The first cinema ticket was bought in 1896. Graham Young reveals how the industry continues to thrive.
Job prospects might be the worst for a generation, but cinema box offices are thriving after 106 years in business.
Staff are waiting with open arms, big smiles and fizzy drinks and popcorn tubs galore if you want to forget the economic doom and gloom.
New figures show there were more than 170 million admissions across the UK in 2011 for only the fourth time since 1971.
And the box office also hit a record £1,038 million, up more than five per cent on 2010.
The data proves that in times of economic strife we still seek out escapist entertainment, despite the rising costs of tickets, concessions and add-ons like ‘premium’ seats and 3D movies.
In 1946, when most suburbs had a picture house, attendances peaked at 1.64 billion.
But considering they had dipped to a nadir of 54 million in 1984 – and that many homes are now stuffed with flatscreen TVs, satellite systems and DVD players – they have recovered remarkably well and with great consistency.
The lowest annual admissions figure in the past ten years was 155 million in 2001.
As the opening of this year’s Oscar-winning film The Artist proves, sharing the experience with an audience can be magical, even in black and white.
Many cinema chains are currently phasing out traditional projectionists in the biggest shake-up since colour. I’ve been amazed at how good the crystal-clear digital picture quality can now be; recent movies I’ve seen shown the old-fashioned way have seemed blurry and prone to flickering by comparison.
As cruel as this change has been on some loyal projectionists, this is one example of how technological change will see customers benefitting in the long run – if we didn’t have progress, we’d all still be at risk of old-style flammable prints setting fire to the whole cinema.
The Birmingham-born 19th century inventor of plastic, Alexander Parkes, paved the way for the American invention of celluloid, and anyone now living in the city has access to 50,000 cinema seats within an hour’s drive.
Many are in modern multiplexes designed to offer the perfect view, though only Cineworld Broad Street has ‘near-dark’ auditoriums thanks to all-black seats, walls and ceilings with tiny twinkle lights.
Since there has to be more to going to the cinema than just watching the films, I took Birmingham-based industry expert Michael Mclean on a whistlestop tour to gauge his foyer reaction.
Michael, who spent ten years as a manager at the Odeon New Street, wondered how the Empire Sutton Coldfield manages to stay open as we approached the four-screen picture house originally built in 1936.
Working in the shadow of the 13-screen Empire Great Park multiplex in Rubery, the Empire Sutton Coldfield has an enthusiastic young manager in Tristan Murtagh.
“We broke our record on Valentine’s Day and have been doing 300 admits just for our 11am Wednesday presentations like The Help and My Week With Marilyn,” says Tristan. “We have a small team here so everyone knows each other.”
Michael, now a freelance consultant, says: “Two things stood out here. The friendliness of the staff and a chart offering price comparisons with the multiplexes.
“I wondered how the cinema stays open and the answer is that it’s family friendly and knows its audience.
“It could be a model for other suburban cinemas to open up, such as the recently fire-damaged Kingsway Cinema turned bingo hall in Kings Heath.”
New Street Odeon has turned its box office into a coffee bar, so most customers end up joining the concessions’ queues where you can be bamboozled by the variations in ticket prices on top of the ‘combo’ food offers.
But, on a very busy morning, there were plenty of staff manning the tills and, as with other cinemas, there are self-service ticket machines, too.
The Odeon has a pioneering, highly visible, CCTV monitoring system in the foyer to ensure good behaviour everywhere.
It is the city’s most central cinema but impossible to park nearby without paying top prices.
Showcases and Empires have free parking, with Cineworld Broad Street and AMC Broadway Plaza allowing users of their nearest multi-storey car park to validate their parking ticket within a set time limit.
The 12-screen Broadway Plaza’s popcorn prices are clearly displayed and you can’t miss other ‘free refill’ signs if you ‘go large’.
Like AMC, Cineworld Broad Street has also kept a dedicated box office.
Concessions are sold from two points downstairs and there’s a third sales point upstairs and a proper bar with a splendid view of Broad Street.
Cineworld’s Screen 12 has the most leg room of any multiplex screen in the city and the chain’s £14.99 Unlimited card (monthly subscription for a year) offers regular cinema-goers unbeatable value.
Its new MyCineworld free to join online club offers ten per cent off ticket prices and access to booking history. It’s also the first chain to drop all booking fees.
In Scotland, the company is pioneering IMAX screens and D-Box seats which move with the action and they could be coming to Birmingham soon.
Showcase Cinemas in Erdington, Coventry, Walsall and Dudley are still the places to go if you want to sit in a rocking chair, albeit ones with little lower back support.
