Everyman’s main man

Everyman is a tour de force in the UK’s cinema sector. Peter Knight discovered there is a unifying thread that runs through its sites and, in an exclusive interview with CT, CEO Crispin Lilly reveals how that is achieved.

 

Everyman Cinemas is a name familiar  cinemagoers in the UK — in spite of its proletarian moniker, the brand is, to many, the epitome of the premium cinema experience.

Established back in 2000 when the original 1930s Everyman Cinema in Hampstead was bought by Daniel Broch, the chain now encompasses over 30 sites, with more than 100 screens. The chain has continued to grow at a pace, with the majority of its sites in London. Everyman is expanding with new cinemas across the UK, though — in Bristol, Newcastle and Manchester to name a few places. I wanted to understand what makes Everyman Cinemas such a powerful brand in the exhibition industry and an interview with CEO Crispin Lilly laid out the facts.

Fact File

Crispin Lilly, Chief Executive, Everyman

After 22 years n the industry working for MGM, Virgin, UGC and Cineworld, Crispin Lilly joined Everyman as CEO five years ago.

 

Mission possible

Over a drink at CineEurope 2019 this June, I admitted to Crispin that I had never had the opportunity to visit one of his sites as there are none close to where I live. So a friendly challenge was laid down — visit three specific Everyman Cinemas and he’d answer my questions! This seemed a good way to experience for myself exactly what Everyman Cinemas are all about, so over the past few months, I visited three separate sites (see panel below), plus a bonus one for good measure to get a feel for the ‘Everyman Experience’.

The driving force

Crispin Lilly celebrated being with the company for five years last month, so it seemed like an appropriate time to get his view on the state of affairs — and the original concept for this article was to explore how Everyman converts and re-uses many old cinemas but, as is so often the case, things ended up going in a different direction…

We began by talking about technology, evidently. The advent of digital cinema and the ability to put projectors in boothless pods in the auditorium ceiling has clearly allowed cinemas and screens to be built in a way not possible with celluloid and its requirement for projection rooms, but how else has technology benefitted the Everyman experience? For a start, digital projectors have created considerable flexibility in the programming.

“At King’s Cross, when we arrived Screen 3 was meant to be a private hire room — a screen on the wall with an HD projector,” explained Crispin, “but it was suggested that it would actually be possible to put in a DCI projector and make it a screen. It only has 30 seats, but it also gets the most unsolicited positive feedback of all the screens.”

Thanks to technology, managers can now have a smaller office than previously, with just servers and a desk. A laptop allows them to work in the bar and restaurant areas, where they can interact with customers. The ability to use remote connectivity is a bonus. The chain used to have a remote tablet system with separate PDQ system, but this wasn’t sufficiently reliable, so they have just updated to a Vista Serve system, that uses an iPad with a PDQ on the back. In the past four months, with the new system the Everyman team has seen a turnaround, with staff now relishing their contact with customers. The upshot has also been an increase in sales.

Everyman is trialling a new trailer scheduling programme — they don’t have any movie posters, so they advertise forthcoming shows to the audience. As such, the pre-show is really important — Everyman audiences tend to arrive early for food and a drink, then slowly drift into the auditorium. The trailer scheduling is about reducing the workload managers have. With fewer things on their list, the more time they can have out looking after customers.

Crispin talked about the long relationship Everyman has had with Sony. The company uses its projectors in many of its auditoria because of the picture quality and contrast ratio they provide, together with their 4K capability, but they are large machines and in some screens a smaller projector is needed. Consequently, they now also have a number of NEC projectors. These tend to be 3D compatible.

Design and feel

While each Everyman cinema is unique, there is a cohesive feeling tying it in with the rest, whether it is an old art deco building, a new build or something between the two. I asked Crispin about this consistency and how it is achieved.

“It’s brilliant how you describe this as it’s exactly what we aim for,” he explained. “Each venue should be individual to the community it serves and the building it’s in. We use strong design partners with whom we have a long-term relationship. We ensure that even though we may open six or seven venues a year, each site is treated individually and is given the care and time it demands. If anyone ever uses the phrase “cookie cutter” with Everyman, then we’ve failed.”

