I have been going to the cinema since the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, seeing it seven times in a single month because absolutely everyone from my school decided they were going to see it for their birthday. (Fine with me!) I saw several other films on the Silver Screen around that time which included The Spy Who Loved Me, Warlords of Altantis, Skydivers, Superman and Superman II but I did not set my sights on making the trek to see a film in London’s West End until I went up to see Ridley Scott’s Legend in 1985 at the (Now demolished) Odeon West End one Saturday afternoon. Because I knew the film wasn’t going to be released locally I was able to persuade my mother to let me go (This was shortly followed by trips to see Rocky V and Silverado) The experience of seeing these films on the huge screens in the West End completely blew me away and turned me into a true cinema addict.
(Silverado - the third film I ever saw in a central London cinema and will always remain one of the best cinema experiences of my life)
So what got me to abandon my local cinema in Kingston Upon-Thames and spend extra money on a train to come up to London rather than go to my cheaper local? - Well firstly back then it wasn’t as expensive as you would think. A cheap day return to London from Surbiton then was only a couple of quid and on Monday’s all the West End cinema’s offered a cheap price of almost 50% less than normal. I would walk over Hungerford Bridge and avoid paying for the tube so from door to door I would be at the cinema in less than 90 minutes if I timed it right (Plus there was the added bonus of British Rail not being as shit back then!) Even on a Saturday night the tickets for the Odeon Leicester Square, Warner Brothers Leicester Square (Now VUE) and the Odeon West End (Sadly now demolished) were only £4! Raising only to £5 by the time I was going to Leicester Square and its surrounding cinemas regularly in 1986. So I would go on the weekends to see the big event movies and everything else on a Monday night when it was cheaper. Even though the video boom was at its peak, it couldn’t offer anything close to the experience of seeing a film on the opening night in central London.
Then there was the Cinema’s themselves - Going to see a film at the Empire Screen 1 Leicester Square with its massive comfortable seats resembling something from a first class airline put to shame the dated red velvet ones back at my local which still reeked of the smoke from the 1970’s. Then there was the screens. They were huge, dwarfing even the biggest at my local Granada and if you were lucky you would catch the odd film in 70mm, a common event at the Odeon Marble Arch which back then was the biggest single screen cinema in London. I saw ‘Aliens’ at that cinema at a late night screening with nearly one thousand other people, it wasn’t just an incredible film but the experience of seeing the film with so many excited fellow fan boys and girls was what made it special.
(The old Empire Screen 1, Leicester Square, now an IMAX)
It was after this that I decided for my birthday every year there would be a trip up to Leicester Square to see the movie of my choice - I would get all the tickets in advance and wouldn’t tell people what film we were seeing until we got there. The first of these was Big Trouble in Little China in 1987 at the Odeon West End, the following year it was to see Robocop at the Odeon Marble Arch, followed by Die Hard at the very first screening at the London Film Festival in 1989 at the Odeon Leicester Square. I bet if you asked my friends about those experiences they would remember them well. If you saw a film on the opening weekend and it was a blockbuster, it was a real event packed out with an audience creating an atmosphere full of excitement and expectation. Sometimes for even the smaller films, you could get the same experience. In the large 800 seater auditoriums of the Leicester Square, the big three (Empire, Odeon LS and Odeon WE) at weekends would be always be completely sold out. This atmosphere was incredible and something that nowadays you only get with what I would call an event movie. (IE Lord of the Rings) and more importantly there would be NO MOBILE PHONES.
(Old Empire Screen 1, showing the upper and lower gallery, I watched Top Gun in the middle of the fourth row up)
Then there was the sound - I saw Al Pacino’s ‘Revolution’ in THX for the first time at the Warner West End, noting how the cannon fire in the battles scenes seemed to fire from behind me, while the cannon ball whistled over my head and then exploded in front of me. ‘Silverado’ at the Odeon West end had an incredible stereo track with some of the most impressive sound editing I had ever heard while in the old Empire Screen 1 the roaring jets of the planes from the ‘Top Gun’ fighter school made the floor vibrate beneath my feet. In 1988 the Empire had a complete make over and the gala opening night film (On a Wednesday) was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was the year I was completing my Audio Visual Design Diploma and because I was working at my local cinema on the night of our college prom, I had been unable to attend it. So undeterred I organised a prom of my own at the cinema and bought forty tickets for pretty much everyone in our class to attend the re-opening of the Empire Leicester Square. Boy, what an opening. Unknown to all of us the Empire had been refitted not only with the one of the best sound systems in the country but a new lazer and light show to go with it. Before the film began green lighting shot down the walls with thunder and we were all blown away by the surprise! Everyone had come dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos at my insistence, it was funny because I think half the audience all thought we were someone important but we were just there for our graduation celebration. The night was a huge success and everyone loved it and the Empire Leicester Square was responsible for that. This was back in the days when the curtain rolled back to reveal the title film beginning and people would cheer its arrival. Presentation was always key.