On July 20, 2000, actors George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and their Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen opened Warner’s vast 30-screen Star City cinema multiplex in Nechells, which includes three ‘Gold Class’ screens with electronically-operated chairs.
Now a Vue Cinema, staff happily demonstrated their different sizes of popcorn when asked and used the tills to explain their prices.
The city’s leading independent cinema is The Electric on Station Street.
Opened in December 1909, Britain’s oldest working cinema has one screen at ground floor level and one upstairs.
Expect an old-fashioned welcome, stub tickets from the ancient box office and a range of drinks you won’t find at any other cinema, including Parisian absinthe using a traditional fountain.
They’ve even got sofas in their screens, too – £12.80 per person for the sofas (minimum two people, no concessions) compared with the standard seat price of £7. Disabled access is possible but not easy on the ground floor and would be near-impossible upstairs.
Finally, there’s the Giant Screen Cinema at Millennium Point. No longer an IMAX cinema, it has new seats, projector and sound system to boot. Any modern film can now be screened at the highest quality possible.
Tickets here are £9.60 (3D short film); £10.60 (3D feature) and £10 (2D) for adults, or £7.60, £8.60, £8 for children – but keep checking the website’s ‘Promotions’ tab for special offers!
Summing up our day out, Michael says: “The thing which struck me about our visits was the customer experience every time.
“At all of the cinemas where I was made to feel welcome by staff willing to engage me, I would want to go back.
“At one cinema we handed in a hat at the ticket gate where the member of staff didn’t appreciate us for it. Why?
“Every business needs those kind of skills today in order to retain its customers – and that includes cinemas.”
The price maze
Cinemas also now offer a complex range of food/ drink combo deals aimed at adults and children.
Different prices can apply for peak and matinee and/or off-peak tickets, quality of seats (some cinemas), 2D or 3D films and whether you require 3D glasses (once bought you can keep for next time).
Look out for Orange Wednesday offers and Bargain Tuesdays.
Other offers include a 25 per cent discount for Odeon Premiere Club members on Film Fan Tuesday.
At the Empire Sutton Coldfield, mum Ann Wilson was taking her two daughters to see an animation for a treat.
While eight-year-old Lauren had eyes for her popcorn, Ann admitted that buying treats like that were all part of the expectation and experience.
“It’s a day out instead of sitting in front of the television.
“The prices here aren’t too bad – the multiplexes are worse.
“Food is all part of the event for the girls. And part of the drawback for me!”
One of the most bizarre aspects of cinema-going today is that if you fancy a bottle of water, most cinemas are now selling the stuff in 750ml bottles – almost enough to fill a bath! – with prices ranging from £2.20 at Empire Sutton Coldfield to £2.85 at AMC.
Michael says: “The fact is that ticket prices do not keep cinemas open and could actually cost double if they didn’t make money on the concessions.
“There are some good combo deals to be had but some cinemas could be clearer about how much they are charging and for what.”
Odeon: £4, £4.50, £4.95
Empire: £3.60, £4.10, £4.40
Vue: £4.55, £5.05, £5.30
Showcase: £3.80, £4.15, £4.70
Cineworld: £3.85, £4.30, £4.70
AMC: £3.30, £3.65, £4.25
Odeon: £2.75, £3.25, £3.50
Empire: £2.60, £2.95, £3.30
Vue: £2.95, £3.30, £3.50
Showcase: £2.65, £2.90, £3.30
Cineworld: £2.80, £3.20, £3.50
AMC: £2.70, £3.15, £3.75 (free refill for large)
ADMISSION ADULTS (peak/off-peak)
Odeon: £5.50 / £4.50
Empire: £5.50 / £4.50
Vue: £8.20 / £7.05 / £5.80
Showcase: £7.40 / £5.80
Cineworld: £6.85 / £5.10 (Unlimited tickets: £14.99 per month).
AMC: £6.75 / £5 (£3.75 all shows before midday)
ADMISSION CHILDREN (peak/off-peak)
Odeon: £5 / £3.95 under 12s; £5.20 / £4.15 teens
Empire: £4.25 / £4.25 (age 2-14)
Vue: £5.30 / £4.60 / £3.85
Odeon: £2 adult; £1.60 children and teens (glasses £1)
Empire: £1.50 adults and children (glasses £1)
Vue: £2.25 adult; £1.70 children (inc glasses)
Showcase: £2 adults and children (inc glasses)
Cineworld: £2.10 adults / £1.50 children and Unlimited customers, (glasses 80p)
AMC: £1.75 adults / £1.50 children (glasses £1)
Empire: Free if booked online