A Response to Cineworld’s Christmas Shopping
The talk of the Twitterati today has been all about Cineworld’s takeover of the Picturehouse chain. In order to explain why this is big news to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with UK cinemas, here’s a basic round-up of people’s perceptions of these two companies.
Cineworld: Home of the multiplex, the UK’s largest chain, popcorn dealers, blockbuster obsessed, full of screaming patrons, illiterate, slightly dank.
Picturehouse: Home of the indies, the UK’s top ‘independent’ cinema chain, full of delicious middle class snacks, piles of Guardian readers, world cinema, cheerful and friendly.
So, it’s kind of obvious why certain people are getting all up in arms about the situation, and part of me thinks it’s reasonable. But another, larger, part of me thinks it’s entirely unfair.
I grew up in Crawley, which is generally considered a horrible town whose only redeeming feature is our MASSIVE cinema, formerly a UGC, but now a Cineworld. So, nostalgically, I check what’s on this week at the Cineworld Crawley and see the following: Skyfall, Twilight, Seven Psychopaths, Silver Linings Playbook, Talaash, Sightseers, Met Opera Live: Un Ballo In Maschera, Gremlins, End of Watch, Rise of the Guardians, Alex Cross, Argo, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Gambit, Great Expectations, Ice Age 4, Khiladi 786, Madagascar 3, Nativity 2, Quarter, So Undercover, The Lorax, The Man with the Iron Fists, The Oranges, Trouble With the Curve and an advance screening of Life of Pi. Holy shit. That’s one cinema. In a town of 100,000 people, which is only famous for an airport and a football team that once played Man Utd.
Undoubtedly, this supports the assertion that Cineworld is ‘the home of the multiplex’, but let’s compare that line-up to what’s showing at Picturehouse’s flagship Ritzy cinema: Seven Psychopaths, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, The Hunt and The Master. Ok, so it’s a shame that Cineworld isn’t showing The Hunt or The Master, but, other than that, there’s a lot of scheduling crossover. In fact, if I had a family I’d much prefer the line-up at the Cineworld. And for all their talk of being the bastion of world cinema, it’s interesting that Cineworld is the only chain that regularly shows Hindi movies. Is it cultural snobbery to assume that something in Danish is of more artistic worth than something from Bollywood?
As a point of comparison, let’s say I want to watch Skyfall tonight. If I go to the 20:40 showing at the Cineworld Fulham Road it’ll cost me £10.26 (if I forgo my student discount), whereas the 21:00 showing at the Ritzy will set me back £12.10 (again forgoing the student discount that I work so hard for). So this isn’t a cost issue- although it perhaps indicates that the people who see movies at Picturehouse cinemas are less concerned about price than other audiences.
So why is it that Mark Kermode has tweeted ‘if Cineworld are genuinely in the market of ‘learning from’ Picturehouse, then there’s a LOT to learn…’? Or Nigel Floyd saying ‘last two cinemas visited: Cineworld Shaftesbury Ave (a stinking pit) and Brixton Ritzy (classy art house)’? And why did Ultraculture post an ironic message on their website, comparing the Cineworld takeover of Picturehouse to an acquisition by News International?
Well, welcome to the world of preened film critics who very rarely attend public screenings, unless they’re getting wined, dined and schmoozed, events which, more often than not, happen at places like the Ritzy. Nigel Floyd calls the Cineworld in the Trocadero ‘a stinking pit’ but, as someone who has, undoubtedly, been there more times than Nigel Floyd, I would refute that. That cinema is unusual, yes, and often it’s poorly organised, but for a West End cinema it’s very cheap and shows a range of movies that appeal to people who probably wouldn’t want to pay £15 for the pleasure of seeing Amour or The Hunt. Referring to it as ‘a stinking pit’ is as patronising a way of looking at cinema-going patrons as is possible. But, of course, these guys don’t really care, because their readers all go to Picturehouse cinemas anyway…
Which brings me to my final point. Yes, Cineworld cinemas are not perfect. They are not brilliantly organised, not well ushered and sell ridiculous confectionary at equally ridiculous prices. But making them out to be the villains of this transaction is incredibly unfair. They have already shown a willingness to expand into world cinema and live cultural events, so what is there to suggest that there will be any iconoclasm of the Picturehouse brand? If my old cinema in Crawley is showing, in one week, a Dickens adaptation, Met Opera live, several Oscar contenders, a cult film screening and a bunch of different family films, then they’re doing something right. Once again, the Londoncentric film establishment are speaking out against a move that will barely affect them, and are condemning a company that provides a large amount of the UK’s cinema going audience with precisely the sort of experience they want, precisely the sort of films they want to see, and at something closer to the price that they want to pay.
So who cares if they’ve bought Picturehouse? If they do learn from them then all the better, and, if they don’t, then we’ll continue to enjoy the cinema experience that we have, and film critics can continue to enjoy press screenings.