Magazine article Management Today

The Big Box Office Bet

Magazine article Management Today

The Big Box Office Bet

Article excerpt

The multiplex cinema boom has resurrected the UK film audience but has done little for film-makers. Now, says Matthew Gwyther, the sector is facing a war of attrition in the battle for the popcorn set

The scene: a windswept point on Crystal Palace hill, South London, in January. An eco-protest site. Behind a makeshift stockade are piles of discarded tyres, bricks, a broken-down caravan. A few mangy dogs wander about. Among the protesters, in their mud-caked combat boots and boiler suits, there is an air of tension. The bailiffs are expected any day. Up in the trees, down in their tunnels, they're ready for the showdown.

Their number includes General Survival, at 11 the youngest eco-warrior in the business, but it is John, the press spokesperson, who emerges from the command caravan, to speak to the visitor from Management Today.

Cut to John: 'What they're proposing here would be a disaster for the area. This is a green space with natural wildlife and it's going to be mined by 90,000 cars a week. We've got 80% local support. We've got veterans of Manchester airport, Newbury, the Birmingham relief road - all expert in non-violent, passive action. We're staying here till the very end.'

So what is it that has John, General Survival and their company up a tree? A motorway or bypass, a new airport runway, a storage depot for spent nuclear fuel? None of these. They are making a stand against the erection of a cinema - more precisely, the '90s version of a new cinema: a multiplex.

From a base of zero only 15 years ago, by the end of this year there will be 188 multiplex cinemas in Britain, made up of no fewer than 1,799 screens. The cheapest will have cost [pounds]5 million, the largest and most expensive, [pounds]20 million.

In Sheffield, the most over-plexed city in the country, there are 53 screens, one for every 10,000 people, and a fight to the death is on for the popcorn-buying punters. In London there has even been talk of developing the roofless ruins of Battersea Power Station into a Powerplex with up to 32 screens.

There's more action in the multiplex game at the moment than in the first 35 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. And sooner or later someone is going to take casualties.

According to Mintel's leisure analyst: 'The industry is something of a powder-keg waiting to explode, with a number of established companies facing an influx of newcomers attempting to break in to an already crowded market.'

To understand what has been going on, we need to return in time to 1984 - a year when UK cinema attendance hit an all-time low after a slide that had gathered pace since the end of the war. From a peak in 1946 of 1.6 billion attendances, in 1984 a miserable 54 million British bums were placed on those Kia-Ora-stained velveteen seats at the Rex, the Odeon and ABC - equal to about one visit per member of the population.

The postwar rise of television kept people indoors but the really rapid decline started at the beginning of the '80s with the rise of the recorded video industry. As video tried to kill the silver screen star, the average British couch potato spent Fridays and Saturdays in front of the TV with a six-pack of lager and the latest film video from his local Blockbuster. The UK had the largest expansion, both in the purchase of video machines and the hiring of cassettes, anywhere in the world and, unlike the Americans, the Irish, the Indians and Germans, the Brits stopped going to the flicks. For the UK to remain a viable territory for the US majors, something had to be done and multiplexing was the only way it could be achieved.

So, in 1985, to the surprise of many, the American company AMC (later merged to become UCI, owned 50/50 by Paramount and Universal) arrived in Milton Keynes and put up a 10-screen cinema called The Point. Miraculously, like a Hollywood version of Lazarus, the industry got up and walked. …

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