FROM ‘MAD MAX’ TO ‘MARY POPPINS RETURNS’
David Sin, Head of Cinemas, Independent Cinema Office, reveals the astonishing changes to cinemas over 40 years.
1979. The year of ‘The Deer Hunter’, ‘Mad Max’ and the first ‘Muppet Movie’. Cinema admissions in the UK are already approaching the bottom of a sharp decline and will hit an all-time low point within five years. The mass adoption of home video and the inability of cinema owners to redesign their service to compete has led to the closing down of many formerly grand local Picture Palaces, whilst others have been turned into Bingo halls. Surviving commercial cinemas are twinned or tripled town centre venues, where you can stay all day with one ticket, with separate seats for smokers and non-smokers. Followers of ‘Art Cinema’ have to seek out the relatively new network of Regional Film Theatres supported by the British Film Institute to give audiences outside London a chance to experience the emerging film culture.
Fast forward to 2019, and the cinema scene in the UK is almost unrecognisable from the rather shabby state of affairs of forty years ago. Cinema admissions in the UK in 2018 were 70% more than the total in 1979, and over two-times the total at the 1984 nadir. There were over 800 feature films released into UK cinemas last year, record high for some decades – that’s on average 16 new films released every weekend, from mainstream studio blockbusters, to British independents, foreign language art house films, popular films from India and Poland, documentaries, reissued classic films... and the list goes on. What these titles represent is a massive broadening of choice for UK cinema goers in recent times.
The picture today is almost, but not completely unrecognisable from the 1979 scene – for those of us who have lived and worked in cinemas during this period, there are traceable connections from then to now which provide a narrative of cinema development, increased audience appetite and the regular regeneration of cinema both as an artform and a place, just as it seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse.
In this period, the first rescue act for cinema came in the 1980s, with the arrival of the Multiplexes, incentivised by cheap land and frictionless planning to establish North American fast-cinema venues on the edges of every major town and city in the UK.
‘Plexes offered choice (so long as you wanted to see a genre film), relative ease of access and an authentic seeming American cultural experience. Say what you like about the multiplexes, but it’s impossible to deny that these ten screen cinema malls created a new generation of cinema goers, with cinema admissions increasing by millions every year but one, from 1987 when the first multiplex landed in Milton Keynes. The multiplex model evolved with the changing market, and by the turn of the century the UK cinema landscape was a mix of giant edge of town breezeblock bunkers, three to six screen town centre cinemas and a growing number of bespoke two, three and four screen independent cinemas which, typically, supported by new funds from the Lottery and the EU, led the cultural regeneration of many towns and cities in a post-industrial Britain.
Around the turn of the century, UK cinema admissions started to flatline, and industry predictions of another decline were commonplace with a new rise in home entertainment with DVD, and future forecasters telling us that digital convergence would eventually make the cinema obsolete, with film lovers eventually being able to access any film on any device anywhere and at any time of the day.
So ironically, the second major rescue act came in the form of the new digital technologies, in film distribution and cinemas, which have made it possible for cinemas to offer greater choice, a higher standard of experience for cinema goers, all with greater efficiency. At a time when film lovers now really do have access to an overwhelming number of films through multiple platforms, the fact that UK cinema admissions have remained stable for the past 15 years is a strong indication that cinema operators, of all types, have successfully re-imagined what cinemas are, and continue to offer audiences things that they cannot take from other forms of film viewing.
This distillation of the essence of cinema, the reason for its continued appeal, is actually most evident in the independent and arts cinema sector. Here strategies for developing audience ‘communities’, high standards of film presentation and audience comfort, craft catering, bespoke venue design, programming mix and a discourse around films, have been adopted, refined, reproduced in both commercial independent and out and out commercial cinemas to create the current hybrid – the boutique cinema.
The new digital technologies that enabled cinemas to raise their game level were also a key factor in the creation of many new community cinemas, developed and operated by local people who recognise cinema’s potential for creating social cohesion and a sense of community. Indeed, the social experience of cinema remains one of its essential traits, and it is community and independent cinema operators above all who have recognised this social value.
The Independent Cinema Office has been working in this context for the last 16 years, aiming to build the capacity of the wider independent cinema sector, to ensure that the sector continues to thrive. The ICO’s activities encompass Programming, Professional Training, Consultancy, film Distribution and touring of film heritage projects and these are the methods by which the ICO can intervene to best effect, to support the work of the wider range of independent cinemas described above. As the wider industry has evolved, so the ICO has responded to these changes and developments by changing the emphasis in its methods, in order to remain an effective supporter of the independent cinema sector. So 16 years ago, the ICO was more active as a film distributor, to bring to audiences important films that the market would have overlooked. Now at a time when over 800 films are released in the UK each year, the market supplies a broad enough range of films, but it’s important that independent cinemas actually programme the widest possible range to build a diverse range of audiences. As the wider industry has evolved, so the ICO has helped independent cinemas adapt in order to maintain their audiences.
Since the beginning of 2018, the ICO has developed a range of its services and worked with new partners specifically in the South East, in its role as the Lead Organisation for the region in the British Film Institute’s Film Audience Network project. As we arrive in yet another new phase for cinema, with on demand services such as Netflix sitting alongside cinema as the main way in which audiences now access film, it’s important that the independent cinema sector continues to develop a compelling vision that places audiences, programme diversity and the cinema space at the centre of cinema’s future.
David Sin is Head of Cinema, Independent Cinema Office, UK’s national body that supports independent cinemas, film festivals and exhibitors of all forms which Chichester Cinema at New Park works with.