Entering the TWILIGHT ZONE

Do cinemas offer sufficient variety throughout the day? Arguably not, says CT’s Alastair Balmain,
who explores some of the ways in which modern cinemas do more to get a wider range of customers in to experience a variety of entertainment that stretches way beyond standard on-screen fare.


It’s said that if you can remember disco-dancing to the sequin-studded retro tribute act Dr Glitz and his Fabulous Flirtations on any given Saturday night in the late 1990s or early 2000s, then you were probably never really in London’s Clapham Grand — the self-styled “palace of modern variety”. Odd, then, that I have strong and enduring memories of the sun just peeping up when emerging bleary-eyed from the depths of a theatre that has seen more business-oriented wardrobe changes than a Beyoncé concert…

A true temple to entertaiment, the Clapham Grand is a Grade-II listed venue that’s played host to everyone from Jerry Springer to Jamiroquai via Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Established in the early 1900s as the New Grand Theatre, over the course of the past century it’s seen service, among other things, as a bingo hall, a nightclub, a comedy club and a concert venue. In recent years, it’s retained its enduring music and variety flavour, offering an eclectic mix of regular DJ nights, alcohol-tinged “Bongo’s bingo”, drag act conventions, comedy festivals and boxing bouts, but, significantly for these pages, it has reverted to one of the more lasting of its former incarnations — a cinema.

Formerly a full-time movie palace — as the Essoldo from the early 1930s to the 1960s — the Clapham Grand has gone full circle, now squeezing into its packed programme regular cinema nights. Characteristically raucous and somewhat camp, this summer the crowds rewrote the stars singing along to “The Greatest Showman”, booed the baddies in “Shrek” and rediscovered their inner Disney princesses at screenings of “The Little Mermaid” — all followed by a suitably themed club night.

What’s this got to do with regular cinema? Put simply, it demonstrates the scope for a genuinely varied programme in a venue that is open at all conceivable hours of the day. The Grand is a listed site in a densely populated residential area of London, so there are limits to what the owners can get away with in the scope of the licensing laws — please leave quietly to avoid disturbing the neighbours — but there’s frequently a packed crowd day and night — as this month’s Rugby World Cup is sure to demonstrate.

The Grand has a schedule of live screenings for the key matches, with kick-off times at anything from 3.45am on a Saturday night (perfect for Kiwis and Italians in the late-night club crowd) through to 9.15am on a Sunday morning (ideal for Tongans and England fans looking for a collective rugby experience before church). These big screen events are set to keep the venue filled from late September to November on Sunday mornings at a time when respectable people — cinema staff included — are more normally found in their pyjamas.

From lunch to last orders?

The popularity of a wide-ranging programme serves as a reminder to cinema owners and managers that life exists outside of the traditional opening times, particularly if your programme explores cinematic milestones and sporting events that, due to their length or international timezones, inevitably fall outside of standard working hours.

Cinema has a long-held tradition of screening into the night (see the “Marathon mania” panel below), but if the cinema managers’ objective is to increase occupancy at quieter times outside of the obvious early afternoon to 10.30/11pm window — what could be quieter than 3am on a Sunday? — it’s clear that you need to seek out alternative audiences and alternative content.

In most cinemas, the concept of kids’ programming (and silver screen sessions) are well-established, with screenings starting as early as 9am and reduced ticket prices aiming to lure in stressed parents and frugal pensioners. As the father of children with an enthusiasm for movie-going, these sessions are, in my experience, often faintly disappointing, programming unremarkable content in exchange for a reduced ticket price. It’s a compromise that does cinema few favours, often with low attendance and little atmosphere. Arguably some venues would do better to focus their efforts elsewhere — children aren’t the only ones that will bounce out of bed for the big screen.

One chain to grasp this is Vue. You can still catch its Mini Mornings screenings at 10am for £2.49, but it’s ground-breaking “This is not a cinema” campaign shows the diversity that cinemagoers can expect on its screens — whether that’s event cinema, e-gaming, or sports fixtures.

Major sporting events, in particular, are a natural for cinemas as they deliver identifiable, readily targeted audiences. In the past, Formula 1, Wimbledon and other major sporting events have all found their way onto the big screen — with mixed success. Notably in the UK in 2012, Cineworld ran a series of Olympic screenings across a huge range of sports — the live event server LANsat delivered the BBC’s red button feed into sites with the support team changing the programme as events switched to offer a true variety throughout the day. More currently, Novo Cinemas in the UAE served up a series of special screenings for the World Cup Cricket this summer. Why did it work well? A strong multi-national ex-pat population clamouring for a communal get-together, coupled with a relatively benign time-zone difference between the UK and the Middle East.

Democratisation or diversification?

In recent years, enterprises such as GoGoCinema and OurScreen have sprung up promising to “democratise” the cinema, liberating the schedule to deliver the content that specific audiences want to watch, when they want to watch it. Similarly, event cinema has delivered new demographic groups, many of whom are pleasantly surprised by the nature of the modern cinema venue. My own parents are regular visitors to their local cinema now — 10 years ago they wouldn’t have given a trip to the cinema a moment’s consideration. Having been lured in by live theatre, ballet and opera — often at times that are convenient for the recently retired — the experience and quality of the venue impressed them so much that they now whizz back to catch appropriate films like “Mamma Mia 2” and “The Favourite”. And that’s the point. Cinema is a place of variety and that variety can be used to sustain and grow attendance. Diversification not just of the programme, but of the types of use the venue and its technology are put to can fill seats at awkward times of the day (or night).