And how does Everyman find the different spaces that they are located in? “We have a list of different locations and towns that we’d like to be in and we have a property specialist who walks each of the towns looking for potential sites,” said Crispin, noting how things have changed recently: “Equally these days developers and others will make a direct approach to see if Everyman wants to be part of a development because they see the potential. With the Kings Cross cinema, it is part of a brilliant community. Cinemas don’t pay a high rent, so they have to bring something else to the party. Often it is part of the ‘place making’ — they bring something different to the area. Three screens is the minimum, with four screens being the sweet spot and two if there is a really specific reason. Cardiff has ended up being a five-screen site because of the way the building has been carved up. Although there is the cost of an extra projector, it is not much of an increase to the overall project cost, and it ensures that the most efficient use of the space is achieved.”


Muswell Hill’s Everyman is a Grade II* listed building and was short-listed for the Planning Awards in 2017 thanks to the company’s sensitive approach to its refurbishment

 

Premium by definition?

The topic of Premium Large Format cinema (PLF) and 3D naturally cropped. Everyman only has one Dolby Atmos screen and I observed that while the chain does not have a PLF concept, that presumably is because the whole of Everyman is premium in its own right. 

“We have one Dolby Atmos in Harrogate, but it is difficult to justify the cost when customers don’t notice it,” responded Crispin in a rather matter-of-fact way, “Customers don’t visit Everyman because of technology. It is secondary. We don’t like to charge more for technology or for providing a great technical experience, it should just be what is delivered for all customers. There is at least one 3D screen on each site, even though we don’t programme much in it. The average ticket price is higher than most — we don’t discount tickets anyway, so the prices sometimes during the day might be higher, but at weekends prices are comparable with other chains.”

A natural space for event cinema

My presumption has always been that Event Cinema is a natural fit with Everyman cinemas and its audiences, but I wondered how the chain copes with Event Cinema screenings where it is not directly in control of the content and has to rely on others so intrinsically.

“Yes, our customers love the streams and they are pretty forgiving of issues, so long as they aren’t constant,” noted Crispin, “But Event Cinema is important to Everyman, with 7-8% of box office coming from this area [the average is 3-4%]. ‘Fleabag’ encores are still doing really well several weeks after they were first broadcast. Distributors are more flexible than they were and it means that sometimes we’re able to take a chance on a feature, keeping it on longer or in smaller screens, allowing audiences to seek it out.”

The challenge of unique venues

Evidently, the feel of the cinema within Everyman’s buildings is an important element of the experience. I talked to Crispin about my thoughts on each of the different sites that I had been challenged to visit. I mentioned the difficulty of installing projector pods in Muswell Hill, specifically the constraints of working in listed buildings [ED: architecturally significant buildings with planning restrictions in the UK]? Crispin was adamant: “Cost and effective communications are the challenges! We have to work closely with planners and convince them of our integrity (which is getting easier with the evidence now of the likes of our Crystal Palace and Muswell Hill sites). We love and want to do things properly and sympathetically, but there has to be commercial realism — you need at least three screens for a modern cinema to be truly viable, and if the incremental cost of doing up a listed building is too high, it simply won’t make sense. We work with our planning advisors (FirstPlan) who are excellent at steering a course between our business needs and the demands of a listed site (and those who defend them).”


A former Odeon site, the Gerrards Cross cinema typifies the luxury setting that defines the Everyman experience

Planning constraints extend to elements such as fire exit signs, and the glass in the auditorium. Working across such a wide variety of locations and councils, I wondered what aspect of the UK’s planning laws and licensing laws Crispin would change. His answer fired back: “Consistency! Every local authority has different planners who range from the dogmatic and uncooperative through to the brilliant and innovative. Reviewing and looking at new technology, and being prepared to test something requires the latter, but even when something proposed in another authority area, has been approved, signed off and proven to be effective, a separate authority may refuse to consider it if it’s not written in stone somewhere (which can take decades). This is infuriating and can be the difference between opening in a town or not. It’s mad. The more complicated buildings are hard work, but more fun. Unfortunately, we occasionally walk away from a deal because it just can’t work and involves too much cost for either the landlord/developer or Everyman.”

While Everyman is known for taking on old cinemas and refurbishing them into modern luxurious spaces, they also take on sites with other, former uses, repurposing them into a cinema. This is the case with the newly opened cinema in the Manchester Studios, which used to house the Granada televsion company. It is more efficient to reuse buildings and can be quicker. The time taken from signing of the contract to opening is greatly reduced. 

Most such repurposed sites have tabs and masking in all their screens — Crispin dislikes floating screens and thinks that the scope picture should always be bigger than a flat image — and there are only a few auditoria where they aren’t present. That is generally where a compromise on screen size would be the result.