You can see the old Empire laser show on youtube here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQivA1_ajrg
I moved away from London in the 1990’s but frequently came back for my birthday to see a film at Leicester Square and did film outings for Bram Stokers ‘Dracula’ (Gary Oldman version) and an especially enjoyable night to see ‘Heat’ at the Warner West End. By then cinemas had of course changed in the UK. The chains had moved in and Showcase and Vue were setting up their multiplexes all over the UK, resulting in many of the old town centre cinemas closing down.
(Heat - one of the best films I ever choose for my birthday outing, that time at the Warner West End)
The trend for Arthouse cinemas however increased because the growing audience for such films was out there and more foreign films got UK distribution than ever before but you would have to look hard to find a screen showing them if you lived outside of London. Still, the paying public had more choices of better venues to go and see films than ever before. Even multiplexes had their issues sometimes though with a famous screening of the epic ‘Independence Day’ at the Showcase in Nottingham blacking out on the final reel on the first packed out Saturday night performance. There was nearly a riot at the cinema, fortunately I wasn’t there. But the new venues with better seating, legroom, sound and picture quality did well and weekends were still to be found overflowing with crowds catching the latest release’s and the nineties was not short of good films to offer them.
However when I moved back to London in 1997 it was already obvious to me that cinema audiences were shrinking. Friday’s and Saturday nights in Leicester Square were busy, but never quite as full as they should have been. The lovely single screen at the Odeon Haymarket (I saw the opening night of ‘Dead Poets Society’ there) closed its doors for the last time and the Plaza Cinema Piccadilly, part of the Empire/UCI chain soon followed. DVD hadn’t quite over taken video yet but Home Cinema was already taking off encouraging people to stay at home. There was a bigger problem coming to cinemas and one that I feel is still completely underestimated. Soon we were in the noughties and mobile phones were everywhere and they we’re a real issue. It wasn’t just them going off by accident but the willingness of patrons (Especially the younger generation) to use them in the cinema, and even have conversations on them in the auditorium during the film. Someone, somewhere seemed to have forgotten to tell them that this was not socially acceptable and it had even penetrated the hard-core audience of London’s West End.
(The old Plaza Cinema, now a Tesco's. Originally a grand single screen it was a multiplex by the time I first visited it in 1985 where I saw Young Sherlock Holmes)
Usher where art thou? The other issue was it was now very rare for there to be an usher in the screen. Having worked as one back in the 1980s and early 1990s I was always on a mission that no one’s cinema experience should be ruined. If we had trouble makers in the screen I would go down the front to the audience and speak to them before the film started, pointing out where they were sitting and telling all present if there was a problem to tell me and said trouble makers would be out on their arse with no refund. I would go to great lengths to make sure late arriving couples could sit together just before the film would start. That was a luxury of course but having someone present in the cinema making sure people are quiet and don’t interrupt the film is not the same as just having it as a policy written on the screen.
Little Blue Lights everywhere! - On the opening Saturday night of ‘Public Enemy’ at the Empire Leicester Square Screen 1 was the first time I noticed phones were really becoming a problem. It was unusual for the Empire to be so empty, but it was less than a third full and the first thing I noticed was four blue lights coming from the audience, two of them from the group of four girls sitting right in front of me who were quite happy to text away during the movie. I was forced to lean in and say ‘I did not pay ten pounds for a ticket to see you text on your phone, would you mind not doing that please.’ (At a more recent screening of Guardians of the Galaxy at the Empire Imax my line of ‘Turn off your phone, you cock!’ was perhaps a little less subtle, but it certainly met with the approval of the audience.) I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a factor this problem was in dwindling numbers of cinema attendance. Conversations around the subject with friends did indeed confirm that a combination of this issue and an expectation on the audience to deal with the problem and report it to a member of staff rather than them being pro-active on your behalf was very much at the heart of the issue. I mean who wants to get up and leave the auditorium to find a member of staff to complain about something in the middle of a film you’ve paid to see? It’s also fair to say that groups of youths being a pain in the arse during a screening can be a fairly intimidating bunch and certainly in some parts of London you’re as likely to get your head kicked in than you are to get a positive result if you complain about them. Who wants to pay £10 to £15 for that? I actually now go to extreme lengths to choose seats where I will not have the sight lines of anyone else’s phone. I never for example sit at the back of the cinema where this is the biggest problem.
