Every Multiplex is new again

Refurbishment is all the rage — Patrick von Sychowski gets the inside track on multiplex masterplans at Vue and Odeon

Refurbishment of multiplexes in the UK is the most significant and capex-intensive exhibition trend since the start of mass-conversion to digital projection. While modernising cinemas is nothing new, the scale and ambition now underway is unprecedented in seeking to lure customers with the most impressive sound and vision, stylish lobby design, comfortable seating, tempting food, café and bar propositions coupled with smartest customer service on the high street. Multiplexes are not just competing with Netflix-and-chill on the sofa but also with out-of-home leisure propositions offered by bars, restaurants, shops and coffee chains. Old multiplexes need to be brought up to the same standard as brand new ones. 

UK cinemas suffered a steady decline from 1946 (1.64 billion annual cinema visits) to 1984, when admissions bottomed out at 54m, with chronic under-investment causing cinemas to descend into proverbial ‘fleapits’. The following year AMC opened The Point in Milton Keynes, the UK’s first multiplex, which marked the start of the revival of both cinemas and admissions. Changes in ownership of the major chains (ABC, MGM, UCI, UGC, Virgin and Warner are all brands now gone) usually meant some level of revamp beyond the cosmetic took place, though typically investment was low. More money was usually only spent when a ‘crown jewel’ site changed hands, such as when UCI sold Empire Leicester Sq (since the re-sold to Cineworld), Manchester Printworks went from Odeon to Vue, and Odeon Leicester Square became part of AMC.

The start of the current refurbishment wave can be pinpointed to 2015 when Showcase announced a root-and-branch remodeling of multiplexes in Leeds, Nottingham and Reading, as well as when Everyman acquired four sites from Odeon in in Gerrards Cross, Esher, Muswell Hill and Barnet. In the first half of 2016 Everyman saw revenue leap 49% on the strength of its new and refurbished sites. Meanwhile Showcase de Lux imported recliners and introduced a level of comfort previously mainly only found in America and Asia. The UK cinema industry took note.

Which, Where and When

The first step of any refurbishment is to select a cinema due for an overhaul. Steve Knibbs, COO at Vue, says that “lots of factors go into this decision to review the ‘opportunity’ for refurbishment or redevelopment”. These include variables such as the age and state of the cinema (sloping floor or stadium?), length of time left on the lease, willingness of the landlord to contribute to a refurb, size of the cinema, customer base, existing and planned local competition, as well as what will happen in the market in the near future. “If we believe a site can be reinvented by refurbishment and investment using these criteria, then the investment will be made,” says Knibbs.

Odeon’s UK managing director, Carol Welch, calls refurbishment “a huge team effort involving not only our property and design colleagues, but also operations, marketers and data analysts who are essential to making a transformation work in each local market”. According to Welch refurbishments focus on needs of guests, the team and the Odeon brand. “We are making sure every decision creates a wow factor that will last into the future.” As such the cinema polls guests and staff for feedback during design development. The aim is to “take existing sites and turn them into cinemas that look and feel brand new”.

What Goes In

What gets done as part of the refurb depends on the operator and the site. For Odeon “cinemas receiving a Luxe makeover receive the full package. Specifically on technology, all sites enjoy a complete overhaul with many upgrades,” says Welch. “Most Luxe sites receive a new iSense screen, delivering an immersive, ultra-high-definition cinema experience, with new 4K projection and Dolby Atmos sound.” Other screens get upgraded and enlarged where possible, as well as being fitted with new speakers and Dolby 7.1 surround sound. There is the installation of big IMAX screens, but also more subtle touches such as improved ambient lighting and Dolby Fidelio Audio Description system and Hearing-Impaired loops across all screens.

Vue’s Knibbs stresses that swapping technology doesn’t always makes sense if what is in place was only recently installed. “In the case of Preston we did all of the above [projectors, audio, displays, screen] aside from the projectors which are state of the art 4K Sony technology still in very good working order. Technology was enhanced with full digital signage internally and replacement IT systems including self-service ATMs.”

