There are a number of successful cinema chains in the UK, and each has its own personality. Cineworld have been the most distinctive perhaps, with their until-now unique Unlimited scheme. By paying a monthly subscription instead of by-the-ticket charges, regular moviegoers were able to make Cineworld their usual destination – at least for more mainstream fare – and make some considerable savings. Want to watch films morning noon and night? With Unlimited, it won’t cost you any more than just watching them ‘noon’. So to speak. Now Odeon are launching their own version of this scheme, the similarly titled Limitless.
It was trialled last year at a small number of sites and has just launched nationally. Before this scheme, I’d have said that Odeon’s personality was pretty much entirely defined by the average age of their venues, older High Street cinemas that have changed hands many times over the years, rather distinct from the modern box aesthetic of most Cineworld and Vue branches. That and the attendant problems in these old buildings’ sometimes badly converted auditoria and projection facilities (there are some very notable exceptions to this, of course). The arrival of a bona fide money saver like Limitless isn’t going to hurt their character at all. The prices for Cineworld’s Unlimited start at £16.90 per month, going up to £19.90 if you want to be able visit Cineworld sites in the West End too. Odeon’s Limitless starts at £17.99, but the all-inclusive price of £19.99 with Central London Odeons is comparable. So, that’s great. Fantastic. Viewers now have the choice of two out of the three biggest chains in the UK for subscription package viewing. But is there a downside to all of this? Well, there are hidden costs under certain circumstances – IMAX screenings, for example, or 3D movies, even if you have your own glasses – and there’s a hefty admin fee to replace lost or damaged membership cards, but there’s also some potential for deeper, longer lasting problems. With Odeon and Cineworld both offering subscriptions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue join in too, and whoever else has the scale. Subscriptions could well start to be the new normal. And that might be how the problems start. Because if we’re all paying very little for our cinema tickets, how are the cinemas and movie studios going to make the great big heaps of cash that they’re used to, and arguably need? And when we’re paying so little, how seriously will the cinemas take our complaints? It’s not hard to imagine draconian policing of outside food and drink. It’s well known that cinemas depend on hefty concession stand mark-ups to keep ticking over, and I can imagine that this will quickly become an even more urgent issue for them.
Then there’s the cost-saving possible in cutting back on staff. It’s nearly impossible to find a properly staffed multiplex these days, and should the turnover shrink any further, I can imagine the usual six-screener is going to seem more like a robot-run warehouse than anywhere you might actually see customer service – not to mention skilled projection – in action. Unruly audience members will rule the roost and there will be nobody on hand to fix wonky aspect ratios or muted speakers. If distributors and studios balk at these subscription services, could we see them try to exclude bigger blockbuster movies from the package? It’s not hard to imagine a ‘tentpole surcharge’ being created, so your subscription card won’t get you free access to the latest Marvel movie in, say, its first fortnight. Everybody paying £2 more for Infinity War doesn’t seem too unlikely a pricing package, I’m afraid. Or, to flip that issue on its head, smaller movies that wouldn’t be able to get away with such a surcharge won’t make anything like as much money ‘per ticket sold,’ further limiting their appeal to the studios and distributors in the first place. If you want to watch something like, say, Still Alice or Spotlight, or even Creed, then maybe Netflix and VOD will be the only place to do it, with cinemas transformed into cathedrals to straight-down-the-middle money-printers of only the most predictable nature. Some would say this has already happened but, thank heavens, there’s still some unspoiled margin… for now. Or – and I honestly haven’t decided if this is a better option than VOD or not – maybe ‘smaller’ films will be playing in subscription-less art house cinemas with audience-frighteningly high prices. Think of Picturehouse Central, which stands at the vanguard of treating ‘serious film’ like it’s something we have to pay through the neck for, possibly because it’s the only way such a cinema might be at all commercially viable. Wouldn’t it be better if marginalised films weren’t marginalised more with outsized price tags?
Okay, maybe that’s all a tad apocalyptic, but it’s a progression of the same lines of thought.
For now, Odeon’s central London cinemas, including the Covent Garden and Panton Street branches, play a lot of interesting cinema with supposedly smaller appeal, and these will be accessible to full-on Limitless subscribers, but Cineworld – who control Picturehouse – exclude this so-called art house chain from Unlimited. And anyway, Odeon’s central London cinemas are quite obviously in central London, and therefore not much use to the majority of UK moviegoers. Netflix, it has been argued, is crushing the soul out of the Blu-ray and DVD market. Actually, it has often been argued that the crushing is already complete and the spirit has already flown. Could subscription cinema packages do the same thing to non-multiplex cinemas, and the kind of films that they (and very often, only they) will screen? There’s a counter argument, of course, and it’s not a terrible one. By saving money on my tickets to The Martian, Spectre and Inside Out, am I not just increasing my budget for films like The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, The Assassin et al? Maybe I’ll happily pay the same amount to see just one of those films just one time as I am also pouring into my multiplex subscription just because I can now afford to? Well, I think that makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with cineastes, and if you assume a monthly cinema-going budget of £35 or up. But when you’re dealing with the broader public or people who are becoming increasingly cinema-resistant (myself included, I’m absolutely gutted to say), I fear that making one ‘smaller film’ the same price as a whole hand full of ‘bigger films’ removes any remaining vestige of a level playing field, and those who might have once taken a chance on Green Room, Blue Ruin or Tangerine will just take another free ride on a Transformer instead. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sign up to Odeon Limitless.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.