Cinemas aren’t dead, but we need to overhaul the anonymous multiplex design
Multiplex cinemas need more than new seats to reengage cinema audiences.
Most of these mammoth properties have stood largely unoccupied since the last lockdown – a time during which subscribers to the major streaming services have swelled within the UK to over 32 million.
Cinemas, however, have an opportunity, not to mention the motivation, to breathe new life into the industry. It offers a unique shared experience, with sound and visual quality which streaming just can’t match, not to mention its deep emotional connection and physical space. However, it will take more than Vue’s planned reinvestment in more reclining seats to encourage audiences back en masse post-pandemic.
Over the past year, we’ve seen major tentpole movie releases pushed back. We’ve seen many chains agree to shortened release windows meaning that access on streaming services may in some cases be immediate. And even at reopening, many UK cinemas will be operating at dramatically reduced capacities.
The place to start is the very thing which has always differentiated cinemas from TV screens – the experience. Even before the pandemic, audiences were preferring smaller, more intimate and unique offerings to “big box” multiplexes where the building itself is relatively anonymous. Factoring in even a 20 minute drive time to a cinema means that operators may have to work even harder to get bums back on seats. However, even audiences recognise that watching a streamed new release from their sofa just doesn’t have the impact of a big screen viewing.
What’s required is a reason to make that trip, beyond just the film. It’s the shared element which stands out – but what if you were making that trip to a standout location too? It works for the notable drive-in cinemas, with beloved favourites screening in front of dramatic castles and backdrops. What if that drama can be replicated at the local cinema too?
This is why it’s the interior of the cinemas which needs rethinking – but looking further than extra legroom. Sitting next to strangers in long rows does not build a sense of cohesion. Think about turning a cinema into a theatre: the full height of a cinema space can be embraced to create a transformative experience of the big screen. Viewers can sit in separate balconies, rather than anonymised rows. Each platform can be configured differently and instead of piling everyone in through one or two doors, the audience can enter at the rear for each “pod” of seats.
Audiences can also sit closer to the screen to really immerse themselves in the film, feeling the maximum benefit from the screen and sound quality which isn’t available on demand. It turns going to see a movie into an event, once more.
If they can adapt, cinemas won’t die. But they are struggling, and the major players have to acknowledge that fresh ideas are needed. Smaller players like Picturehouse and Curzon have done so, and audiences responded to the more intimate, cosy feel. Concepts like this retain the intimate element, but add the scale and scope of a truly large screen.
One way or another, cinema operators need to respond to the changes which have been forced on the industry with innovation which will bring audiences back into their beloved space, with added trust. The multiplex as it stands is not fit to meet the needs of a modern audience. The industry is on the cusp of a sea-change in viewing habits and understanding the motivations of modern viewers is integral to survival.