Beyond the projection booth and auditoriums, refurbs can have a significant impact on public areas, explains Knibbs. “Corridors, foyer, toilets, new air conditioning and energy-efficient lighting, upgraded retail, design that used the Vue West End as its template and a great new front entrance-way,” are examples of what Knibbs points out was done in the Vue Preston, with the changes noticeable even before one enters the cinema (see before and after images on previous spread).

Concessions and Coffee

As well as being a feast for the eye and the ear, refurbished multiplexes must appeal to ever-more discerning tastes, not just design-wise, but also in offering more than just popcorn, sweets and soft drinks.

“Improving the quality of the presentation of the F&B offer including using all Digital signage and POS and working with well-known high-quality brands wherever possible,” is key stresses Knibbs. A bar offer, hot food and coffee are seen as a must, with Vue offering Lavazza, Odeon Costa Coffee and Cineworld having installed Starbucks counters in 25 of its multiplexes. A good coffee offering has the added benefit of driving an earlier crowd to cinemas than would normally show up.

“We upgrade the whole retail offer in new Luxe sites,” says Odeon’s Welch, “including adding our new bar concept ‘Oscars’, named after our founder Oscar Deutsch, with draught beer and new food menus including chicken strips and pizza.” There are also ready to serve popcorn and digital Freestyle Coke machines installed.

Learnings & Challenges

Both Welch and Knibbs see the refurbishment push as a learning process. “We’re fortunate to be part of the world’s biggest cinema group — it allows us to draw on a massive range of expertise when designing our plans,” says Welch, with Odeon not only tapping the expertise of teams across Europe, but also colleagues at AMC, “who have huge experience of similar projects in the USA,” and, more recently, also Nordic Cinema Group colleagues.

Welch says that while refurbishment “isn’t a new ambition”, the new ownership structure has helped with the pace and scale. “We’ve previously had great success with cinema design in Odeon Milton Keynes, Trowbridge, Hereford, Orpington and Bournemouth BH2 — all of which were conceived and opened in the past four years. We’ve used our insight from these cinemas to educate our plans for both new and upgraded designs.”

Vue meanwhile has seen the innovations and learnings from its flagship Vue West End refurbishment cascade down to other sites. Knibbs enthuses that “it’s a wonderful thing to see an old cinema given a new life. Customers respond really positively as you would expect — we use Net Promoter Scores (NPS) as our way of tracking what customers think of us and I can say these scores go through the roof after a major refurbishment.” Staff response has been no less positive. “Who wouldn’t want to work in something that has been transformed? It lifts your spirits,” explains Knibbs.

Refurbishment of existing stock has an added advantage — there is less need to build new multiplexes, with most of the UK already well covered and particularly with some towns and cities over-screened.According to Knibbs, “investment in known and successful sites will bring back customers who may have lost the habit due to the age of the site and deterioration of the overall offer.” While Vue West End was shut down for several months before it re-opened to great fanfare, not all sites have the luxury of closing while refurbing.

For Welch, “the biggest challenges come with keeping the cinemas open while 50% of the site is full of builders.” She praises her staff and stresses the importance of giving them extra training and support during this time, “so guests are very excited when the covers come off and the new facilities
are unveiled.”

The response from customers has is gratifying, says Welch, “with lots of strong feedback to our teams as guests walk in for the first time, and lovely comments on social media too.” She stresses that “Word of mouth is a powerful endorsement, and we’ve met a lot of new people as they come to see what everyone is talking about!”   

The Outlook

Odeon has started with sites in the UK and Ireland, but the plan is to roll out across Europe. “We have big plans for the next couple of years to transform the look and feel of European cinema,” says Welch, “so 2017 has been all about learning what works best.” The same best practices from new sites and learnings from refurbished sites are rippling out across all the UK cinema operators, from the largest to the smallest.

This year alone marks the reopening of both Odeon and Cineworld’s Leicester Square flagship cinemas — of which the latter had only recently been refurbished when Empire divided its big screen to make an IMAX — in London, Empire redoing its Sutton multiplex, Everyman Oxted, Curzon Soho and Mayfair, Picturehouse Bromley and the independent Majestic in King’s Lynn, to name just a few. Some of the same ABC cinemas that once epitomised the ‘fleapit’ label are today the Odeon Luxes that together with Vue and other multiplexes set a new standard in quality for cinema exhibition in the UK.