Yvonne Roberts: Now showing: a story of excess at the cinema

The major chains are on a crusade to pump up England's youth to triple their size

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Once upon a time, on a visit to the films, the usherette wore a big smile, a bright uniform and carried an innocuous tray of Kia-ora orange squash and tubs of ice cream. Now, she's kitted out with night goggles and infrared equipment, the Stasi in the cinema.

Once upon a time, on a visit to the films, the usherette wore a big smile, a bright uniform and carried an innocuous tray of Kia-ora orange squash and tubs of ice cream. Now, she's kitted out with night goggles and infrared equipment, the Stasi in the cinema.

The third in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, in case you didn't know, is now on general release. A warning precedes the film. It informs us, the ticket-buyer (presumably, particularly those in the back row), that no matter how dark the theatre, all will be revealed by the high-tech movie snoopers - especially if we attempt to secretly record the entire 141 minutes for personal pleasure or profit (or simply because we just have to have it first).

The message was reinforced on Tuesday at a local London cinema by two plain-clothes usherettes constantly patrolling the aisles, like a couple of home-grown Dementors (refer to Harry Potter).

Of course, pirate DVDs and videos cost the industry millions. Of course, to make, sell or buy a "stolen" DVD is breaking the law. (Although, in my opinion, the customer suffers enough watching action through what appears to be a curtain of Vaseline-smeared muslin. Or perhaps, that's something peculiar to my supplier.) But still - I'm on the side of the subversives who deliver movies to the ordinary people of this land, at a price they can afford. Almost nobody else does.

A month or so ago, four of us, two adults and two children, made a trip to a cinema in London's West End to watch Eddie Murphy in Haunted House. The first shock was the cost of the tickets, and then came the price and the size of the soft drinks and the obligatory popcorn. The major cinema chains are obviously on their own personal crusade to pump up England's youth to triple their size - and stuff the infant obesity scare.

A "small" coke is sufficient to refresh an American football team for a week - as is the bucket of popcorn, while there's little change from a £10 note. Two hours later, we emerge, having spent almost £40 on what was once regarded as a modest evening out. So who's a greedy boy then?

According to the Cinema Advertising Association, the average price for a ticket is £4.44 but in numerous small towns around the country, local independent cinemas charge less - and still make a decent living. Furthermore, because it doesn't require a visit to the pawnbrokers in order to purchase a seat, audiences often attend as a weekly ritual, regardless of what's on.

Billionaire Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, the cut-price airline, tried to lower cinema ticket prices last year. He opened an easyCinema in Milton Keynes (no jokes, please), with tickets for those who booked online as low as 20p. He too missed the point.

EasyCinema had no night goggles - but it also lacked reasonably priced ice cream, popcorn, and a sense of occasion; and, to be honest, any of the movies that you might want to see, since the distributors were obstructive.

The cinema is enjoying a huge boom - not least because children are taking their parents by the hand and pulling them into the endless sequels to Harry Potter, Stuart Little, Shrek et al. Even if a grown-up is child-free, he or she can still attend on the grounds that if they don't, they won't understand a word of what the rest of the country is discussing. (Having only ever watched two episodes of Friends, I'll vouch for how painful, not to mention frustrating, that can be.)

In the USA, the teens lead the field in moulding what is shown at the movies. Here, thankfully, children and thirty-somethings still hold some sway. (The over-fifties are patronised with a meagre diet of variations on Clint Eastwood, drifting towards 80, falling in love with an "ageing" matron of at least 25.)

In 2003, a 30-year high was reached with almost 180 million cinema attendances. (The movies watched in 1974, the previous record-breaker, were much grimmer. They included The Exorcist and the brutal prison saga, Papillon.) This year, they should rise again with the help of Harry, Hermione, Ron and James - James Bond.

So why is everything so expensive? Why do DVDs range from about £10 to double that when, as everybody rightly grumbles, the equivalent almost anywhere that isn't the UK costs so much less? Why aren't the cinema chains more inventive with their pricing? Why not have family early Saturday evening tickets? Or "buy one, get one free" during half-terms and holidays?

The answer, of course, is that it affects profits. But does it? According to Mr easyJet, only one in five cinema seats is filled. A 20 per cent occupancy rate should tell those in charge that it's time to put the night specs away and pull out the pocket calculators.

Of course, it would also help if the over-bloated economy that is Hollywood would also deflate. Is Julia Roberts really worth $25m a movie? Lower the prices; inject a greater sense of occasion; offer smaller portions at fairer prices (and do away with the soft drink the size of a water tank) and watch the cinemas overflow - even when Harry Potter isn't showing.

Now, that would be magic.

yroberts@dial.pipex.com

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