

They in turn put a director with no film experience behind the camera.

So far it has taken in a hefty £4,438 - and that includes £4.25 that the director paid when he went incognito to the cinema to see how the audience was reacting to it. Marc Samuelson, another British independent producer, comes from a family with five generations involved in film.

The producer of Wilde is passionate in arguing that the Lottery has not become a gravy train for untalented luvvies who want some soft cash to make their unsaleable films. 'We don't need fewer films, we need more,' he says. 'Look at the old-style '30s studio system in Hollywood. Directors did four to six films a year, and that's how they got good at it. We have so-called 'significant' British directors who've only ever made two or three films. Films do go wrong. We need to do more R&D, like other industries. That means more, not less, development money. You must remember that we only see half of what Hollywood turns out over here. They make plenty of bad films as well.'

For the long-term well-being of UK plc, Samuelson knows where he'd put government investment. 'There are not many industries where we excel on a world level any more. In heavy manufacturing, we're history. What we are good at, however, is media and entertainment and what's more, we produce it in the correct language.'

Even if you don't produce a turkey like The Life of Stuff, the truth, as Paterson acknowledges, is that there is no money in film production in Britain at the moment unless you turn up a Full Monty or a Four Weddings and a Funeral. All the money is in distribution and down-the-line exploitation in perpetuity.

Who owns the multiplexes? Those vertically integrated American studio majors. They know how the money game works. For the US, film is strictly bottom-line big business and in big business risk management is the name of the game. You go with the stuff most likely to succeed, which means Sly, Arnie, Bruce and Demi, Julia and the rest. We don't do that kind of thing over here.

Hilary and Jackie was too risky for US upfront money. 'Through Hilary and Jackie, I've got some heat at the moment,' says Paterson. 'We've been offered Richard Gere. We've been offered Wynona Ryder, attached to particular scripts ... But it will pass pretty quickly.'

Also hanging on in there in another branch of the British cinema business is James Green, who has one screen above the restaurant he owns with his brother on the seafront at Whitstable in Kent. Once the restaurant, the Royal Native Oyster Store, was up and running successfully in the late '80s, James, a marine biologist by training, decided that what he had always wanted to do was run his own cinema. And thus was born the niche-operating Imperial Oyster Cinema.

'We had the vacant space upstairs which we had used for bands in the past,' he says. 'Building from scratch wouldn't have been worth doing.'

Whitstable had lost its last cinema, the Oxford, some years back, but it still had about 35,000 people who, combined with the students from the University at Canterbury seven miles away, made a suitable pool.

Green went off to the Silver Screen in Dover to learn how to project without unravelling miles of celluloid all over the floor, and the 170-capacity operation opened in August 1993 with a rented projector and a £13,500 Dolby sound system. After a year's trading, he treated himself to a new projector that cost £10,500. Tickets are cheap at £3.50 but a bar is a good source of income.

There can be fewer more civilised ways to spend an evening than having half a dozen of fine native oysters, a lobster and a couple of glasses of Sancerre, followed by an 8pm helping of Emily Watson making that cello sing in Hilary and Jackie. Green is thinking about putting in a sloping floor so people at the back can see better.

Looming on the horizon, however, is the grim possibility of a multiplex opening in nearby Canterbury. 'If that happened,' Green says, 'we'd be forced to go down the specialist art-house route, and it's very hard to earn money out of art-house, believe me.'

The Imperial Oyster Cinema is the sort of place that should get the approval of the eco-warriors in the community. After all, it is re-cycled, in effect.

Back at Crystal Palace, I wondered if John - despite the entirely valid grounds that fired his current protest - actually liked movies. 'Yeah, some of them aren't bad.'

'What was the last thing you saw?'

'The X Files. I, uh, really enjoyed it.'

And back he went into the caravan to prepare the last defence of his Alamo against the impending onslaught of the bailiffs.

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