We’re very proud to see our Rex, and read a mention of The Odyssey, in today’s Sunday Times magazine – even if Brian Appleyard does keep referring to James as ‘Grandad’!!
Here’s the full text courtesy of Appleyard’s site.
Real Cinemas Will Destroy the Multiplexes
SUNDAY TIMES, 26 FEBRUARY 2012
Like most discerning people, I had stopped going to the cinema at Whiteleys, in Bayswater. It was a bog-standard multiplex, apparently designed by somebody who hated humanity not quite, but almost, enough to go on a killing spree. We all know about multiplexes: the auditoriums cold (keeps down the smells, apparently — nice), the carpets usually sticky, the staff surly, the brats restive and, of course, the food packed in the noisiest wrappers known to man. The tickets are pricey and the disgusting food and flat Cokes so expensive, they are bought only by people so up to their eyeballs in debt that it really doesn’t matter any more.
Yet here I am in the new Whiteleys Odeon, climbing the stairs to something called, seductively, the Lounge. Having paid £15 for a matinée ticket for Man on a Ledge, I now find myself arriving in a gastro-bar expensively kitted out approximately in the style of a Roger Moore-era Bond movie. Polite, smiling staff flock to my side and usher me to a table, where I am given a glass of merlot and a menu “overseen” by the star chef Rowley Leigh — so not nachos and hot dogs, but stuff like chicken and goat’s cheese mousse with mesclun and hazelnut toast (£8.50).
Entering the auditorium, I am confronted by giant adjustable armchairs with attached tables, and a hostess who shows me to my seat and says she will be looking after me. Planes have been trying to be like cinemas for the past few decades; now cinemas are trying to be like planes.
The hostess feels a little excessive, but, succumbing to her charms and to Rowley, I order salsify fritters with aïoli (£6) — excellent — and another glass of merlot (£6) — meh. The film is a routine caper with a flawed plot, and the experience ends up costing me £33. But, well, previously there was no chance I would come here. Now I know I’ll be back.
The tickets are pricey and the disgusting food and flat Cokes so expensive, they are bought only by people so up to their eyeballs in debt that it really doesn’t matter any more.
Sadly, 90% of movies in Britain are seen not in Lounges, but in cold, noisy, sticky and usually out-of-town multiplexes. These aliens arrived in the mid-1980s, an American import, as a way of making cinemas more efficient in the face of the long post-war decline in British audiences — from 1.6 billion admissions in 1946 to 54m in 1984. They worked. By 1991, attendances were back up to 100m. There were, of course, casualties. Town-centre, single-screen cinemas closed, leaving a legacy of listed but unuseable art-deco palaces.
Annual admissions now hover around 160m-170m, the variations almost entirely dependent on the number of blockbusters in a given year. Last year, there was a spike because of The King’s Speech. But there is a dark cloud on the cinema horizon: home entertainment. Giant flatscreens, surround sound and internet streaming services offering increasingly close to first-run movies will tempt people to stay at home. Can the multiplexes, can cinemas in general, survive? Is the flatscreen the industry’s iPod, Kindle or iPad moment?
James Hannaway looks thoughtful. “Well,” he says, “the multiplexes were built for the wrong purpose, and they built them out of town. They weren’t designed to show films, they were designed to sell popcorn and hot dogs. They took off in the States, then expanded around the world their philosophy that the film was secondary.”
Hannaway, a very dapper 64-year-old, runs what I can unhesitatingly say is the best cinema I have ever attended: the Rex, in Berkhamsted. One of those town-centre deco palaces, it was bought by Hannaway with the aid of a silent partner in 2004. They had lost the palatial foyer to a restaurant, but the magnificent interior was intact. It was all restored and the seating was cut from 1,100 to 300 — big armchairs in the circle, tables and chairs in the stalls.
Tickets go on sale on the third Saturday of every month, and usually they sell out at once. Some are held back and raffled to people who turn up on the night. Food is reasonable, mainly contained in silent plastic tubs; if you’re in the stalls, it will be served at your table. Seat prices are low by London standards — the highest is £10 for a seat at a table, or £8 for one in the circle.
Sitting with Hannaway in the foyer before a showing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is like being with grandad at a giant family party. Children walk in and say, “Hi, James.” Hannaway does a little speech on the stage before the film. “Now, children, this film is in a brand-new technology — 2-D!” He is no fan of 3-D. Finally, and most magically of all, the kids then watch the entire film in rapt silence. That never happens in a multiplex. “It’s because it’s an event, something special,” he says. “The children know that. And you won’t stick to the carpet here.”
