Primal screens

The resurgence of popularity that cinema is enjoying has prompted a number of exciting new projects. Yolanda Zappaterra looks at what contributes to flicks appeal

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to one of the vast array of cinemas in the capital. From the swanky Champs-Elysées sites bearing those two precious words version originale (for those of us fluent in Franglais rather than French) through to the wealth of independents showing gems like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (not seen in Britain since 1991, when London’s Scala Cinema showed it billed as a “mechanical fruit surprise” for fear of prosecution), Paris not only offers movies months before they open here, it offers them in spaces where seats mechanically lower with a satisfying whoosh as you nestle into them. State-of-the-art stuff that, until recently, was pretty difficult to find here in the UK. A late-Seventies/early-Eighties rush to create more screens saw chains convert spacious cinemas boasting hundreds of seats and huge screens into five or six auditoriums with 50 cramped seats and screens slightly larger than a large TV. Rack ’em, pack ’em and stack ’em was the policy, and most city centre sites are still stuck with it.

But big changes are afoot. Cinema chains such as UCI, Virgin and Odeon are undertaking major expansion and refurbishment of both city centre and out-of-town multiplex sites, investing heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, big screens, digital sound and surround sound, comfortable seats and so on, while Lottery funds last year helped two new independent cinemas emerge in the capital. What’s behind the sudden interest? It’s partly that cinema-going audiences have been steadily increasing over the last decade, with 120 million visits recorded in 1996 and predictions that this figure will reach close to 200 million by the year 2000. But it’s also the realisation that cinema is winning back older customers to bolster the key 16-24 age group. In fact, recent reports indicate that the audience for cinema crosses all socio-demographic and age groups. It would seem the chains have hit on a formula which appeals to everyone, and they’re obviously keen to keep those customers coming back for more and give them even greater choice.

Ross James, marketing director of the Odeon chain, pinpoints another reason for the cinema resurgence: “There’s considerable investment in the films themselves, and there are more films on offer which is giving the consumer more choice, and more screens are needed.” The Odeon chain last summer appointed Wolff Olins to “work on a new identity both in terms of the brand itself, but also the way the cinemas look”, says James. “What we were looking for was two-fold and quite a challenging task. We wanted someone who could take a brand like Odeon, which is steeped in heritage and tradition, and give it a modernity that we felt we needed to launch the brand to the next stage as far as cinema audiences are concerned. So they had to be sympathetic to what the brand stands for while able to move it on. But clearly they also had to have a strong and proven retail experience, as we didn’t want a consultancy who would just do surface dressing, but would be able to see it right through from the seats and carpets to the construct of the building,” he explains of the appointment.

Last year the Odeon Group opened five new multiplexes, and plans to open the same number this year. These range from city centre sites such as London’s Camden Odeon, the much loved Art Deco cinema which the chain has refurbished as a five-screen site, to the 13-screen Southampton “multi-leisure site” which houses sub-brands such as a Grosvenor Casino, Rank drinks brand concession Jumpin Jacks and the family-oriented Rank pub Tom Cobleigh.

This new type of multiplex is attractive both to exhibitor, which reaps huge financial rewards, and cinema-goer, who gets a ready-made night out. “When you’ve got a leisure site in its own right, with bars, restaurants, maybe a bowling alley, it means you’re offering a wide range of entertainment during the course of an evening. Here the cinema apes the department store in a retail park, which acts as a draw to a number of other stores. You’re going to see the movie, but then you have the benefit of a range of other things to do, not least having a drink and getting a meal at the same time,” says James.

The UCI chain has obviously seen the light too. Having opened its first Fitch-designed multiplex in Cardiff Bay at the end of last year, it followed up with a nine-screen site in Huddersfield. “UCI has a reputation for being very good at cinema exhibition, with high quality projection and very sophisticated technological levels, so the thrust of our energy has been to improve the customer experience elsewhere in the cinema,” says David Fraser, senior consultant at Fitch.

UCI, like Odeon, was aware of the need to improve customer experience and provide more of an evening out so, along with developing a brand personality and graphic communication, Fitch set about improving the retail presence within the cinemas by addressing existing concessions and introducing additional cafés, bars, party rooms and games areas.

One exciting aspect of both the Odeon and UCI programmes is the move towards contemporary buildings which are as exciting externally as internally. “The fact that the Cardiff Bay venue is situated in an area that’s predominantly contemporary in its architecture wasn’t a problem,” claims Fraser.

“The cinema dominates The Mall, one of the most recent Cardiff Bay developments, as it’s positioned at the end of it and occupies your whole view as you walk in, and the Cardiff Bay people really like it. It is absolutely nothing like the cinemas of 20 years ago and also nothing like most multiplexes of the last ten years, © which are generally oversimplistic and use just the T-shirt plan (a very simple plan of a multiplex) with red brick interior and a couple of concessions, which generally underwhelm the audience and certainly underwhelm the late-Nineties consumer who’s become very sophisticated very fast,” he says.

This consumer awareness is addressed at the Odeon chain’s latest multiplex addition: “With new sites we work closely with the developers of the site so we can, at an early stage, influence the exterior as well as interior of the site, something that worked really well in Kettering,” says James. “We’ve done innovative things with the approach to the cinema and foyer – so, as you drive up, you’re faced with a massive arch and the Odeon logo projected on to a wall; achieving a grand entrance which gives you a real sense of anticipation on your arrival at the site. You then enter the foyer, which is huge, two-tiered and very bright and light, featuring an Odeon logo floating around the ceiling and a big retail area on one side. It’s quite radical in the way it looks and that really was Wolff Olins’ input,” he adds.

