Who owns Britain’s cinema chains?

Ever wondered who’s counting the cash from your local cinema? Rob did some digging…

Everyone has their favourite cinema, be it a fiercely independent picture palace or a surprisingly-not-awful massive monster of a multiplex. But how much do you know about who owns Britain’s cinema chains?

It’s an intriguing topic, with a few surprises hiding underneath a few layers of research (read: internet trawling). Little local cinemas with inspirationally indie reputations are often backed by big multi-nationals, while humungous chains sometimes aren’t as awfully-owned as you might think. The emphasis is on ‘sometimes’ in that sentence. Regardless, finding a genuinely free-standing cinema, without some big financier behind it, certainly seems to be becoming a thing of the past.

This article has now been updated to reflect the change in ownership at Odeon.

THE BIG BRANDS

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Odeon

The origins: The term ‘Nickelodeon’ was used in America to describe wallet-friendly cinemas way back in 1905. The Odeon brand as we know it today actually dates back as far as 1928 when film enthusiast and the soon-to-be Godfather behind one of Europe’s biggest cinema chains Oscar Deutsch proudly opened his first cinema – Picture House in Brierly Hill, West Midlands.

The iconic name followed soon after when the first bona fide Odeon Cinema – with the Odeon name supposedly intended as an acronym for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation as well as a reference to Greek theatre – opened in 1930, again in the West Midlands (this one being in Perry Barr).

The reputation: With over 120 cinemas under its belt in the UK alone, many of which are so big they warrant an on-site Costa and/or Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream kiosk alongside the usual snack-vending options, it’s fair to say Odeon has the reputation of a whopping juggernaut of a business.

The ‘fanatical about film’ slogan and its investment in beautiful IMAX screens around the country gives it a fair amount of credibility, as far as huge franchises go, but escalating prices of both tickets and food led to a social media complaint going viral a few years back, a sign that some may feel the movie-loving mantra behind the brand has slipped somewhat in recent years.

The owner: In the years surrounding Oscar Deutsch’s death, Odeon was bought by The Rank Group, who also concurrently tried (and, for a time, succeeded at) out-muscling Pearl & Dean by forming its own cinematic advertising company. After this came some turbulent times, which saw the huge Canadian branch of the Odeon business slowly siphoned off to other companies. Terra Firma Capital Partners took over in 2004, and oversaw a huge expansion of the brand and a merger with UCI.

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In July 2016, Terra Firma sold Odeon and UCI to Planet Earth’s biggest cinema operator Dalian Wanda, a company which is owned by China’s richest man Wang Jianlin. Dalian Wanda also owns American cinema chain AMC Theatres, which Odeon is now a subsidiary of. The deal to bring Odeon under Dalian Wanda’s umbrella is said to be worth £921 million.

Vue

The Origins: Born from corporate chopping and changing, Vue is a relatively young cinema franchise which first appeared when SBC bought 36 cinemas from Warner Bros’ Warner Village Cinemas in 2003. Combined with its existing four, SBC had the basis for a new cinema chain which has grown to rival the old classics.

The Reputation: As a younger franchise, Vue arguably hasn’t had time to suffer the same backlash that befell Odeon recently. It does however still sit in the same faceless multiplex ballpark, without much to set it apart from the pack. One positive point, at least at the branch near this writer, is the fact that Vue offers release-date midnight screenings more regularly than other cinema chains, which has in turn given it a little credibility amongst film fans.

The Owner: After more sites were picked up from Aurora Entertainment’s Ster Century chain in 2005, the executive team of Vue achieved a majority holding in the company in 2006 by buying its way to a 51% ownership. The new team led the push for yet more expansion, including the acquisition of the Apollo circuit and Village Roadshow cinemas. By 2013 Vue had increased to the size of 143 cinemas. This ideal scenario, where the cinema enthusiasts own more than the faceless corporations, unfortunately couldn’t last forever.

