James Moore: Maybe the competition authorities should look at the magic of cinema

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The Independent Online

Outlook In the 1930s, the last time the economy saw such a sustained period of awfulness, there was at least the cinema for a bit of escapism. Hollywood was in its golden age, churning out classic after classic, seemingly at will. And while conservatives with a nostalgia fixation need to realise that the notion of the "good old days" is a myth (look up words like diphtheria, measles and whooping cough) viewing those classics was ridiculously cheap. You probably could see a couple of films and get the bus home for a handful of pennies after a fish supper.

The modern experience is rather different. It sometimes seems as if you'd need to put in a quick call to a payday lender ahead of a family trip to the local Cineworld. Just a single ticket to see, for example, Life of Pi on a Friday night will set you back just under £12. And that's in Ilford. That ticket will top £15 in the West End. Before, of course, any snacks or drinks, the price of which tends to cause dizzy spells among finance professionals, who start mumbling about "unbelievable margins" when they see the mark-ups on bags of popcorn.

Yet Cineworld gets away with this in an era when there are any number of alternative leisure activities competing for the diminishing number of pounds in the consumer's pockets. Not to mention the fact that films can be viewed on DVD or downloaded cheaply a matter of months after a picture's cinema run is over, with streaming following shortly after from the likes of Lovefilm or Netflix.

Today's Cineworld trading statement did actually show a small fall in the number of people walking through its doors, down 1.1 per cent. But that's a highly creditable performance given that last year boasted an unprecedented number of big events, tailor-made to keep people at home in front of the TV: the Olympics, the Paralympics, the European Football Championships, the Diamond Jubilee.

Crowds still queued outside Cineworld's outlets, even though they knew that they would probably have to put up with fellow patrons using their mobile phones during the screening.

Employing ushers to prevent this means less margin for Cineworld, which incredibly managed to push through ticket-price rises of 5 per cent, well above the rate of inflation. And punters spent more of that on food too.

Maybe modern movies are a lot better than cinema critics – whose "best ever" lists are typically dominated by vintage offerings – would have you believe.

The magic of cinema? There's certainly something magical about Cineworld's ability to defy gravity in the current climate. Unless it isn't really all that magical at all and the competition authorities need to take a look? Just a thought.