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.

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