With today’s film fans being pulled toward streaming services, you could be forgiven for thinking cinemas were suffering at the hands of Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube.
The reality, however, is quite the opposite. In 2018, UK cinemas saw their highest attendance since 1970, with 177 million trips being made over the course of the year. This success has been explained by several factors, the most obvious being the number of blockbuster pictures released.
But beyond the helping hand movies like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Bohemian Rhapsody gave the UK cinema industry, a widespread investment in infrastructure is also thought to have contributed.
“We’re having a revival of interest in a certain kind of cinema,” says David Sin, head of cinemas at national supporting body the Independent Cinema Office. “It’s much different to the interest we had 30 years ago.”
Back to the “Golden Age”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the face of cinema design was the multiplex. “Films were served to the public in ten-screen, edge-of-town developments, which were basically just sheds, architecturally speaking,” says Sin.
This most recent surge in popularity has seen the reverse of this trend. Now more than ever many UK cinemas appear to be embracing the golden age of film, uncovering the art deco roots of long-forgotten cinema buildings in some cases and creating them in others.
London’s newly refurbished Odeon in Leicester Square is perhaps the most well-known of examples. But the same is true elsewhere in the UK – just look at The Rex in Berkhamsted, the Tyneside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne or The Plaza in Truro – all of which have learnt to lose their late twentieth century accoutrements and embrace their art deco heritage.
“In the 1930s when you went to the cinema it was a real event,” says Jon Lee, creative director of 20.20, the design team behind the revamped cinema experience at Odeon Leicester Square. “Getting into this history allows you to work around the idea of sensational cinema.”
For Lee and his team, embracing the grandeur of art deco design helped create a cinema experience steeped in history – something out of town multiplexes can’t do. He recalls the task of re-imagining the cinema’s original safety curtain, which had been out of use for a number of years: “The original [curtain] had the most amazing hand painted illustrations on it from the 1930s.
“But after a layout change it wasn’t used anymore. So, we took a photograph of it and animated it. It now exists as a digital trailer that is shown before films and it really adds to the atmosphere of the building.”
Marrying old aesthetics with new technology
Lee’s anecdote points to an interesting duality of old cinemas and new technology. While cinemas might be conjuring a nostalgic look and feel, keeping up with the latest technological advancements is a must.
“Marrying the old aesthetics with new technology can be challenging for cinema operators,” says Sin. “When most of these buildings were designed it would never have been with such technology in mind. Simple things like improved acoustics, heating or air conditioning are all expectations for contemporary cinemas.”
But Sin adds that many operators and prospective operators are prepared to work with those challenges. “They aren’t just boxes for watching films, they’re spaces with huge cultural value and they tell audiences that where they’re going is somewhere entirely different,” he says. “So, reviving old local cinemas especially, is particularly important to them.”
Some UK cinema projects avoid having to reconcile these things by looking to the future, with features like digital projectors, LED wayfinding or 4DX (a supposed even more immersive experience than traditional 3D). Spaces are designed to impress guests with a memorable cinematic experience.
“It can get very technical very quickly,” says David Wallace, London director of Chapman Taylor of developing cinema technology. “It’s almost like designing two projects now: for the cinema itself it’s very scientific and technical, and then for the lobbies it’s all about the wow-factor.”
Wallace’s work has seen him design for cinemas across the world, from the Cineworld at London’s O2, to the Reels cinema in the Dubai Mall. He says the embracing of cutting-edge technology is helping cinemas become more in the eyes of audiences, and adds that as more operators adopt it, the more accessible the experience can become.
He points to the quick uptake of digital projectors between 2010 and 2011, mainly a result of director James Cameron advocating for the technology so that the then-newly released Avatar could be seen at its best.
“Before then, I remember the conversation always being: ‘It might happen, but not yet because it’s not affordable’,” he says. “But it was all just a game of numbers, [after Avatar] there was enough demand to bring prices down. It was a huge change for cinema.”
Digital replaced the need to rely on limited reels of 35mm film, which Wallace says used to be shared out by cinemas across the country, oftentimes starting in London’s West End before eventually making it to regional UK cinemas much later.
“So many people can see the same movie at the same time now, and that’s a big part of why things have taken off,” says Wallace, adding that alongside this, digital projectors allow for an improved experience with clearer pictures and bigger screens.
Whether hi-tech or historic, what most operators and designers can agree on is the need for cinemas to be more than just places to watch films. “The main event is the film, obviously, but you’ve got to take guests on a journey to that main event,” says Lee. “It’s all about how you host them.”
He points to more hospitality services being integrated into cinemas, saying the Picturehouse chain popularised this format by designing restaurants and bars to be integrated towards the front of developments, near the lobby. “You need to give guests a reason to come in – a reason why going there can be better than staying at home,” he says.
And with a bigger focus on experience, both Wallace and Sin say the town centre cinema, which is already enjoying a renaissance, will continue to thrive. “There’s a demographic now that would much prefer sitting in a cosy seat with a glass of wine, rather than go to a traditional multiplex,” says Wallace.
Sin echoes this: “What we’re now seeing is the development of smaller, still multi-screen, boutique cinemas opening around the country on high streets. Cinema are much more central to the cultural life of a town, a more integral part of people’s cultural diets.