The force is with British cinemas.
If the new Star Wars film turns out to be the mega-hit critics expect, the number of people going to the movies each year will reach its highest level for more than a decade.
There have been almost 140m visits to cinemas so far this year, but when the November and December figures are published admissions could reach the highest level since 2002, when there were 175.9m visits. That record, reached in the year the second movies of the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings franchises were released, is actually an outlier, with the previous high set in 1971, when the world’s top-grossing film was Fiddler on the Roof.
“There is an enthusiasm and optimism that has not been around for a few years,” said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association. “Clearly some of that is dependent on a very strong slate [of films] this year, with Star Wars still to come, but we are also seeing a change in the quality and range of cinemas. We are in a period of unprecedented investments in terms of refurbishment and expansion.”
The cinema industry has gone through some dramatic ups and downs in the UK. After the first one opened in 1896, admission numbers reached a peak of 1.64bn in 1946. However, filmgoing then fell into steep decline. In 1984, there were just 54m visits, which remains the all-time low.
Since then, film studios and cinema operators have together fought back by increasing the range and quality of films and screens.
But just as the rise of television damaged cinemas in the 20th century, new technology including DVDs, high-definition televisions and online streaming services have posed a threat in the 21st century.
Last year, cinema admissions fell 5% to the lowest level in eight years, prompting concerns about whether cinema was falling into a terminal decline. However, a string of hits this year – notably Jurassic World and Spectre – have confirmed that cinemas in Britain are enjoying a 21st-century revival.
“The death of cinema has been foretold on many occasions – our aim has always to be make sure the experience is one or two steps ahead of the home,” Clapp said.
Although the number of cinemas is steadily falling, the number of screens is rising as multiplex chains Vue, Odeon and Cineworld, the biggest chains in Europe, dominate the market. There were 743 cinemas with 3,947 screens in the UK at the end of last year.
Britain has also witnessed the growth of upmarket arthouse cinema chains, such as the Everyman and Curzon, where viewers can enjoy champagne, reclining leather chairs and even a meal with a film. This has led to the average annual spending on cinemas rising from £12.46 per person in 2003 to £17.60 last year.
Tim Richards, the chief executive of Vue, which has 209 sites and 1,859 screens across Europe, said it was important to distinguish cinemas from watching a film at home but also from other forms of entertainment a family could go out to enjoy.
“We see our rivals as other forms of out-of-home entertainment. We need to be seen as very, very good value for money,” he said. “When you consider the cost of going to Legoland or London Zoo, where you will last about three hours at most, we are a fraction of the prices.”
Richards said this year’s rise in admission numbers confirmed the underlying strength of the industry after a disappointing 2014.
“This is a really good year, possibly a great year. But 2014 was the outlier, 2015 is more business as usual. 2014 was a year that the studios did not get right. This year there have been some big hits and some surprises – Jurassic World was the big surprise.
“What we are seeing is confirmation that the industry is in a very, very healthy state.”
However, as Richards suggests, cinemas remain heavily reliant on the quality of films coming out of Hollywood. With Jurassic World, James Bond and Star Wars films launching this year, could 2015 prove to be a peak in the cinema revival?
“I don’t look at this year as a peak,” Richards said. “If you look at the commitment that studios have made to film production, it is unprecedented. Studios have slated films to 2021 that are named and financed. That shows the confidence in films and cinemas globally.”
However, cinemas are also looking at ways to reduce their reliance on the studios. Vue held its first concert in a cinema in 2005, with the Queen guitarist Brian May. Two years later it screened a live transmission of a Genesis concert.
“We intentionally call ourselves Vue Entertainment and not Vue Cinemas for exactly that reason,” Richards said. “We have assets in extraordinary locations.”
It is understood that Justin King, the head of portfolio businesses at Terra Firma, which owns Odeon, wants to look at initiatives that can boost visitor numbers outside major film releases. The former chief executive of Sainsbury’s is renowned for his insight into consumer habits and could shake up the industry.
One vital line of attack for cinemas is improving their technology so audiences enjoy films in a way that would be impossible at home. This includes installing new sound systems, ultra-high-definition 4K screens and 3D screens.
Imax, which shows films on large screens, enjoyed its best ever weekend of sales when Spectre opened and it is opening 130 new screens this year around the world. At present Imax has 40 screens in the UK.
Andrew Cripps, the president of Imax in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, said: “It’s an exciting time for us. Cinema has evolved and got better, that is where Imax comes in.”
Although Imax is at the forefront of technological development, Cripps believes it is old-fashioned values that will continue to bring people to the big screen.
“Comedies are funnier when there are 300 people laughing together,” he said. “Cinemas have been around for 100 years and will be around for another 100 years.”
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