Bums on seats. A moving story.

WWII had come to an end and a year later in 1946 the British public went to the cinema more often than they had ever done before or since. 1.64 billion seats were sold that year. That’s nearly 33 visits to the cinema for every man woman and child in the land. Going to the flicks was a weekly pastime for every adult almost without exception. But after that the decline in cinema visits was brutal.

A combination of television, followed by the video recorder and chronic under-investment in theatres – vast numbers became ‘flea-pits’, dirty, dingy and uncomfortable proved deadly. Within forty years admissions had fallen to a low of 54 million in 1984 – that was less than one visit a year to the cinema on average. A cultural pastime that involved everyone had become something that the vast majority of the population never indulged in.

It was the introduction of the multiplex which helped, initially, to get bums back on seats, although, never at the same level as had been the case during the war. Even today annual sales are just 164 million. With more choice of films, albeit almost exclusively mainstream Hollywood output, and a more convivial viewing experience as well as a wider range of snacks we still attend the cinema infrequently. Popcorn had suffered a decline in consumption along with cinema attendance and even today 70% of all popcorn is consumed at home. Yet it was the multiplex which introduced US quantities and now the discreet small bag I would have bought as a kid is just a distant memory.

Fortunately, with the steady drift back to the cinema small and independent cinemas have burgeoned. It is unthinkable that even a modest conurbation would not have its own art-house or independent cinema today and with them have come sofas, alcohol and even food brought to your seat.

Thanks to the speed with which the multiplex embraced digital projection, 3D, 4DX, Imax and now even include screens that blow smells over the audience as well as shake your seat, the big Hollywood blockbuster has a natural home ahead of the small-screen. But for how much longer? 70% of the market is controlled by the three multiplex operators, Vue, Odeon and Cineworld, with the later having the largest share of UK bottoms at 25.4%. Cineworld also own the UK’s largest independent cinema chain, Picturehouse that has 24 screens around the UK. Odeon is in fact owned by the US chain UCI which is part of the world’s largest chain, Chinese-owned AMC Theatres. Vue is a result of acquisitions and re-branding over the last decade or so.

Now Cineworld has acquired the US cinema chain Regal Entertainment making it the second largest cinema chain globally after AMC. Many in the business press consider the sum paid of $3.6 billion to be potentially ruinous. The cash price is a 40% premium over Regal’s current valuation and many economists consider that cinema is ultimately a declining market now that disruptors like Netflix, and Amazon Prime are providing punters with even more choice instantly. Like Cineworld and all the other big chains Regal has been tarting up its cinemas with reclining seats and a bigger menu. Will watching films in a prone position which is not on one’s own couch and eating yet more dodgy fatty food and sugary drinks be enough to stem the tide?

Ever the optimist, for me there is no substitute to the cinematic experience, I think news of the end of cinema is premature. The latest merger of two giant chains should be seen as sign of optimism that maybe the cinema experience will continue to get better and we will continue to spend more time in a darkened room amongst strangers.

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