In June 2013, the chain was sold to Canadian investment firm OMERS Private Equity and Alberta Investment Management for the whopping price of £935m, a huge improvement on the starting investment of £450m. Although the previous management team, led by Tim Richards, remain in control logistically, it’s a shame to see them not financially owning the business. UK-based teams handling the cash would surely be better for the industry in this country, one can’t help but feel.

Cineworld

The Origins: Slightly older than Vue, the first Cineworld cinema was opened  in July 1996 in Stevenage, with  expansion to Wakefield and  Shrewsbury sites following by November 1998. Initially self-owned by Cineworld Group PLC, the Blackstone Group became the largest shareholder from 2004 to 2010 after a hefty investment.

The Reputation: Although some bad press has circulated Cineworld, including a scandal surrounding a refusal to pay London staff the ‘living wage; (which bizarrely gained public support from footballer Eric Cantona) and an investigation into the fair trading (or lack thereof) of its recent acquisitions, Cineworld has recently constructed a reputation for itself as the home for thrifty film fans. Thanks to its Unlimited scheme (which allows entry to unlimited films, as well as occasional early screenings of big films, for a monthly fee that easily outweighs the cost of buying individual  tickets), Cineworld has gone from an often overlooked option (to this writer, anyway) to a popular choice for hard-core cinephiles.

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The Owner: After the Blackstone Group sold its 20% shareholding in 2010, Cineworld went back to being financially owned by the people who run it, Cineworld Group PLC. This personal touch seems to spread into the multiplex too, with this writer’s local team often insisting on sending a member of staff into the screen to verbally introduce the film and to doubly urge patrons to get their darned phones switched off.

In 2014, though, Cineworld was taken over by Cinema City International (a public company based in Holland). Cinema City serve a lot of Europe and Israel, too, and to be honest – not much seems to have changed at Cineworld in that time period (besides the slightly-controversial introduction of allocated seating). Cineworld is arguably one of the good ones. Which is good news for these guys…

Picturehouse

The Origins: Originating in Oxford in 1989, the Picturehouse brand quickly expanded to buying out other independent cinemas, such as Brighton’s Duke of York’s Picture House, which stands as Britain’s longest continually running cinema, dating back to 1910. 19 sites are currently fully operational.

The Reputation: Undoubtedly one of the best in the country, Picturehouse is famed for its unique locations, homely atmosphere, art house film choices and quirky features like lounge bars, rare snack options and the never-ending novelty of being bringing beer into a screening. Offering a money-saving membership option has also helped craft Picturehouse a reputation as favouring films themselves over corporate cash-hunting.

The Owner: Having begun as an independent alternative to the multiplex multi-nationals, some fans of Picturehouse cinemas were surely shocked to hear that Cineworld had bought the entire chain for £47.3m in December 2012, as if Luke Skywalker had gone ‘yeah, alright then’ to Darth Vader’s offer to join the dark side.

Thankfully, the merger seems to have had a positive effect in many places. For example, this writer’s local Picturehouse (the beautiful Harbour Lights of Southampton) has been kitted out with amazing slightly-reclining chairs, continued everything else members loved about the place and retained most of the long-term staff. It actually shares a car park with our local Cineworld, which highlights how the two chains, contrasting the mainstream with the art house, actually complement each other pretty well, offering something for everyone in close quarters. Let’s just hope it’s sorted out paying staff right before Eric Cantona starts kicking people.

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Empire

The Origins: Born from opportunity, Empire Cinemas Limited came to life in 2005 after the Office of Fair Trading ordered Odeon to offload 11 cinemas. It picked up sites that Cineworld couldn’t hold onto as well.

The Reputation: To this writer at least, Empire Cinemas has a bit of an outsider status – an alternative place to see the big movies without handing your cash to the bigger chains. That’s a preconception quite possibly inspired by its anti-big-chain origins. Its clean, slightly homey lobbies (I’m mainly drawing on my experience of the Leicester Square branch here, but Simon chips in a word for his local in Rubery too), play into this reputation nicely.

