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Cinema's cultural revolution

Marketing: a leading chain is screening Indian films in its box- office battle against the out-of-town multiplexes
INDIAN FILMS are being used by the MGM / Cannon chain as an opportunity to increase its cinema audiences, in a defensive strategy against the threat of out-of-town multiplex centres. The group has also launched a price-cutting war that has upset the rival Odeon chain.

Although specialist Indian cinemas were common in big English cities in the early 1970s, they were driven to the wall by the video craze. But mainstream cinema attendance has doubled in the last 10 years, as audiences have been attracted to wider screens and earlier release dates. And those attractions are making the Indian film market in Britain viable once again.

A successful three-month experiment by MGM / Cannon at one of its two Leicester cinemas is to be extended to two other cities. Details will be announced later this month.

MGM / Cannon admits that it was responding to requests from Indian filmgoers, and industry observers believe the chains should have taken the initiative earlier. The Indian film industry produces more films than Hollywood, and has a strong following among British people of Indian origin.

"There is a big demand from Indians to see films in their own languages," says Russ Bryan, a spokesman for Mintel, which reported recently on trends in the cinema industry.

Until now, the big chains have rented out cinemas to Indian societies for screenings at non-peak times. While these have often been packed, the arrangements are seldom convenient. Neermal Suri, publisher of Movie magazine, which is aimed at the Indian market, says there is a huge untapped demand.

"If the films were shown at peak time, the audiences would be better," Mr Suri says. "Who wants to go out at eleven at night or three in the morning? And the prices should be more reasonable. At the moment, tickets can cost as much as £10 or £15, which means that for a family of six it may be £60 for an evening out."

Barry Keward, operations director at the Odeon group, says Odeon has rented out screens to Indian promoters instead of putting on Indian films itself, because it concentrates on seven-day programmes and does not have "expertise in the ethnic market".

This approach has left the way open for a resurgence of independent Indian cinemas. Birmingham's Piccadilly Cinema, in the mostly Asian Spark Hill area, has recently reopened. A spokesman for the Piccadilly says it wants to show Indian and mainstream films but is unable to put on new mainstream releases because of restrictive distribution deals for the big American and European films - a view endorsed by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission last year.

Mintel's report pointed out that the growth of multiplex cinemas, usually sited out of town with up to 10 screens, formed a growing threat to existing cinemas, and would force independent screens to concentrate on niche markets, such as foreign and arthouse films.

But many of the multiplexes are now showing films that would once never have reached the commercial cinemas outside London, creating worries about the viability of many existing arthouses.

Now even the arts centres are looking to multi-screen development. Brixton City Challenge is currently converting a disused cinema into Europe's first five-screen arthouse.

The multiplexes are also forcing down admission prices, although West End prices are still more than double those elsewhere in the country. MGM / Cannon has established a Take Two cinema in Hull, where older films are shown at a much reduced price, and this may be copied in other cinemas if it proves successful.

The pricing policy of MGM / Cannon is criticised by Odeon. "MGM is going in for a price war," says Dean Morton, business development executive at Odeon. "They tend to drop prices towards the `dollar house' to generate a volume audience and attract people that don't normally attend." Now Odeon, too, is discounting prices, particularly for non-peak performances.

"We are not so much trying to react to multiplex cinemas, we are part of the trend ourselves," Mr Morton says. "Multiplexes offer convenience, parking, accessibility, different landscapes, and in certain locations they are an attractive option. We have often created five or six screens from a single screen.

"MGM has not been able generally to split into as many screens, and is more vulnerable to multiplexes."