Changes for the better? - In the last decade we have seen a number of changes again. IMAX Cinemas have opened in abundance, including at my beloved Screen 1 at the Empire, which was sadly converted to an IMAX and actually stopped my own film from being able to premiere there. The first film it screened was Fury and we were there to see it and I have to confess it is a great screen, even though I miss the vast majesty of Empire Screen 1 but as the Cinema Manager told me, ‘it had been on the cards for years, the cinema just wasn’t getting enough bums on seats., even at weekends’. The last film I saw in the old screen had only myself and twenty people in it. It wasn’t of course just the attitude of the audiences that was changing it was the means available to them. DVD and Home Cinema had by now taken off in a major way. It wasn’t just the rich that could have a home cinema now, sales of Video Screen Projectors had hugely increased, even my friend Jed had one in his semidetached home and had converted his lounge into a tiered cinema with six lazy boy chairs. It was incredible to see such things in someone’s house. 4K technology and the advent of Blu-Ray took everything another step further (And once again huge swathes from everyone’s wallet as we all rushed to convert our favourite films to the latest format!) But cinemas were changing too. 4K screens and the latest digital technology meant seeing the films in incredible quality and the envelope of the latest sound was being pushed all the time (THX was now considered old hat) With the advent of 3D films on a level vastly improved over the brief renaissance period of the 3D films of the early eighties there was another reason to go to the biggest screen to see a movie. Even the best Home Cinema was unlikely to offer the same experience as seeing James Cameron’s Avatar at the IMAX Waterloo.
Despite all that was on offer at home, cinemas were finding an audience again, all be it nowhere near as the same levels of the past. The success of ‘The Picture House’ chain was drawn very much from a middle class Cinema audience of people who wanted to see films on the silver screen and were less likely to download them illegally. They also offered more than just a cinema and marketed their venues hard as a social venue with cafe's and seating. While those who would often come to the cinema, talk and use their phones were far more likely to pirate films. That is a generalisation of course, there’s still plenty of twats willing to come and ruin your night out by talking on their phone at the cinema. Some people try to explain this away as being part of the culture of a modern audience, sorry, but that’s crap! Mobile phone calls are not allowed at Wimbledon any more than they are at the Theatre so why should be allowed at the cinema? It’s actually the moral obligation of every single cinema audience going person to make sure they make it clear to their friends this is not socially acceptable and it’s the duty of the cinema to enforce this rule, because the moment you have to do it yourself, well, you should get a refund.
(Avatar - for me one of the best cinema experiences of the decade and still one of my favourite films of all time. It might be Dances with Wolves in space, but its still bloody good and made you want to watch it on the big screen. I saw it at the cinema 6 times)
So where does the future lie? If Cinemas are to continue to operate successfully they need to offer not only the best experience but be competitive in their pricing. Cinemas also need to be more pro-active in supporting independent films for limited releases. Small films can build their own cult audience and should be supported by not just local cinema’s but the bigger chains too. A great many of my friends go far less than they used to because they simply cannot afford it any more under the current financial climate and not everyone wants to commit to buying a yearly cinema membership card.
We recently discovered that our local Vue has re-set its prices to be incredibly competitive and this has encouraged us to go more frequently. Because if it’s not an event movie (Like say the latest Lord of the Rings or Star Wars film) why would I or anyone else for that matter pay £15 or more for a film which I can buy for the same price or less, it on DVD or BLU-RAY 6 months later? Local chains of VUE have dropped their prices to £5 at all times, a sure sign they are once again losing money. But if I attend a cinema which has no Usher vigilance and I have to constantly complain to staff to address issues within the screen, then guess what guys – I ain’t coming back to your cinema! (Yup, Odeon Holloway, I am talking about you!) – I’ve had more free cinema tickets from that cinema than any other because of the numbers of times I had to complain and do you know who was talking on the phone during one of those times? The cinema usher who was in our screen, that’s who! But that is another story.