Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Premium cinema experiences

At OFU, we always tried to offer something a little bit extra. Knowing that we couldn't compete on projection quality, and a lack of willingness to mop up popcorn, meant that we had to be a bit more creative in the service we offered our "customers". We occasionally did fancy dress, and we invited the fencing club to do a demo before the start of Zorro. A decent, mixed programme helped, too. One thing we could really do better than anyone else was price.

But of course we were also cinephiles, and that meant that we yearned for something better. Post-OFU, our film-watching options were either the local multiplex or else a trip into London: the latter being painfully expensive, but showing up the provincial multiplex in almost every single way.

Subsequently, Andy Ga. and I gave serious consideration to a business plan for a premium local cinema. There are precedents for such things; Picturehouse Cinemas is a great example. They tend to be in affluent university cities and we did hope that Guildford might actually provide a similar market. But we couldn't make the numbers work.

Now, though, the dominant cinema chains are starting to move into premium cinema experiences in a way that I don't think we've seen before. Certainly the Odeon Guildford used to have two-tier seat prices, but actually the service provided was exactly the same. The Showcase cinema at Bluewater in Kent also had a premium seating area, with private bar, but this was really an exception in a mainstream cinema.

Cineworld have opened a new concept cinema in Cheltenham called The Screening Rooms. It comes at a price, but offers increased comfort, good food and, in the evenings at least, no children. If there's a criticism, it's simply that the film selection is still the standard multiplex stuff. In my opinion, somebody who is willing to spend up to £20 on a cinema ticket may well be looking for a more cerebral film than the average multiplex-goer.

In the Guardian today, it is reported that Odeon are trying something very similar, with waiter service providing Michelin-starred food to your seat "during the trailers". As is the way when the national press suddenly latches on to something that they've not heard of before, the article implies that this is a novel approach, even if the independent sector and Cineworld both got there first.

The article (admittedly an opinion-piece) is rather critical of the idea of eating a meal during a film, but that's pretty narrow-minded. It's clear that many people prefer to stay home for their film-watching these days so it is inevitable that cinemas must adapt all the time to these changing conditions. It's also apparent that there are significant numbers of potential customers that don't want the bog-standard multiplex experience any more. I know; I'm one of them. The average multiplex is now aimed at its narrowest-ever market, squeezing out everybody outside of a very specific demographic. (Do I sound old yet?)

So even though I can't stand the noise of people eating during a film, I still welcome these developments. I only hope that the cinema chains realise that they need to select their product to suit the more discerning customer. And then, at last, maybe the studios will start to develop their output accordingly.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Spielberg loves celluloid

The Joy of Celluloid, an article in The Guardian about the artistic merits of film over digital. Cinematographer Dick Pope:
"16mm is very much alive and well, and it's crucial it remains so, yet its future is seriously under threat. Before too long, I fear it will be film itself that's cast out, and in the stampede towards the blinding, flashing light of the digital age, the fabulous physical and spiritual magic of it will be trampled underfoot for ever."

Compare with the state of 16mm exhibition.

These comments are included as part of the newest installation at Tate Modern, a hand-tinted, hand-cut film by the artist Tacita Dean.

Update: You might think that the argument against making low-budget movies on celluloid had been well and truly decided by now; and certainly low-budget filmmakers of my immediate acquaintance wouldn't contemplate doing so, unless for very specific artistic reasons. It's usually more important that the film gets made in whatever medium, rather than doubling the budget of the production. However, the respected filmmaker and author Chris Jones, who is ahead of the technology curve in most other respects (especially digital distribution), has apparently only just noticed that "film is dead".

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Developments in projection technology since 2001

Remember the Fumeo? How quaint and mechanical it was? Remember the switches, the levers, the "gentle" purr as 24fps passed through its gate? Remember the massive spinning wheels of death that you needed to use to rewind the film after the show?

I'm sure we all know that cinema projection has changed a bit since OFU shut down. Most cinemas are using digital projectors now, resulting in brighter, cleaner pictures with less jitter and no sudden popping noises at the end of every reel.

But it turns out that not all of the progress has been good or even very straightforward to manage.

For example: you might know that the spec for HDMI (media interconnect) allows for encryption, which means that the projector can refuse to play media for any reason it likes. For example, somebody I know recently took over a working two-screen local cinema and needed to test the shiny hi-def digital projectors that they were paying ridiculous quantities of money to rent. Not unreasonably, he bought a Blu-Ray player and a disc of something with superheroes in it, then settled down to watch two hours of a huge sign that said, "You are not authorised to view this content."

Anyway, it turns out that Hollywood is even more paranoid than we might have assumed. Apparently, you now need a password in order to make changes to the projector hardware settings.

Just imagine that we'd needed to get explicit permission from a film studio every time we needed to adjust the anamorphic lens or the racking. Makes nipping downstairs to beg AVS for a spare amp seem completely straightforward by comparison.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Deluxe stops printing 16mm film

Interesting article in the Guardian highlighting the fact that the UK's last 16mm processing laboratory has stopped printing to 16mm. (They currently continue to produce 16mm negatives and will, of course, blow up a 16mm negative to a 35mm print.)

There's also an interesting comment by "CaptainFook" beneath the article, on the state of 16mm exhibition, which will resonate with many ex-OFU projectionists:

"No-one in their right mind would strike a 16mm print of a preservation project now, because virtually no cinemas in the country apart from the NFT and one or two regional arts centre type places have working 16mm projectors. Xenon-lit 16mm projectors of the sort needed to screen these prints on a decent-sized screen have not been made on any significant scale since the mid-1990s, and the number of serviceable ones in circulation has very nearly dwindled to nothing. Only one manufacturer (Kinoton) makes them at all, and then only to special order and at vast cost. Even if there is an argument for continuing to make release prints on film of productions originated and/or preserved on 16mm, a 35mm blow-up print is now the only viable option if you want to show it anywhere other than some hippie bar using a table-top Hell & Bowell."

"The word in Hollywood is that three of the major studios are about to make a co-ordinated announcement that they are to cease all distribution on film in spring 2013."

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Where to see independent films in Guildford

This is a belated update to my previous post about the proposed Guildford Picture Palace.

Guildford Borough Council turned down entrepreneur Mark Gudgin's proposal to use the disused bookshop, constitutional hall and West's Picture Palace building on the High Street as an independent cinema. There's a good essay on the subject called Homogenous Townscapes which argues the case for an arts cinema convincingly but futilely.

Mark Gudgin's film nights at other venues in Guildford have been enthusiastically supported - to a point. While it may be comparatively easy to get a couple of hundred people turning out once a month, there's still not much evidence that nightly screenings could ever hope to be profitable. (Full disclosure: In around 2002, Andy Ga. and I wrote an extensive business case for an arts cinema in Guildford. We couldn't make our model profitable, despite then-innovative cost-saving ideas.)

In the meantime, the Electric Theatre's film society has renamed itself to Guildford Film Society and apparently offers "pre-screening talk by staff from the University of Surrey Film Studies Faculty or another expert".

This leads straight to the obvious question: since when was there a University of Surrey Film Studies Faculty? Amongst other course features, it is mentioned that the Surrey TV studio - which I had long assumed to be an expensive white elephant - is used for multi-camera coursework.

Meanwhile, one of the university's aforementioned film societies now appears to be defunct; Front Row hasn't been updated since 2008. The Shadowrooms is still going strong, with a showing approximately monthly during term time.

Guildford's new theatre, on the Civic Hall site (which closed in 2004), is not expected to be used for film showings when it opens in Autumn 2011.