Dear Cinema Owners:
Over the last weekend I went to see two very different films in two very different cinemas. Both the type of films and the cinemas they were shown in attracted a completely different kind of crowd and yet the experience on both cinemas was appalling. This was the last drop of fuel in a fire that started when I first saw the Odeon's commercial for their Lounge Cinema and brought me to write this open plea to the powers that be of cinema exhibitors.
I used to have a dream to open my own cinema, where people will have to deposit their phones into a secure place before going into the screen to watch a film, where staff members enjoy working in because they care about films and not only will they keep an eye for interruptions during the films, but will also encourage the audience to cheer, clap or sing along with any film that made you want to do it. A cinema in which watching a film would be different.
Working at a cinema as a staff member and later a manager was a bit like a slap on the face which woke me up to the harsh reality of not just opening cinema, but trying to keep it alive. Even if I did ever manage to get my hands on the huge fortune that getting a premise would require, I would still have to fight an already losing battle against the distribution companies, who are, let’s face it, the bullies of the film industry.
The sad truth of cinema theatres nowadays, yes even the evil corporate chain ones, is that for a long time films are not what makes money for them and with the number of cinema goers constantly dropping, it is no wonder that cinemas are finding it hard to stay open, let along invest in the film experience.
I wrote before that unfortunately the government and/or the bodies who fund the UK film industry give very little if any thought for the exhibitors' side of the industry and it is up to them to come up with ways to make enough money to stay in the business. This is why the prices of snacks in cinemas is so ridiculous and why they keep trying to come up with new and “exciting” ways, one of the recent ones is the Lounge Cinema, to bring people to the cinema and spend money on more than the film.
Though sober now from silly little dreams and realising that not everything that cinema theatres are often accused of is necessarily their fault, I still can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way cinemas have lost sight of what really matters when it comes to watching a film at the cinema and with that lost their audiences and I believe, their chance to make better profit.
Everything that cinema theatres have come up with to try and keep people coming is either the kind of technology that can and has been transferred into home entertainment: surround sound, digital and HD of all kinds, 3D (peh, we shall speak no more of this evil) and even a big size screen, or, like the Lounge cinema, tries to make you feel at home by convincing you to pay extra money to seat comfortably, eat and drink while watching a film, something I personally have perfected for less money and higher quality at my own home.
Well, dear cinema owners, I have news for you, these are not the things that make the cinema experience unique and special and it may bring the audiences for a short term, but probably won't bring them back. It is the togetherness, the collective laughs, cries, gasps and the ooooohhhhhsss and ahhhhhhhhsss that makes the cinema experience a unique one and one which home entertainment, sophisticated as it may be, can't replicate. Moreover, investing in the audience, rather than the technology, the special chairs and the extra food, will cost less for cinemas.
True, after spending the weekend watching one film in which the woman sat next to me wouldn’t stop chatting like an idiot to her friend, and in another the person on the row in front of me blinded me throughout the film by playing with their phone every other minute, one would be inclined to lose faith and abandon this whole togetherness notion, but to be honest I can’t really point the finger at these people, because if a cinema theatre doesn’t care enough about the film to have someone insuring this kind of things don't happen, or as I have learned recently, to actually have a projectionist projecting the film, why would anybody else show any kind of respect for the film and the cinema it is showing in?
Apart from its magnificently huge screen and quality of projection, what sets the BFI IMAX apart and for me above other cinemas, is the respect it has for the films it shows, good or bad. This is why I and I know many like me, would pay the extra money to watch even a non IMAX film at the BFI IMAX. Unfortunately the BFI IMAX does not offer 2D screenings for 3D films, but I have been known to surrender and compromise on that issue simply because the cinema experience was still worth it, in most cases.
A staff member would come up and present the film before it starts, also asking people to turn off their phones and give safety instructions, often they receive cheers and claps, going to the bathroom in the middle of the film is done through the back door, so as to not cross the screen and interfere with the film, late comers are also admitted through the back door (if it was my cinema there will be no admission at all for late comers) and often the BFI IMAX cinema celebrates films with special screenings and allnighters for which people come dressed up and full of cheers.
In the many times I have been to the BFI IMAX people got involved with the film, cheering, laughing getting excited and not once have I ever been interrupted by the light or sound of a mobile phone or the mindless chatter. It just doesn't happen there, not necessarily because of the size of the screen, because the BFI IMAX puts the cinema experience first. And no matter how bad the film can be (cough, Avatar, cough) or how addicted people can be to their phones, when a cinema shows that kind of respect to the viewing experience the audience is captured and has no choice but to let go of everything else and let the films work their magic (or not. Cough, Avatar, cough. Must do something about this cough).
I may be one naive little girl who has watched Cinema Pardiso one too many times, but I still, despite of everything, love cinemas with all my heart and I think more people should watch more films at the cinema and I want cinema theatres to continue to exist and flourish. Since it is unlikely that I will be able to open my dream cinema all I can do, at least for the time being, is write and plead and perhaps foolishly hope to convince the powers that be of the films' exhibitors that the love of film is infectious and is the key to a successful cinema theatre and before the next chain opens a cinema where you can rent a bed to watch a film from, perhaps someone somewhere will remember how wonderful cinema can be when it's not trying to pretend it's your home.
Faithfully yours, with love