Enter the Rec Room…

Taking the idea of diversification of the cinema to the extreme, in the past three years in Canada, the Cineplex chain has been launching its “Rec Room” ventures. These bring the idea of the variety hall right back to that exemplified by the Clapham Grand. These new venues blend live entertainment, sports and gaming experiences under one roof. Each location devotes approximately half of its square footage to dining and live shows and the other half to amusement games and attractions, including VR experiences where you can immerse yourself in cinema-themed experiences such as “Star Wars: Secret of the Empire” (Your mission: recover Imperial intelligence vital to the rebellion’s survival. Disguised as stormtroopers, you will be transported with your friends and family to the molten planet of Mustafar. Grab your blaster…).

Most Rec Room locations feature large outdoor patios with skyline views and each ranges in size from 40,000-60,000 square foot. They include large format projection, which is primarily aimed at sporting fixtures, e-gaming and the screening of cult classics rather than new releases. As important are the live shows, bars and restaurants, virtual reality and gaming arcades that fill the space, several of which have been retrofitted from multiplex locations. 

But is it cinema? Not in the traditional sense of Screens 1, 2, 3, 4… So does it offer attractive variety and scope for a diverse range of customers? Certainly. Does it provide a blueprint for cinemas elsewhere? Perhaps — but it certainly offers an alternative model that illustrates the demand for a range of modern, socially-focused entertainment options to suit different audiences at all times of the day and night.


“Grenade!” E-sports hits the target

If anyone doubts the production values and budgets lavished on today’s gaming titles, then consider HD staples such as Forza Horizon, Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed on the big screen. The concept of e-sports in the cinema is an increasingly familiar one — thanks to the technology behind live event delivery, major gaming competitions such as the League of Legends World Championships have successfully been broadcast to multiple audiences internationally, with big-name sponsors like Coke promoting viewing parties in metropolitan venues. Start times are often early in the morning (or past midnight, if you prefer) as the host nation for these events is often typically the US or Korea, and running times can stretch well beyond standard film running times. That’s incidental to hardcore fans.


The sector is in a high growth phase — two years ago IHS forecasted that 6.6bn hours of e-sports video would be viewed per annum by 2018, up from 2.4bn hours in 2013. In 2015, Vue created the UK’s first physical arena for online games enthusiasts; converting part of one of its key London venues into an e-sports arena, seating 600 across three stages. But while watching others play is a draw for some, for others actually taking part with your character up on the big screen is compelling.


Last October, the Dell Gaming Esport Cinema opened in Bangkok — billed as the world’s first dedicated e-sports mixed-use theatre, designed to fit traditional screenings alongside e-sports. With a 4K-capable 14.6×6.1m screen, Dolby 7.1 and stadium seating, it can seat 60 contestants alongside 200 spectators. The venue can be hired exclusively for teams of gamers with an all-day pass for 200,000 Baht (£5,000) (10am-10pm) or a half-day pass for 100,000 Baht. While it may sound like the preserve of larger chains, “bring your own console” offerings are a staple for smaller chains like Savoy Cinemas and independents who offer dedicated screen hire at affordable rates. Bring your own kit and they can hook it up to their state-of-the-art projection and sound systems turning SuperMario into a cinematic event in its own right.


Marathon mania

The concept of 24-hour cinema is nothing new to schedulers, as many will attest following midnight screenings of anticipated events like the release of “Avengers: End Game” in April. Some sites embrace it more evidently than others, though, finding audiences happy to take the big screen experience to the max.


Mention “cinematic marathon” and you think of the classics. “Star Wars” and “Back to The Future” are episodic works that spring to mind. Inevitably an all-nighter might attract a niche (some might say nerdy) audience — but that’s the point. A small, hardy group of fans seeking a big screen experience is often sufficient to fill an auditorium, justifying the operators’ time.


Few but the most dedicated would have signed up for the retina-burning torture of Alamo Drafthouse’s “The Marathon Awakens Sweepstakes” in Austin, Texas, in December 2015. A competition to celebrate the launch of “The Force Awakens”, the rules were stringent: watch all six preceding “Star Wars” films back-to-back, followed by repeated screenings of the newest episode in the saga. The viewer that could stomach the most would took the crown. Take a bow Jim Braden — he breezed through the back catalogue, followed by nine repeat screenings of the first of the current trilogy. His prize? A seven-year movie pass. “By the eighth and ninth viewing, I zoned out, and the movie just washed over me” he later told “The Hollywood Reporter”. No kidding.


In the UK, arguably the front-runner, when it comes to movie marathons, is London’s Prince Charles Cinema, which describes its carefully curated cinematic tours de force for the hardened cineaste as “butt numbing”. And why not? Their purpose is to celebrate film culture and to show on-screen the rich threads that can be found within a specific genre or series of films. So, if you’re up for it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t catch all 720 minutes of the PCC’s Disney Pyjama Party (pyjamas non-essential, but advised — as is a toothbrush). Including seven classics from “Pocahontas” to “Lilo & Stitch”, start time is a very reasonable-sounding 9pm — until you realise the finish time is 9am. Start training now.