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Cinemas & Cinemagoing: More Screens, More Choice by Allen Eyles


AMC, The Point, Milton Keynes, 1985

AMC, The Point, Milton Keynes, 1985

By the 1960s, many cinemas in city centres were principally engaged in 'road show' or 'hard ticket' engagements. Other big attractions, such as the James Bond films, were more suited to a quicker play-off before audience interest declined.

There was little need for the large seating capacities of the leading cinemas. Many, like the Empire Leicester Square, were replaced by a smaller cinema as part of a redevelopment scheme. Substantial sums were invested to reconstruct the interior of other cinemas to create two auditoria with a bland contemporary d├ęcor, one above the other, beginning with the Odeon Nottingham in 1965.

In the early 1970s the circuit cinemas in the smaller towns and suburbs began to be subdivided into three-screen 'film centres'. Many Odeons were inexpensively converted into 'triples', without closing, by blocking off the rear stalls and subdividing the space into two small cinemas while continuing to use the balcony and existing screen as the main auditorium. These conversions sometimes provided poor sightlines and tiny screens downstairs and had problems with sound penetration. Many ABC cinemas closed for more substantial conversion into three auditoria, all with new screens, to create greater capacities. There was a gradual move to separate performances instead of continuous ones and to the elimination of smoking.

AMC, The Point, Milton Keynes, 1985 (one of ten auditoria)

AMC, The Point, Milton Keynes, 1985 (one of ten auditoria)

The subdivisions enabled hit films to continue playing for many weeks in the smaller auditoria after starting off in the largest cinema and so earn their full potential. Cinemas became increasingly financially dependent on the few major attractions - and the ancillary income they provided from sales of refreshments - and were usually operating at a loss without these big draws.

The 'art house' sector was enhanced by the creation of a chain of Regional Film Theatres from 1967 onwards as a partnership between the British Film Institute and local authorities.

Cinema attendances continued to decline as a result of high ticket prices, further television channels, the arrival of video (enabling the rental of very recent films), and a widespread feeling that cinemagoing was no longer a fashionable activity. In 1984 annual admissions reached a nadir of 54 million, half the figure of just five years previously.

The Multiplex Revolution

In 1985, a leisure centre opened in the new town of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, and included a ten-screen 'multiplex' cinema that was designed and operated by an American company on exactly the same lines as its highly successful movie theatres in the United States, even to banning film advertising and opening on Christmas Day. Attracting more than one million admissions within the first year, its immediate success paved the way for further multiplexes, usually in out-of-town sites close to motorways that allowed plentiful space for surface car parking and offered fast food outlets and other attractions for the key target audience, teenagers. Multiplexes proliferated from 1989 onwards, mainly built by American companies and emphasising Hollywood movies, although in some areas the potential for showing Bollywood pictures has become a major factor.

In most instances, traditional cinemas were unable to compete and their demise contributed to the decline of many city centres. But some three-screen cinemas were further subdivided to provide ad-hoc equivalents of the multiplex. Planning guidelines issued by central government belatedly put a halt to most new out-of-town schemes and forced multiplex operators to build in city centres, often on the upper levels of new shopping malls. This has led to a further reduction in the number of surviving older city centre cinemas, but unquestionably the viewing environment in the modern generation of multiplexes - large screens in large auditoria, state-of-the-art sound systems, stepped seating and generous leg room - has been a great improvement over the carved-up traditional cinemas.

However, the design of most multiplexes has been unadventurous and, externally, many resemble industrial warehouses. As the area used by all patrons, foyers have received the most decorative attention and are frequently enormous. Auditoria have been relatively plain and one circuit has developed the concept of 'the black box' in which there is the least possible distraction from the screen. Attempts to introduce the American development of the 'megaplex' with 24 or more screens have not been successful, and the introduction of 'premier screens', charging higher prices for more luxurious seating, private bars and other extras, has met with mixed results. In some areas, such as Milton Keynes, new multiplexes have arrived to compete with or replace the first generation.

Architects and designers have been able to experiment more freely with new ideas in some of the independent operators' smaller, more specialised developments, including the Picture House Stratford, east London, and the Harbour Lights Southampton.

Whereas multiplexes initially offered a wide choice of mainstream films (most retained for several weeks), a trend from the late 1990s has sharply reduced the range of titles on offer as several prints of major attractions are shown in different auditoria with staggered starting times.

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