Palace revolution

Movie-going is booming, but the multiplex is looking stale. Simon Stephens finds the most exciting developments in cinema design add a dose of theatricality, intimacy and choice to counter the pull of 24/7 in-home entertainment

Back in 1985, the UK’s first multiplex opened in Milton Keynes, changing British cinema-going forever. Since then, and despite the unstoppable rise of movie-watching at home, annual cinema attendances in the UK have more than tripled to 173 million.

Multiplexes are designed to offer flexibility, choice, convenience and comfort. In terms of service and interior design, they are a far cry from the decaying one-screen venues that dominated until the mid-1980s.

But while the multiplex has reigned supreme for 25 years, smaller operators have recently moved away from the homogenous multiplex design aesthetic in an attempt to put some of the excitement back into a visit to the cinema.

On the arthouse circuit, Everyman has been developing its sites, with Marksmith Design and Fusion Design and Architecture carrying out the branding and interiors work respectively. Late last year Everyman unveiled a new-look Screen on the Green in London’s Islington, featuring a full-sized bar within the auditorium, as well as several two-seater sofas. Drinks are brought to customers at their seats.

Trumping luxury with theatricality, Future Cinema’s monthly film club Secret Cinema stages large-scale cinematic experiences in bizarre and unusual locations, combining a screening with sound and light shows and actors in costume. Established in 2005 by creative director Fabien Rigall, the chain’s design is developed in-house. The company claims to be ’bringing a sense of spectacle back in the age of multiplexes’.

The Cineroleum is also trying to bring back the extravagance and ceremony of a night out at the movies. The project was conceived and built by a collective of young artists, designers and architects committed to the creative re-use of urban space.

This summer, they converted a derelict petrol station on London’s Clerkenwell Road into a picture palace. Popcorn, paper tickets, elaborate signage and flip-down seats recreated the familiar excitement of cinema-going.

Another concept which emerged this summer defines itself against the multiplex. The microplex is a five-seat cinema developed by Neville Brody and designer and animator Carolina Stenstrom for the Anti Design Festival, part of September’s London Design Festival. It screened a programme of short experimental films.

’It was really interesting to change the way people expect cinema to be,’ says Brody, who is now working on the development of the multi-microplex concept, which will combine a number of small-scale cinemas. ’I definitely think we need to investigate new ways to interact with media,’ explains Brody.

Stuart Wood, executive creative director at Fitch, believes there is a real desire for people to reconnect with others through experiences such as visiting the cinema.

’Real experiences are desired in an era when you can see, learn and do anything online,’ says Wood. ’Consumers want face-to-face gatherings, not anonymity.’
But to serve the masses, which tiny pop-ups and underground clubs are never going to do, we still rely on the multiplex. And their design is evolving. In the 1980s, they were soul-less boxes, but today’s multiplexes use bold graphics and sound and light to create a much more appealing look.

Wolff Olins’ 1998 rebranding of the Odeon Cinemas chain included the creation of the ’fanatical about film’ tag, intended to reflect the company’s long history in cinema and to position cinema-going as a modern experience. Since then, historic brands such as ABC Cinemas have disappeared, and new entrants, such as the Fitch-designed Virgin Cinemas, have come – and gone. The big multiplex operators still standing include Odeon, Cineworld and Vue.

Their challenge is to keep their offer fresh in a mature market in which many of the venues are now relatively old.

Identica recently won the contract to redesign the visual identity of Cinema City International, a multiplex firm operating in Israel and across central and eastern Europe. Franco Bonadio, chief executive at Identica, has been looking at multiplexes in the UK and in the countries where CCI operates. He is surprised by what he’s seen.

’I did a tour of a number of CCI cinemas and I was gobsmacked by the standard – we are in the dark ages by comparison,’ says Bonadio.
Many multiplexes in central and eastern Europe are relatively new and offer 20-25 screens, double the average in the UK, reports Bonadio. They also include a more highly-developed retail offer, with operators targeting families rather than the UK’s core 18- to 24-year-old market.

With cinema operators claiming that the recession is hitting them less hard than other leisure sectors, and many multiplex venues due for renewal, we could be about to see a new wave of refreshing multiplex design feeding off experiential and retail design, and bringing theatre back into mainstream cinema.

Latest articles