The Owner: If you follow the cash-flow in this case, the ultimate beneficiary of the Empire Cinemas chain is Thomas Anderson, owner of Inspiration Holdings Ltd, who also own the Pearl & Dean cinematic advertising company. He splits responsibility with Justin Ribbons, who acts as CEO of Empire Cinemas and Executive Director of Inspiration Holdings. This personal touch, when you can follow the chain of command all the way to one man, rather than a faceless corporation or a stuffy committee, makes a refreshing change.

Everyman

The Origins: The original Everyman Cinema in Hampstead dates back to 1933, but the chain as we know it today originated in 2000 when the original site was bought out and several other sites around the country got picked up for conversion. In 2008 it acquired the Screen Cinemas chain, and now has ten cinemas across the country.

The Reputation: Everyman cinemas have one of the very best reputations going, and are generally considered be right up there with Picturehouse at the independent-feeling end of the cinema chain spectrum. Priding itself on what it calls ‘unique premium cinemas’ (with cushions!), there surely weren’t many qualms when this little chain expanded its reach to Leeds and Birmingham a few years ago (although the Brum branch will have to go some way to outdo the wonderful Electric Cinema).

The Owner: The 2000 relaunch of the original Everyman cinema was the brainchild of entrepreneur Daniel Broch. Again, seeing cinemas managed by one passionate fanatic can only be a good thing. He sold his majority stake in the company to a group of investors in 2008, although he still remains a shareholder. The fact that the reputation has remained since he took a step down, and that growth since has been at a careful, gradual rate suggests that ownership/management-by-committee can work in some cases.

SMALLER CHAINS AND STANDALONE CINEMAS 

Of course, there are a handful of smaller/lesser-known chains than those we’ve mentioned here, many of which having interesting back stories of their own.

For starters there is Reel Cinemas, a fifteen-strong chain born in Loughborough. Reel is owned by Kailash Chander Suri, an entrepreneur who has also picked up ownership of a shopping complex in Newcastle (which somewhat awkwardly includes a Vue cinema), mounted a bid for Leicester City Football Club, dreamed of founding a football team for Loughborough and has also planned a new UK-based chain for screening the best of Bollywood. Sounds like a very interesting chap, and there’s no whiff of a multinational benefactor in sight.

Curzon Cinemas has a small collection of eight cinemas, mainly based in London, and is a part of the larger Curzon Worldwide project. As well as cinemas, this parent company dabbles in distribution (cinematic, digital and DVD), releasing horror films and managing its own Curzon Home Cinema streaming service. It’s great to see a cinema chain as part of a bigger project supporting the industry rather than merely being one facet of a faceless money-focused corporation.

Not all smaller chains in Blighty have such inspirationally independent backroom stories though. Showcase Cinemas, for example, may seem a rare sight in the UK, but it’s actually part of a huge chain controlling over 900 screens in the USA. Showcase and its boutique Cinema de Lux brand is owned by the National Amusements corporation.

The little-known (in certain areas of the UK, at least) Merlin Cinemas now also run 11 sites in the UK, having started with just one in 1990 – The Savoy Penance, which boasts a pizza kitchen too. This growing chain adopted 3D charmingly late and is seemingly completely separate from any big corporations, which is surely a good thing for the cinema industry in the UK.

Of course there are some terrific truly independent cinemas around the country too, which often have their own wacky stories to tell, including, but certainly not limited to the pornographic history (and unrelated ghostly haunting) of London’s amazing Prince Charles Cinema, and the fact that sizeable theatre/ticketing company ATG own one anomalous cinema in the shape of Woking’s Ambassadors Cinema, presumably for the sole reason that it came with the building. It has a fine pick-n-mix selection, though.

For more on the backstory of Birmingham’s aforementioned Electric Cinema meanwhile, check out the excellent documentary The Last Projectionist. It’s well worth an hour and a half.

Whatever your local cinema is, and forgive us for getting the soap-box out, make sure you keep supporting it. We’re almost certainly preaching to the converted here, but as the iconic sign atop the Prince Charles Cinema once read “every time you torrent, God kills a cinema”…

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