It’s the little differences”, says Vincent Vega, John Travolta’s Pulp Fiction character introducing his famous ‘Royale With Cheese’ speech. “You can walk into a movie theatre in Amsterdam and buy a beer…” he adds.
While beer and alcohol is now served in cinemas all over the world — well, perhaps not in Saudi Arabia — let’s take a look at “the little differences” that make cinema-going a unique experience internationally.
Australia: The country that pioneered the Gold Class concept of luxury cinema also lures audiences in from the beaches with all things cool: air conditioning (natch), but also Choctops (ice cream with melted chocolate on it) and Coca-Cola Classic Frozen.
Belgium: Reserved seating! Probably one of the first countries to introduce this. Belgium also has intermissions for family movies, but no intermission for regular features. Look out for films marked “VO” (“Version Originale”), “VF” (“Version Française” i.e. dubbed French version), or “VOST”, followed by “FR”, “NL” or “BIL”, meaning it is the original language subtitled in French, Flemish or both at the same time. With its linguistic split, Belgium is also always the last kid in the European school to hand in his homework when it comes to the important business of box office and admissions reporting.
Barbados: For a truly Carribean cinema experience, snack out in the cinema on deep-fried balls of flying fish, washed down with Banks beer, making a trip to the cinema both boozy and delicious.
China: The world’s largest cinema market (by screen count; No. 2 in BO) offers plenty of uniqueness. There are phonebox-size karaoke booths in the lobby; ‘bullet screen’ where your text messages appear overlaying the film on the big screen; private cinemas for two-to-ten people with on-demand films (hopefully legal) rented by the hour; scent cinema and more. Just don’t expect to watch any films that feature ghosts, time travel or supernatural themes. That means no “Ghostbusters”, “Back to the Future”, the original “Planet of the Apes”, or “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”.
Colombia: The crunch-munchy sound from the person next to you in the cinema might not be popcorn. This South American country serves roasted ants, also known as hormiga culona, in cinemas. The ants are eaten like peanuts and are addiitonally also considered to be an aphrodisiac [Ed: in the back row?].
Finland: The land of the midnight sun and long winters has an insane love for cinema gift cards, which are apparently a favourite present from granny. Similarly to Belgium, some Finnish cinemas screen films subtitled both in Finnish and Swedish, often making for speed reading as they zip along one line at a time.
France: The country that invented cinema is actually remarkably conventional in its cinema habits, though French cinema audiences have long resisted reserved seating. It is also one of the few countries that dictates its own standards for cinemas though the CNC/CST — and if you want to build a cinema, you can get funding through the Institute for the Financing of Cinema and Cultural Industries (IFCIC).
Germany: Uniquely, German cinemas have an intermission between the trailers and feature film known as ‘Eis break’ (‘Ice Cream break’) — when it’s time to top up the concessions you ate during the interminably long adverts. It is also a country that has a distinct preference for nachos over popcorn (mostly sweet).
Gulf states: If you had watched “Avatar” in the UAE you would have seen about half an hour less than the rest of the world, with far too many naked blue Naavis for the local censors’ tastes. Also, there is no market for films featuring pigs, so for the purposes of “Angry Birds” the green nemesis were re-named Squishies.
Hong Kong SAR: Not only are apartments small and expensive in Hong Kong, but real estate is so dear that cinemas are forced to close due to rent rises — and yours truly was once served popcorn in a drinks-size cup.That’s how little space they have. True story!
India: A whole chapter could be written on cinema-going in India, appropriately enough as it is the world’s largest territory in terms of admissions and in terms of films produced each year (1,900). Cinema-going is closer to religion here (only trumped by cricket). Actors becoming politicians is the norm, rather than an oddity. The death of a star leads to day-long mourning and even suicides (!) by fans. Anyone who has seen a screening in Southern India (Tamil Nadu, etc.) will know that audiences leave their seats to dance, yell, clap and cheer as soon as the name of a favourite actor appears in the pre-credits. Cinema is so fundamental to Indian life that the regional government caps prices of cinema and multiplex tickets. A major issue in Indian cinema in recent years has been standing for the national anthem played before the film. Initially this was only the case in the state of Maharashtra (where Mumbai is the capital), but after legislation and country rulings spread to the whole of the country. It led to ugly incidents, including one man being roughed up for not standing — despite being wheelchair bound.
Famously, Bollywood films were so long they had to build in a cliff-hanger intermission break in the programme. Unfortunately, it also meant Hollywood films might be stopped arbitrarily, even in mid-dialogue. In other “intrusions”, Indian law mandates a ticker-tape text warning of tobacco consumption in scenes featuring on-screen smoking. During the intermission you might want to stock up on snacks, which, in addition to popcorn, include samosas, chutney and cheese sandwiches and vada pav [potato fritters in a bread bun]. Several lawsuits have been filed against cinemas for not allowing in outside food and drink, for not providing drinking fountains of water and for charging above the MRP (maximum retail price) for bottled water. It’s not always a song and dance operating a cinema in India.
Ireland: There has long been a tradition of using real butter for cinema popcorn. While other countries, particularly the US, use artificial flavouring as the water content in real butter makes popcorn soggy, the Irish are particularly proud of this tradition.