In the foyer are a long shelf of movie books and an old film-editing machine. It was one of Stanley Kubrick’s. The Kubrick family live nearby and are supporters of the Rex. Meanwhile, Hannaway has been lured, somewhat reluctantly, into taking on another cinema — the old Odeon in St Albans, renamed the Odyssey in honour of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much of the £1m needed to buy the building has been raised from local people. He has turned away millions from venture capitalists because he doesn’t want any pressure to maximise profits at the expense of the audience. “Pressure from them,” he says, “would be the wrong pressure.”
What the Rex proves is that there is a demand for real local cinemas, and that people really do want to go out for their films, but preferably not to an out-of-town multiplex. At the level of the experience, there is no comparison. The Rex’s bustling sense of excitement is the exact opposite of the cold alienation of the multiplex. Furthermore, in new or restored cinemas, you will often find a better picture, as they will have bought the latest digital projectors.
In its style and local roots, the Rex is unique, but “real” cinemas are springing up around the country, just as real beer reappeared when real drinkers turned against the chemical horrors of “keg” in the 1970s. The small Picturehouse and Everyman chains have led the way with, as far as possible, town-centre sites and an “event” style, including proper restaurants and bars.
“We focus on being at the heart of the community, rather than on the periphery. We want people to be able to walk to the site,” says Andrew Myers, chief executive of Everyman. “People are still interested in going to multiplexes,” says Marc Allenby, head of commercial development at Picturehouse — “at least through lack of choice. We’re offering something different and challenging the multiplex experience.”
These two chains don’t go as far as the Rex, with grandad in the foyer conducting the raffle and greeting regulars by name. Rather, they are competing head to head not only with the multiplexes, but with other high-street attractions, especially the buoyant restaurant culture. The Hackney Picturehouse, for example, looks as much like a modern cafe/bar/restaurant as it does a cinema. “These are venues in their own right,” Allenby says. “They’re not sterile or closed.”
Meanwhile, there are plenty of Rex-like one-offs springing up. Supported by big names such as Michael Palin, Mark Kermode and Maureen Lipman, the Phoenix, in East Finchley, a cinema that is exactly 100 years old, is run by a local charitable trust. With one screen and 255 seats, it manages to hold its own against nearby multiplexes, largely because, as with the Rex, people want to go to a “real” cinema. “We love what we do,” says Kate McCarthy, the operations manager. “The Artist was a classic example. This cinema was showing films when they were silent, so people wanted to see it here, not at the Odeon, because it was the sort of film we would have been showing in the 1920s.”
People are still interested in going to multiplexes,at least through lack of choice. We’re offering something different and challenging the multiplex experience.
Then there is the Broadway, in Nottingham, the Kino, in Hawkhurst, Kent, Cinema City, in Norwich, the Electric, in Notting Hill, Rich Mix, in Bethnal Green, and so on and so on. In America, typically, there’s a new spin on “real cinema” — a unique programme. The improbably named reRun Gastropub Theater, in Brooklyn, has 60 reclaimed car seats and a 12ft screen, offering an “intimate art-house theater experience”. It shows festival films that might not otherwise be distributed.
So, “real cinema” is well on the way to matching the real-ale movement of the 1970s. But can it possibly work as well? Furthermore, can premium offers such as the Lounge at Whiteleys or “VIP” seats save the multiplexes?
Nobody I spoke to, with the exception of the maverick industry outsider Hannaway, came straight out and attacked the multiplexes. Myers and Allenby said they served their purpose; McCarthy said they were happy to redirect people who turned up at the Phoenix to see Transformers to the Odeon. But it seems to me, and they hesitantly seemed to agree, that “real cinemas” are better placed to withstand the giant-screen-and-surround-sound-at-home culture. “Our offering,” Allenby says cautiously, “may be more sustainable.”
The trick is to revive as far as possible the idea of cinema as an event, an experience that beats staying at home with your giant screen. Much of this is achieved by placing cinemas among shops, instead of on windblown sites also occupied by B&Q and Comet. Even more is achieved by having grandad to greet you and a sensational art-deco interior. It also depends on having the right films, but, happily, this need not be entirely determined by the whim of Hollywood. All these cinemas make a point of showing old films — the Rex, of course, runs It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas — and they get full houses by screening live opera and theatre. Running films in repertory also helps, because it gives customers a reason to come more than once a week. But, of course, in the film business, as the great screenwriter William Goldman imperishably observed: “Nobody knows anything.”
My guess — call it wishful thinking — is that the multiplexes are dying, and that the gap at the premium and local end of the market will continue to widen. Cinema must survive: movies are made to be shown in darkness, on a big screen, to many people. The rest is just TV and shopping.