Screen tested: A rough guide to the UK's cinemas

Britons have been going out to watch films in record numbers. But, says a new report, not all of them have been enjoying it. Jerome Taylor identifies some of the best and worst venues
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The Independent Online

British filmgoers flocked to cinemas in greater numbers this summer than at any time in the past 40 years. Box offices sold more than 50.8million tickets between June and August, helped by the poor weather and a slew of eagerly-awaited Hollywood blockbusters.

But the average cinema visitor, it seems, is not a happy person. Maybe it is something to do with those infuriating voice-recognition booking lines which have difficulty differentiating between Pirates Of The Caribbean and Ratatouille. Or perhaps it is the extortionate prices we are expected to pay for popcorn and fizzy drinks. Either way, a poll by the consumer magazine Which? has confirmed that, for many punters, the average trip to the flicks is anything but a Cinema Paradiso.

During the summer, Which? sent its inspectors to 25 picture palaces around the country while questioning more than 860 members of the Consumers' Association about their silver screen experiences in an online poll. The findings make uncomfortable reading, particularly for the major cinema chains which now dominate the industry and scored particularly poorly.

The quality of food and drinks sold at cinemas scored the lowest satisfaction rating of any aspect of the movie-going experience, with just 7 per cent of respondents saying they were "very satisfied" with it. Which? inspectors found food that was "packed with salt, fat and sugar" and "incredibly expensive".

"People's experiences of going to the cinema is Britain is a very mixed bag," said Nick Cheek, the magazine's assistant editor. "The quality of the picture and sound is generally very good, and that is what cinemagoers say is most important to them. After that comes comfort and condition of the auditorium, and then the location of a cinema. The large chains tend to fall down over their auditoria, whereas arthouse and independent cinemas are much better in this area."

The report paints a particularly grim picture of the state of many of the large chain cinemas and says finding a comfortable interior is a lottery. It adds: "Some cinema foyers were welcoming with an enticing bar or café. Others were bleak, gloomy queuing halls reverberating with noisy soundtracks. We found auditoria awash with popcorn and so sticky with spilled drink that our shoes stuck to the floor."

About three in 10 Which? respondents said sound and picture quality was the factor which most affected their enjoyment of a trip to the movies. Many complained of sound systems which were turned up too loud, particularly during trailers and adverts. Ticket prices also varied widely. Small, independent cinemas charge as little as £3.50 for a peak-time adult ticket, while the major London chains charge anything up to £12.50 to see the same film.

Although some independents were criticised for providing poor access for the disabled, Which? researchers found that customers expressed "a clear preference" to visit – where possible – picture houses which were not owned by the three major chains, Odeon, Vue and Cineworld.

Dissatisfaction with the major players will undoubtedly feed into the independent sector. Britain has the largest number screens in Europe (3,500) and cinema visits are rising year-on-year. During the first half of 2007, between 10 million and 15 million tickets were sold every month, and a third of those questioned said they had recently visited an independent or arthouse cinema.

Jo Wingate, head of marketing at The Showroom in Sheffield – one of the country's largest independent cinemas – believes that where the independent operators beat the main chains hands-down is in their ability to adapt more readily to the local community's needs.

"We can respond to what our customers want much more easily," she says. "We recently started screenings for families who have autistic children, for instance. Only an independent cinema would be able to come up with such an idea."

So, unless the large chains sit up and take note, there might not be any drink-spilling customers left to ruin their floors.

National Photography Museum

Bradford

When it first opened in 1983, the National Photography Museum brought the first Imax to Britain. Entrance to the museum is still free and current cinema showings range from child-friendly half-term 3D extravaganzas to French arthouse.

Cameo Picturehouse

Edinburgh

When inspectors visited the Picturehouse-owned Cameo in Edinburgh over the summer holidays they found it had one of the best ranges on offer with three screens showing six films in any one day.

ICA

London

Currently showing (among other things) a French film about five gay ghosts stuck in a "disco time warp" and a Japanese adult anime cartoon featuring a vengeful Christian minister, the ICA is the place to go for the eclectic.

Duke of York's

Brighton

Built on the site of a brewery in 1910, the Duke of York's picture house is the oldest continuously operated cinema in Britain. Now owned by independent group Picturehouse, highlights include a balcony that can be booked for private parties.

Vue Cinemas

Although most large chain cinemas use "voice recognition systems" to take bookings, Vue cinemas were singled out by Which? inspectors for having the worst phone lines that often added £1 to the overall ticket price.

Odeon

Birmingham New Street

Which? inspectors described their visit as "dispiriting". The foyer, auditorium and WCs "were cramped and shabby".

The Screen Room

Nottingham

Following the closure of the famous La Charette in Wales earlier this month, Nottingham's the Screen Room is now the smallest cinema in the country with just 21 seats.

BFI

London

Following its amalgamation with the NFT earlier this year, the BFI is a now the mecca for independent, classic and foreign language films. Currently hosting the 51st London Film Festival, it has the largest film archive in the world.

Star City

Birmingham

Featuring the UK's largest cinema complex with 30 screens, Birmingham's Star City wouldn't look amiss in the Nevada desert. Huge number of films, though, and great for the latest Bollywood hits.

Odeon Leicester Square

London

Film buffs heading to the Odeon's flagship cinema in Leicester Square, where many UK premieres take place, have to pay the highest ticket prices in the country, at £12.50 per adult.

City Cinema

Newport

Owned by the independent company Reel Cinemas, inspectors from Which? found the cheapest ticket on sale at Newport's City Cinema, with adult peak tickets costing as little as £3.50.

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