Tried & tested: FLEAPIT OR PALACE?

Our panellists screen test six cinema chains to see how the space- age out-of-town multiplex compares with its predecessor

The day of the cineaste appears to have been superseded by the advent of the cinema-goer - people who decide what they're going to see once they've arrived at their multiplex choice.

In the Forties and Fifties, a trip to the cinema was exhilarating because it brought a bit of glamour to humdrum British lives. Nowadays, "going to the pictures" is a Hollywood-style themed experience: a sophisticated drive-in, park-up, hot-dog'n'popcorn distraction.

The arrival of multi-screen cinemas from the States in the mid-Eighties has led to a revival in cinema-going, particularly among the young with those between 15 and 24 accounting for around a third of cinema-goers.

But are the theatres as samey and charmless as many of the films they screen? Our panel investigates.

THE PANEL

The film fans who suffered six nights of entertainment were architectural assistant Luke Tozer, from Bristol, Ruth Eden, who lives in London, and Saul Metzstein, a Glasgow-based film-maker and hot-dog connoisseur.

THE TEST

The testers went to different cinemas in six chains. Although ticket price was more dependent on location than chain, they assessed value for money according to the service - from queuing times and confectionery selection, to comfort, and sound and projection quality.

***WARNER BROS

Luke Tozer, although not overjoyed by the Bristol Warner Bros cinema he visited, was pleased to find a chain that offers multiplex-quality service within town centres. "If there's one company seeming to smarten up cinemas within cities it's this one, it scored highly across the board," he said, despite complaining of too few late-night screenings and some irritatingly small screens.

"Advertising and promotion over-kill," was Ruth Eden's description of the Warner West End in Britain's tourist Mecca, Leicester Square. "What with the banks of television screens to being asked `Would you like popcorn with your regular cola?' to WBFM (Warner Bros radio) piped into the auditorium, I felt I had paid a whopping pounds 7.50 for the pleasure of being bombarded with further opportunities to invest in the Warner Bros cause."

***ODEON

"The best thing about this cinema is that it is situated in the centre of town - the experience feels like a night out rather than a trip to B&Q," said Saul Metzstein of the Glasgow theatre.

Ruth Eden agreed: "No multiplex I've ever visited can compare to the atmosphere and big main screens in older cinemas. Though the smaller, secondary auditoriums certainly leave plenty to be desired." Saul Metzstein suggested he would be happier if they were cheaper than main screens: "They're such a mixed bag, being conversions from larger auditoriums in the strive to accommodate more screens."

Luke Tozer found the Odeon in Bristol reminiscent of a bygone era. "Somehow the latest end-of-summer blockbusters looked as though they had been showing for the last four months. Is mustiness really such a virtue?"

****OASIS CINEMAS

All the testers found this chain, which straddles mainstream and art- house, offered good value for money and pleasing theatres - although unlike the big multiplexes, the fewer screens at the cinemas in this chain (the Cameo in Edinburgh and the Ritzy and Gate in London), meant a limited selection of films. Saul Metzstein said, "The Cameo has a pleasantly relaxed and non-commercial feel about it - a million miles away from multiplex land. Ticket prices are reasonable and there is a good selection of confectionery (though no match to the likes of the Odeon). Cruelly, there are no hot- dogs."

Large and small screens alike had good sound and projection.

**UCI

These cinemas did not falter on the sound and projection quality we've come to expect from multiplexes, but did let the testers down when it came to queuing. Saul Metzstein said of the UCI he visited in an "out- of-town" shopping-centre in Clydebank, near Glasgow: "The confectionery selection is good, but the prices seemed high and the hot-dogs are virtually inedible. Worst though are the queues, which are tediously long and slow - it's as if the people serving don't realise that you are there to see a film, which will start with or without you."

The testers agreed that the auditoriums were hi-tech and comfortable but chose this chain to bring up the subject of location. As Luke Tozer said: "Virtually all out-of-town cinemas rely solely on the car with very limited public transport. Each of these leisure-boxes demands large-scale movement of people - I don't understand why they are not responsible enough, or compelled by planners, to organise proper transport."

**ABC

After taking over the former MGM cinemas, Virgin promptly sold off half of them to ABC. In contrast to the Virgin strategy of modernisation and renewal, ABC appears to have carried on where MGM left off, save for swapping the three-letter logo.

Saul Metzstein said of the ABC he visited: "It's from another era of movie-going, specifically, the mid-Seventies low-attendance, bad-projection, sticky-floors era. The cinema bar looks so dated that it should be preserved for anthropological reasons - in fact, it looks more like a film set of a bar than a bar." Significantly, though, he judged their hot-dogs "splendid".

Ruth Eden found the same retro feel in the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue in London ("all low-slung velveteen seats with ashtray insets in the back"), but commented on the smart new bar which seemed to be an ideal meeting point. Overall, Ruth found it a pleasant experience: "It wasn't the all- singing, all-dancing multiplex but it had a certain real-world feel about it and a pleasant calm which allowed the film to be the entertainment."

But, as with the Odeon, Luke Tozer and Saul Metzstein found the smaller auditoriums unbearable and projection and sound quality largely unimpressive.

***VIRGIN

Ruth Eden visited Virgin's first-ever purpose-built theatre in Medway Valley, Kent, but found it "completely faceless. I felt as though it had been zapped on to this empty site from outer-space." She described it as "a Virgin megastore which just happens to have nine cinema screens out back. It caters for your every need: there's a bar, a merchandising shop, multi-media displays, refreshments galore, touch-sensitive screens for buying tickets and a special luxury auditorium where, for the premium- price pounds 10 ticket, you get extra services including a coat check and private bar. They even seem to have solved the queuing problem with self-service confectionery, freeing staff to concentrate on the tills. Apart from the location," she concluded, "the biggest problem is the film living up to the sensory extravaganza that is the lobby."

Saul Metzstein had a far less exhilarating experience in the Glasgow Virgin converted from an MGM cinema. Although the projection and sound quality were good, he found the interior unpleasant ("altogether the place feels cheap") and said the all-important hot-dog had "a dark-brown exterior, and tasted like the napkin it came in".

He found the staff helpful, though. "At the confectionery counter, they asked me what I was going to see, and looked genuinely sympathetic when I told them Escape from LA." !

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