So, why invest in an old building when it must be cheaper to build new? Do the local community and audiences appreciate and notice the difference? “The bottom line is that they offer great space and are in the heart of the high street,” explained Crispin, “It would be an interesting dilemma if we had two opportunities in the same town, in equally strong locations, because the commercials on a new build would certainly be more attractive. It hasn’t happened yet, but it would be nice to think that in such an instance there would be local authority support available to contribute to the preservation of the heritage of an old building and to de-risk it. There is no doubt that unlocking old cinemas creates a particularly special Everyman, but we’re equally as proud and successful with our new-builds or our conversions of non-cinema space — as with our Broadgate opening last month.”

Overseas expansion? Rivals at home?

While Crispin has been CEO, Everyman has expanded rapidly. What of international moves, perhaps in emerging markets? Could we see Everyman in Dubai? “International expansion is definitely on our radar, with our first site in Dublin signed — but we’re cautious and not complacent about how well the concept will work abroad. There are many other territories (and many closer to home than the UAE!) that we believe would support our model but there’s also a lot of untapped potential here in the UK, too,” noted Crispin.

King’s Cross: A new-build in an office, this is one of the more unusual locations for a cinema. It is accessed via the main rotating door in the reception area. It is a three-screen venue, over three floors (screen 1 is accessed via the ground floor, with the bar and two screens upstairs on a mezzanine level. Screen 3 has just 30 seats but regularly gets unsolicited good feedback.

In the UK, we have seen recent openings of premium cinemas, such as Empire’s Tivoli concept in Bath. I wondered whether Everyman felt its space was under threat. Crispin was adamant: “The more the merrier in our view,” he said, generously, “There’s plenty of market out there to tap into and I think even those that are more closely emulating us all have a slightly different skew. Any investment in cinema is a good news story and it will inevitably keep us on our toes which is the benefit of competition. Who knows, one day it would be lovely to plagiarise someone else’s idea!”

Defining the sector

Crispin’s passion for what he and Everyman do is infectious, but Everyman is by no means the only cinema business creating a luxury experience. They are helping to define this area though and I enjoyed my visits. I will tick different ones off the list as opportunity arises. Although there isn’t an Everyman very close to me, perhaps when I next move I’ll make it one of my key search criteria!

 

Different venues, one underlying ethos

Everyman Gerrards Cross was my first port of call. With a new screen recently added, it is now a three-screen site. Next was Everyman at Crystal Palace that opened in 2018 after a complete refit, then the Everyman at Muswell Hill, before finally going to Everyman Kings Cross, a cinema that is both modern and unusual in that it is located in the entrance to an office block within a newly developed area, just a short walk from the new Google HQ.

 

It was a delight to visit the four sites, each with its own character, but also very much an Everyman venue. My expectations were high given my perception of the brand, and in each site, every member of staff was smiling and helpful and I felt they wanted to be there. They were knowledgeable too.

None of the auditoria is a ‘black box’ but each has a finish to it. There was a real buzz in the buildings and I felt I’d left the cares of the world behind. The presentation of the movies was noteable. Ads and trailers have been carefully controlled so that the volume levels are consistent, and the pre-roll seemed to merge seamlessly with the feature. A nice touch is that the Everyman logo sits on screen for a minute or so before the certificate of the feature appears.

 

If Everyman build a site on my doorstep, I’ll definitely adopt it as my local!

 

Consistent audio levels

When visiting the sites, I noticed how the audio levels felt normalised between ads, trailers and features so that there was no perceptible difference. I asked how this was achieved. Nick Davey, Everyman’s technical manager, supplied the answer: “To start, we regularly check our sound EQ and SPL levels at the standard 85db at 7.0 on the fader. We have a pretty uniform set-up which helps, but all auditoria are different which can make it harder when it comes to the felt experience. The cinemas test content in advance and will adjust the SPL for each screen to different levels which can change during the show. We have a good relationship with DCM who communicate sound levels really well. Having our people in screens trained to be aware of presentation helps and staff are encouraged to feedback to us on playback. Having a manager in screenings ensures the experience is as good as it can be. You never always get it right, but it makes my life easier when you see how much importance the Ops team puts on feedback and service.”

 

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About Peter Knight

Peter Knight is the Commissioning Editor for the Cinema Technology Magazine, along with the Managing Editor for the Mad Cornish Projectionist website. He is still a working projectionist and AV technician with an interest in all things projected both in traditional cinema and elsewhere too. Peter has been running his own business since 2017.

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