How can cinemas save themselves?

News NP Horton 20 Apr 2011 - 10:42

As cinema chains find their profits constantly squeezed by technological progress, Nick wonders, just what can cinemas do to save themselves?

You may or may not be aware of the latest spat between cinemas and the studios in the U.S. Like all their disagreements, it revolves around profits, piracy and distribution. Four of the major studios (Warner Bros, Universal, Sony, and Fox) are planning on releasing the latest films on a premium video-on-demand (VOD) service, just two months after their theatrical release, thereby negating cinema's traditional four month period of exclusivity, and ultimately their profits.

In response John Fithian, chief executive of The National Association of Theatre Owners, told The Financial Times that it would be prepared to block films from these studios. "You have a partner that respects your [business] model and another one that doesn't. You're going to give the screen to the partner that respects your model."

This follows last year's dispute in the UK between Odeon and Disney (story linked below), where the cinema chain originally boycotted screening Alice In Wonderland due to Disney shortening the DVD release window from seventeen to twelve weeks. (Interestingly, Disney, along with Paramount, have yet to commit to the new VOD service.)

It appears the gloves are coming off and the row will only intensify over the next few months and years.

However, if we go with the general consensus, it's a fight that the cinemas cannot win. Modern technology and consumers' habits no longer lend themselves to film at the cinema. While it will always have an audience, it's an increasingly fragmented audience. The studios realise this, and seeing what has happened to the music industry, seem determined to be firmly onboard the digital migration from the start, not playing catch-up afterwards.

We're at a tipping point for consumption in the western world, but I do think there will always be a place for cinema. It just has to adapt.

Below are a few ideas on how things could change (or not). I don't have a business mind, so some of these are probably unrealistic! It's just a bit of open thinking from a cinema fan...

Maintain the status quo

Cinema chains can just try and ride out the storm. They faced off the threat of television with such innovations as bigger screens, like Cinemascope and 3D, and now they're fighting off VOD with such innovations as, oh wait, bigger screens such as IMAX and 3D. Hmm. Well, it worked once, I guess.

While studios got into the TV business, much like they are reacting now by getting into VOD, cinema exhibitors relied on their overwhelming technological advantage to bring in the viewers from their black and white sets.

However, with home cinemas becoming increasingly cutting edge and grand, this isn't so achievable now. To do nothing other than offer gimmicks will fail, as it has before, and so will their businesses. They need to change.

Alternatively, they could block the four studios listed above and allow Paramount and Disney to enjoy what would surely be a short-lived duopoly at the pictures. Think about it. You would only ever see the latest Transformers film at your nearest big cinema.

Clean up their act

I like going to the cinema. It will always offer the best screen, sound and experience to view a film in. Except a lot of the time it doesn't.

In recent experiences at a certain cinema chain, the picture has been shaky and out of focus, the speakers have been blown, and the heating hasn't been working. At other cinemas there's a level of dirtiness and neglect which is pretty unappealing (rubbish on the floor etc.), and finally, there's the almost inevitable person or persons chattering loudly or using their mobile phones throughout the film.

Now, it's not a cheap night out, so no wonder a lot of people are considering if it's really worth their time and money. Would it really be asking too much of the chains to take a bit more pride in their cinemas? At the very least, reintroduce ushers at screenings, so you're not going to be greeted with a torrent of abuse when you ask someone to stop talking or using their phone. It might be little things like this that would tempt people back.

Go indie

Taking inspiration from independent record stores is behind this option. While major chains, Zavvi and Borders have shut, and HMV looks to be going the same way, the number of independent record stores has grown from 269 to 281 in the last two years, the first increase in decades.

Admittedly, it was from an all-time low, but it proves they're providing a service to customers and the local community, and in today's increasingly anti-homogenised consumer culture, a more boutique approach just might work.

The Everyman chain of cinemas is an example of how this can work, with sofas and table service for the audience, while The Genesis cinema in Stepney Green is a small, but perfectly formed place, which mixes up the latest releases with smaller pictures, while also doing cheap movie nights, NYE events and special movie marathons (plus it has a good bar too!).

A good independent cinema could co-exist in a film world which increasingly relies on VOD by offering something different, a hub for the community where people will be knowledgeable about film and which doesn't solely seek to squeeze every last profit out of the customers.

People do care about these types of places, as witnessed by the successful campaign to save Southampton's Harbour Lights Picturehouse a few years ago.

Essentially, I envisage a physical form of a site like Den Of Geek, a place where film fans can come together and not have to endure the usual bad cinema experience.

Those are just a couple of thoughts on the state of cinemas. The threat to their existence is very real and increasingly urgent. Going to the pictures still gives me a thrill every time, and I would hate to live in a world where I just download my film and watch it on my media centre, not only missing out on the experience of physically going somewhere and the anticipation that engenders, but also missing out on the shared experience.

Cinemas are one of the last few places we gather that's not the pub or sport, so it would be a terrible shame to lose them.

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