The Way We Live: Fleapits fight to survive in new age of the cinema

The number of multiplex cinemas has surged from two in 1985 to 79, apparently heralding the death of traditional town-centre cinema. But industry experts say there is still a strong demand for the local - as long as it moves away from its `fleapit' image. Jojo Moyes reports.
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Anyone over the age of 25 can remember a time their local "fleapit" - complete with stroppy ushers, stale popcorn and all-important back row - formed the focus of a Saturday night out.

The news that ABC, one of the town-centre cinema's greatest defenders, was selling more than 20 locals appeared to sound a death-knell for a Great British institution.

The company blamed its decision on local councils for allowing large, out-of-town cinemas to be built - but admitted that proceeds from the sale would be reinvested in its own multiplex developments.

The rise of the multiplex, defined as a new cinema with five or more screens, now seems almost unstoppable. Since its arrival in 1985, massive investment from organisations such as Warner Village, Virgin, UCI and the Australian entertainment giant Village Roadshow has swollen its numbers from 2 to 79 (with 706 screens).

Now industry analysts expect record growth for 1997, with a further 30 multiplex openings, accounting for 293 new screens.

Sheffield, if all planned development goes ahead, will boast 79 cinema screens at just five sites - one screen for every 7,000 inhabitants.

The rise is linked to a surge in cinema audiences, after a long period of decline. Latest figures from the British Film Institute show a 1995 figure of 114 million admissions from 54 million in 1984 (although still a long way from the 1945 figure of 1,595 million).

According to John Wilkinson, chief executive of the Cinemas Exhibitors' Association, the popularity of multiplexes can be explained by a number of factors.

"There are problems at some traditional sites: public transport is so bad and people like to use their car; and, there is a general movement of people away from town centres... some people even stopped going to the `local fleapit' because it wasn't as warm as being at home," he said. But their growth has not been welcomed by everyone. The CPRE, for example, issued a recent report highlighting out-of-town developments which could only be reached by car, including multiplex cinemas. The council said the deliberate disregard of guidelines was "creating a future of traffic jams and suburban sprawl which will cost the countryside dearly".

And according to research conducted by the brand developers Wolff Olins, the key, younger cinema-goers find some multiplexes soulless and clinical places and actually prefer the town centre.

Mr Wilkinson stressed yesterday that there was plenty of room for the local town centre cinema to flourish - as long as it learnt to adapt to customers' requirements.

He pointed to small independents which had flourished by providing the kind of comfort and entertainment that the customer wants. "It's about responding to local demand... There's definitely room for both."

One such example is the Screen group of six independent, town-centre cinemas. It recently opened the Screen At Winchester in a Grade II listed chapel, and plans to continue its "slow and careful" expansion of one and two screen cinemas.

Uk sites and screens

Year Total sites Total screens

1984 660 1,271

1985 663 1,251

1986 660 1,249

1987 648 1,215

1988 699 1,416

1989 719 1,559

1990 737 1,685

1991 724 1,789

1992 735 1,845

1993 723 1,890

1994 734 1,969

1995 743 2,019

Source: Screen Finance