Deep-Seated Change

A new wave of development is powering cinemas to a level beyond investment in digital


A good deal of the positive  media coverage of the UK’s strong box office
in 2017 (at £1,277million up almost 5% on the same period in 2016), perhaps understandably focussed on the high quality of the film slate. And it’s true that, save for a few movies that failed to engage audiences during the summer months, UK cinema operators were happy to benefit from a diverse range of quality productions, (particularly importantly) these released across the full 12 months of the year.

What was absent from many of the column inches of coverage, however, despite the best efforts of the UK Cinema Association, was the fact that in 2017 UK cinema audiences — as in past few years — once again benefited from an exceptional level of sector-wide investment in the big screen experience.

That is something that is most obviously manifested by the growth in the number of UK sites in recent times — around 30 last year, with more than 20 already slated to open in the next 12 months. And it’s a feature which is being seen across all types of business models, from major multiplexes to smaller ‘boutique’ affairs even down to more local — sometimes crowd-funded — operations.

An exceptional investment

Significantly, those additions to the stock of UK cinema sites are being supplemented by exceptional levels of investment in the refurbishment of existing sites, with a number of larger circuit companies spending multi-millions on installation of recliner seating, with consequent increases in the levels of occupancy that, in many cases, far outweigh any loss of capacity.

To some extent, continuing investment in the big screen experience is nothing new. The sector has long recognised the need to continue to improve and upgrade its offering if it is to remain ahead. And it may be that, after a lengthy period where the focus of investment was in technology — not least the £200 million plus invested through digitisation — attention is now turning once more to the areas of business that make a more immediately obvious difference to the audience experience 

While media attention seems increasingly fixated on the in-home film and TV offerings, there remains a significant appetite among the UK population — 78 per cent of whom could be reasonably described as cinema-goers — for the out-of-home, immersive big screen experience that only a cinema can offer.

There are other factors at play here, in some part indicated by the fact that many of the new cinemas opening over the past year and into the foreseeable future form a central part of wider leisure and regeneration projects.

The heart of the retail experience

The links between cinema and retail are longstanding, but in recent times we have seen even greater interest in the contribution that cinema operators can make to the ‘experience economy’. Those bringing to fruition leisure and retail developments are looking to put cinemas at the centre of those plans. With other leisure sectors — not least casual dining — under significant pressure, proven ability of cinemas to drive footfall and underpin an economy that doesn’t close its doors at 6pm is more highly prized than ever.

What this all means for some cinema operators is that they are now having to learn a new language to engage with those from the world of property and retail, or certainly one which has a focus beyond the immediate bricks and mortar. The potential gains of doing so are already apparent to many, not just in boosting company coffers, but also in terms of the many communities that are once again — and sometimes for the first time — seeing cinemas become part of the local social fabric. 

These are all issues which the UK Cinema Association will be considering as part of its annual conference ‘Building the Big Screen Experience’, which will take place on Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 March. Appropriately enough, our conference is being held at the newly-refurbished Cineworld cinema — the O2 at Greenwich.    


Phil Clapp

Chief Executive, UKCA