That trend for contemporary and exciting cinema exterior seems to be a prevalent theme for both chains and independents, as last year’s Lux Cinema in London’s Hoxton Square, the ongoing refurbishment at Bradford’s National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and east London’s Stratford Picture House all show. All three independent venues received National Lottery funding, and Stratford’s 2.8m venue, (building design by Panter Hudspith Architects, design by Burrell Foley Fischer) has been hailed as a masterly stroke in an area which had a respected theatre but was otherwise pretty bereft of culture and entertainment.

Nestled next to the Theatre Royal and soon to be joined by an arts centre, City Screen’s Stratford Picture House features four roomy auditoriums in “stadium” format (square to maximise screen size) and patrons are served by a bar, café and terrace, all housed in a glass-fronted building which is airy, light and takes every need of the visitor into consideration, down to a children’s toilet, disabled facilities, good sightlines and THX acoustics.

Up in Bradford, Austin-Smith:Lord is hard at work on the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, the most extensive development and refurbishment programme since the museum opened 15 years ago. As with the Stratford venue, glass is used liberally and decoratively, in particular on a new atrium featuring a glass wall which will include state-of-the-art projection and display facilities.

“In effect, the glass facade is going to act as a giant screen which can be used by the museum to promote activities and displays,’ says Austin-Smith:Lord partner Alistair Sunderland. With 13.5m funding, the new building should be a stunning addition to the museum, adding galleries which will allow visitors to explore the possibilities of the digital age and electronic imaging, a multimedia theatre and additional retail and catering space.

All this hi-tech whizzy stuff, promising to take the cinema into the 21st century, is fine of course. As attendances keep rising, one assumes it’s what punters want. So now all we need are some venues showing something besides Hollywood pap or little known art-house movies, that are little-known for a very good reason.

The Lux Cinema

Designed by Burrell Foley Fischer

Shell by MacCreanor Lavington

Client London Film Makers Co-Op and London Electronic Arts

Opened September 199Cost 600 000 cinema, 4m whole building

In the long-deprived area of Hoxton which is now almost as trendy as Clerkenwell, the London Film Makers Co-Op and London Electronic Arts have opened a venue which will show a programme of independent films, experimental film and video, host performances and conferences and act as a base for educational activities and exhibitions.

The Lux Cinema is actually something of a misnomer, as the building houses two cinemas (albeit one of them doubling up as a foyer!), offices, art gallery, film and video library. But the core, the cinema, is what’s got everyone excited, featuring a two-way projector which casts images on to the screen as well as into Hoxton Square outside. The flat floor and removable seats allow for multimedia performances in the 120-seat auditorium and variable acoustic panels – geared for everything from soundtrack to live music and speech – rotate to reveal frosted glass windows when natural light is required. It has been tailored to its users’ multiple needs as much as any huge multiplex ever has.

The building is targeted as much at participants – experimental film-makers – as audiences and, to that end, includes facilities for film, animation and multimedia production, editing suites and equipment for hire. But its functionality does not restrict a design aesthetic which provides etched glass screens on to which films and clips are projected in the foyer, slate floor tiles spilling out on to the street and video monitors set in the floor which show films by local makers.

UCI Huddersfield

Designed by Fitch

Client UCI cinemas

Opened January

Cost 10m

Boasting Britain’s largest screen – at 16.9m x 7.2m – UCI Huddersfield is the second instalment in a generation of new multiplexes for the chain designed by Fitch. The three-level, glass-fronted building houses a ticket desk on the ground floor, main foyer and auditoriums on the first and themed movie bar above on the second. ‘Movie product areas’ (aka retail concessions) include a film merchandise store, popcorn bar, pick and mix, ice-cream café and games area.

One feature is the ‘Black Box’, where lights on the stairs colour an otherwise blackened auditorium. ‘While the technical department of UCI delivered the technical layout of the auditoriums, we were responsible for their dressing,’ explains Fitch senior consultant David Fraser. ‘We had complete control over the individual elements; interior design, graphics, style and ambience are ours, working towards the brand personality which we developed with the client,’ he adds.

The fact that UCI is the only chain owned wholly by Hollywood (Universal and Paramount Studios) gives it a unique advantage over its competitors, claims Fraser: ‘the archive material available for us to refer to is stunning, and that will increasingly be reflected in the cinema interiors. There’s all your favourite movies, much more than actresses’ dresses, old clothes and memorabilia like the stuff you get in Planet Hollywood, we can use footage, graphics, we can preview our own new films,’ he enthuses.

So cinema-scale illuminated images, supergraphic word walls capturing classic film quotes and scenes and giant poster montages decorate the ticket area, foyer, store, cafe, bar and kids’ party rooms. Yes, kids party rooms: ‘They’re called suites so the children can book a suite with their own mini-bar and waitress, special chairs, it’s a very pleasant environment for junior parties,’ explains Fraser. This is not as horrific as it sounds though, as the upshot is a bar ‘in which children are allowed but not encouraged, so people can chill out and discuss the film they’ve just seen or the film they’re about to see,’ says Fraser.

Which is all very well, but I personally would have opted for two bars: one for people about to see the movie and another for people who just have. Because I’ve still not forgiven those people who inadvertently let slip that Princess Leia was Luke Skywalker’s sister as I eagerly waited to go into the Return of the Jedi screening. See, there’s always room for improvement.

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