Cinema giants muscle in on cities

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The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD HAS become the battleground for multiplex cinema owners. The city now boasts 53 screens - roughly one for every 10,000 people, and more per head of its 550,000 population than any other British city.

And it doesn't stop there: a further 24 screens are likely to open over the next two years as the big operators struggle for domination.

Sheffield is typical of the revival in cinema-going nationwide. Multiplex owners are battling to open screens as quickly as possible in the belief that the British cinema-going market could double before it reaches saturation point.

Until now, rival cinema owners did not open multiplexes in the same town, but in Sheffield, Virgin is planning a head-to-head fight for filmgoers with Warner, which already runs a multiplex there.

Similar confrontations are expected in cities across Britain. The number of screens in the UK is forecast to increase to 2,900 by 1999 - up nearly 700 from 1996.

Virgin, currently in "aggressive expansion mode", expects to open eight complexes next year alone; Warner intends to build around 30 by 2001 and American newcomer Cinemark has just announced plans for 30 UK multiplexes.

It's a remarkable turnaround for the cinema industry - and for Sheffield, where the once-thriving film-going culture was reduced to a solitary city- centre Odeon in the mid-Eighties. Sitting in a draughty, grubby auditorium on hard seats and with poor sound was something potential audiences decided they could swap for the greater comfort of relaxing at home watching a video.

By 1984 UK admissions had dropped to an all-time low of 54m, from a peak of 1,640m in 1946. The arrival of American-style multiplexes - new cinemas with five or more screens that show blockbuster films - was instrumental in creating new audiences for an industry in its death throes.

According to Karsten Grummit of Dodona Research, the American operators woke up the industry to the necessity of new investment. When cinema- goers returned to watch the "must-see" movies of the day, they entered an environment far removed from the "flea pits" of the old days. Not only did the experience encourage them to come back for more, but they were also shown multitudes of trailers for the forthcoming films.

Multiplexes offered a wide choice, were attractive to the young and had cheap operating costs because they cut back on staff overheads. The first two opened in 1985 at Salford Quays and Milton Keynes, and between 1987 and 1991, 500 new screens were built.

After the recession, a second wave of building kicked off in 1996. The old Odeon in Sheffield was replaced first with a two-screen cinema and then a nine-screen complex. Later the multiplexes moved out to Sheffield's satellite shopping centres; a 10-screen UCI multiplex was built at Crystal Peaks and Warner Village Cinemas opened an 11-screen complex at Meadowhall.

Mirroring the recent shift back to city-centre developments, Warner is due to open a 14-screen cinema in The Setts, Sheffield's renovated market, in 2000. Another city-centre multiplex has been incorporated into plans for a lottery-aided leisure and retail area.

Ms Grummit suggests that the big operators are now "seeking to distinguish themselves as brands". Virgin has upped the stakes in Sheffield with the recent completion of a 20-screen "megaplex" near Meadowhall, which will mean direct competition for the first time between two multiplexes.

Warner executives are critical of the Virgin policy of using branding to win audiences. Ralph Ludermann, PR manager, believes it could split the audience. "If new operators build too close to one another there is a danger that neither can be profitable," he said.

"We are now concentrating on secondary markets outside of the major conurbations and thinking about introducing an upmarket 'champagne and sushi' division."

Meanwhile, most independent cinemas have benefited from the increase in overall audiences. Independent chains, such as Picture House, have grown steadily over the past 10 years. "There is a second trend toward building small cinemas for a more upscale market, catering for people who find the multiplex experience resembles a trip to a supermarket," said Mr Ludermann.

Lyn Goleby, co-founder of the Picture House chain, said its aim was to target and develop loyalty in a more sophisticated "boutique" market. This week it opens the Curzon West End in Shaftesbury Avenue.

"The cinemas have been repositioned upmarket through creating a stylish Nineties environment, better seating and sight lines, and programming that our audiences can trust. People will travel quite a long way to go to our cinemas," said Ms Goleby.