Italy: Fancy watching the latest Hollywood release during the summer? Until recently that was impossible as Italians headed to the beaches and simply ignored the cinema. This resulted in other months being jammed with releases and an intense peak during Christmas. Only now is it slowly changing.
Japan: The country with the world’s most expensive cinema tickets also features some interesting snacks in the foyer, such as iwashi senbei, or dried sardines. These small fish are baked whole in soy sauce and sugar. They are then topped with sesame seeds to give them a sweet and savoury umami flavour.
Korea (South): With some of the most advanced and sophisticated multiplexes in the world, the home of CGV, Lotte and Megabox also gave rise to 4DX and ScreenX. Cinema is pretty popular, so don’t be surprised to find that a Monday morning re-release of the first “Harry Potter” in the immersive seat format is sold out. Instead of just selling popcorn, the multiplexes have a Popcorn Factory. They also take in-store retail to an entirely new level — you might easily find a VIP restaurant or Manga library in the multiplex. Truly South Korea is the world’s most sophisticated multiplex market.
Korea (North): North of the border, the late Kim Jong Il was such a cinema fan that he actually kidnapped two famous South Korean actors in the 1970s to appear in North Korean films. Sadly, his son Kim Jong Un was not a fan of being assassinated on-screen in “The Interview”, ostensibly leading to the Sony hack. Despite this there is a film festival every two years in Pyongyang, featuring international films such as “Mr Bean”.
Malaysia: The islamic country bans a lot of films for violence, too much sex or gay themes: “Hustlers”, “The Snowman”, “Wonderwoman” (later over-turned), “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Sausage Party” are just some of the recent films to fall foul. “Zoolander” featured a plot to assasinate the Malaysian prime minister, so that got a ban too. Meanwhile, the real-life prime minister lost his seat and now faces jail for corruption partly linked to the production of the drugs and orgy-heavy film “The Wolf of Wall Street”. The film itself was never show in Malaysian cinemas — far too much swearing, drugs and sex.
Netherlands: Famous from “Pulp Fiction” for being one of the first nations to serve beer in its cinemas (not in paper cups, mind you, but in bottles), the country has excelled in F&B with the launch of the ‘Pathé Boulevard’ retail concept that mimmicks the airport duty-free walk-through maze. Here you can get hand-crafted popcorn from a Popcorn Chef or a self-serve of beer. They even sell healthy foods such as fruit and sushi — and they sell well, too. Sadly intermissions are long gone.
Norway: Scandinavians are famous for their sweet tooth and in Norway you can buy fizzy candies in transparent fillable pints. The country also only used to show one trailer before the film, leading to introduction of the lobby display from Unique Digital that helped to make it the first country in the world to switch over entirely to digital projection.
Poland: Go to watch a local film in Poland and the chances are that you will have a personal greeting from the film’s director before the film, thanking you for choosing to watch the film legally. This is part of the Legalna Kultura (Legal Culture) campaign to steer people away from illegal downloading and streaming.
Russia: Censorship practices from the Soviet era seem to linger in modern Russia. Not only was “The Death of Stalin” banned (unsurprisingly), but the anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law from 2013 meant that films such as “Power Rangers” got an 18-only rating, while the new “Beauty and the Beast” was rated 16. On the upside, you can enjoy Beluga caviar in the VIP cinema auditoriums.
Singapore: The small country with one of the highest-per capita cinema attendances in the world (over four visits per person per year) was early to embrace the Gold Class concept. However, in order to fill seats during off-peak you can rent a leather recliner for an afternoon nap. The best part is that cinemas don’t have to split this revenue with the distributors.
Spain: Spare a thought for the poor cinema ushers cleaning the cinemas in Spain where sunflower seeds are a popular snack.
Sweden: Don’t be surprised at audiences arriving early to watch the adverts in Sweden.
As commercials weren’t shown on terrestrial TV until the 90s, they were made exclusively for cinema, even by renowned directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andresson. Also, there is a tradition of the cinema manager or usher arriving before the film to welcome the audience,
a practice that has since been adopted by the likes of Everyman in the UK.
Switzerland: Intermissions used to be the custom, the same as in Holland, but they have now been phased out. The clean-living Switzerland is strangely one of the few countries in which sex cinemas have survived, mainly due to planning laws which meant that you could not close a cinema (any cinema) to replace it with a Starbucks. Being too small to be profitable as regular cinemas, many such cinemas thus simply closed or kept running. Also the first territory in Europe to have a Samsung Onyx LED screen.
Taiwan: Chicken leg snacks — bought from a vending machine in the cinema. Yes, really.
Thailand: Don’t get too comfortable in the leather recliner seat in your Seven Star super luxury cinema because it is time to stand for the king before the film. As the national anthem plays you see a clip reel
of all that the late king did for Thailand. No word yet on whether it has been updated for his son since he took over.
UK: British cinema patrons like to drink. And we don’t mean just Coke or beer. The biggest craze to take off in the UK’s multiplexes recently is branded coffee. Starbucks’ partnership with Cineworld has been a great success, with Odeon following with Costa and Vue with Lavazza. Meanwhile Everyman has perfected the premium F&B experience to the point where cinema operators are now travelling form all over the world to study (read: try to copy) it. The UK is also the country that gave the world the “Unlimited” cinema card more than 20 years ago. “Unlimited” and “drinking” — how very British.