Bunhill: Back-seat success

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The Independent Online
YOU MUST meet Ben Freedman, I was told the other day. He's the entrepreneur installing snogging seats in his cinema chain. Snogging seats?

Snogging seats, or 'love seats' as they are more delicately known, are double seats with no obstructive arm rest to cramp amorous couples. The innovative Freedman has put them in the back rows of most of his 14 movie houses.

'They're always the first seats to go,' he says. 'They're what the public wants.'

Freedman, a quietly spoken 32-year-old Canadian, is managing director of Robins Cinemas, a small chain he set up three years ago with his father Bill. Celluloid flows in the blood. Great-grandpa ran two Nickelodeons in Toronto in 1915. Grandpa ran a chain of drive-ins.

While the larger and deep- pocketed cinema chains are busy building multi-screen cinemas at pounds 5m a time, Freedman has leased old movie houses in rather quiet towns - Burnham-on-Sea, Burgess Hill and Wantage to name three - and introduced obvious improvements like ventilation and credit-card booking.

Robins also owns arts cinemas in Leeds and Liverpool, and London's infamous Prince Charles, just off Leicester Square.

The Prince Charles was the rather shady cinema where generations of spotty London adolescents snuck in to see films like Emmanuelle and Last Tango in Paris.

Its reputation has changed. It now screens a huge variety of old releases, charging pounds 1.20 for matinees and pounds 1.99 for evenings, compared to a normal West End price of around pounds 7. There are also non-stop Bilko nights, 24 hours of Twin Peaks, ski-ing film evenings and other stunts.

'You try everything,' says Freedman who came to Britain aged two and was educated at Westminster and Corpus Christi, Oxford. 'We show 16 to 18 different films a week and not everything is going to be successful. But you invest for the future.'

After two years of losses, Freedman's imagination and perseverance seem about to pay off. Robins has turned into profit and is close to completing a pounds 925,000 rights issue to pay off debt and finance expansion.

Among the shareholders agreeing to stump up more cash is Sir Trevor Chinn, chairman of Lex Service. Hambro European Ventures is another substantial shareholder, along with Freedman family members and friends.

Freedman is dismissive of the recently launched Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation into film distribution - 'a complete waste of money'.

British cinemas are dominated by the big five - MGM (formerly Cannon), Rank- owned Odeon, UCI, Warner Brothers and National Amusements. But a relatively healthy independent sector still runs 30 per cent of the nation's screens.

'Our business has to survive between the raindrops. In the long term, multiplex cinemas are going to cover two- thirds of the country. But there will still be opportunities in smaller towns.'

Cinema attendance is growing and is projected to reach 106 million bums on seats this year, almost double the 1984 nadir of 54 million.

That suggests a happy fade-out for Freedman, one of whose previous ventures had a touch of the film noir about it. He was forced to close his 2,000-seat art deco cinema in Grays, Essex, in 1988 after learning that two multiplexes were to open on his doorstep.

I can't help feeling he will succeed this time. Anyone with the gall to charge his Prince Charles customers VAT at 20 per cent (rather than the conventional 17.5 per cent) deserves a business oscar, surely.

(Photograph omitted)

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