Cinema Can Save Your Town Again!

David Wallace, director of global architects Chapman Taylor, sets the scene on how, in the UK, cinema is now a dominant force in shaping current thinking in town planning and retail development


SC.1: Life and death in the town centre

How cyclical cinema is! To understand cinema and the opportunities ahead for town centres, we must first understand the background of how and why it is where it is.


Cinemas, in their inter-war period heyday, were developed in town centres, animating the evening scene with moving lights, movie premieres and glamour. We are all familiar with those wonderful black-and-white photographs of movie stars stepping out of limos onto a red carpet and rushing into the fanciful architecture of the latest cinema, with paparazzi flashing their cameras and adding a heightened level of excitement and glamour to the location. The simple fact was that people loved to visit cinemas to escape their daily routine for a few hours. This added a buzz to the areas adjacent to the cinema. It was the main contributor to an active town centre, particularly at evening time.


Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s period in the UK and, the same cinema was likely to be closed or near closure, the fanciful architecture crumbling. For many, it appeared as if the cinema industry was close to failing after too many years of poor investment and the steady adoption of television and home video as the main sources of entertainment. Movies were now more commonly made in widescreen format, more suitable to television proportions. Clearly, television was regarded as the format that movies had to follow.


SC.2:  The out-of-town break-out

In 1985, a strange new building appeared in Milton Keynes, closely followed by another in Salford. For many these were like UFOs landing in desolate locations on bleak edges of the town. The cinema industry had finally recognised that, to save itself, it had to invest in its future with vision, faith and many dollars. Over the next 15 years, this new building type steadily appeared in more and more out-of-town locations. Similar developments followed across Europe.


By 2000, cinema was a thriving business and, for property developers, was becoming the ideal anchor tenant, offering a secure source of rental income. Cinema companies would commit to 15/20-year leases, often with strong parent company guarantees. This was a significant shift from 1985, when there was little faith in the success of cinema and much of the investment was by exhibitors themselves. In the early years of cinema development, property developers were not so sure of the longevity of cinemas. By 2000, developers were so confident cinemas were a solid anchor that many were prepared to pay for the lot, down to seats and popcorn poppers.


However, for some, success came with drawbacks. Small, local town centre cinemas were challenged by big new shiny multiplexes, and many closed as a result. Town centres were losing their night-time heartbeat and, town centre business began to dwindle as out-of-town developments flourished.



SC.3: The triumphant return to the town centre


To combat this phenomenon, UK planning laws were changed early in 2000, bringing in a requirement for sequential testing; before an out-of-town development could be considered, it had to be shown that a similar development could not be built in the town centre.


Of course, to build in the town centre was often more expensive, and plot sizes, plot ratios, shapes, adjacencies, rights of light etc. all had to be woven into the design, often with complex and conflicting needs. The first such cinema development I can recall was the O2 centre in Finchley, a complex, multi-use, multi-level building secured with a Warner Village cinema. It was also connected to the London Underground network. This building was to prove to be the first in the next generation of leisure developments. Developers were now so confident in the success of cinema that it was worthwhile to build such complex buildings. It is also worth noting that this cinema in Finchley Road was the first in the UK to be fitted with a digital projector — a test bed for the next seismic change that would eventually take cinema to its next level of development.


For the following 10 years, out-of-town development continued at a slower pace. Meanwhile, a new type of development was happening and was becoming more and more common in town centres.



SC.4: Digital and the  rebirth of cinema


Digital cinema truly took off in 2009 with the release of “Avatar”. When James Cameron pushed for his vision to be shown via digital projection, cinemas worldwide scrambled to install projectors for the release. Prices of digital projectors dropped, options to finance the investment were agreed and manufacturers developed their systems. The change from 35mm film happened relatively quickly and, in just a few years, almost all cinemas had converted.


By 2010, cinema had become an integral part of the UK leisure habit. Just prior to the birth of the multiplex in 1985, UK admissions were at an all-time low of 54 million, a massive fall from the all-time high in 1946 of 1.64 billion. By 2010, with digital well underway, admissions had grown to 170 million.


With this increased popularity, it was inevitable market segmentation would occur. Some were happy to go to the big, bright multiplex. Others wanted something more intimate and cosy, perhaps showing arthouse movies with a glass of chardonnay — perhaps it reminded them of the charming old cinema in the town centre that struggled to survive years ago.


This segmentation gave birth to a new type of cinema. Previously, with 35mm in multiplexes, auditoria were arranged in a strict geometry so that one reel of film could, in theory, be shown on all the other screens almost simultaneously. Elaborate mechanisms were developed that allowed the same piece of film to rewind and whizz overhead, around corners and, sometimes, through floors to serve each projector. This was the key to making a multiplex possible and profitable.


Movies now came as DCPs and could be controlled from a laptop or head office. This allowed the auditoria to be arranged in different ways in more complex locations. One of the first examples, opened in 2013, is Curzon’s Victoria Cinema in central London. The site was challenging, comprising space left over in the basement from the development of the office tower above. No other operator was interested in a tight space full of large columns at close centres with limited access. Curzon shoehorned five small, luxurious screens into the basement complete with a beautiful entrance at street level that can easily be mistaken for a very smart bar. Large projected images, and a cool digital display imitating an old readograph sign, bring life and glamour to the street.


This was an instant success and allowed the developer to secure similarly cool F&B tenants nearby, bringing life back to the city centre. Others followed. The small, boutique cinema format is perhaps the fastest growing cinema sector in the UK. 




SC.5: Back to the future:  today, yesterday and tomorrow


Today, town centre cinema is thriving. Boutique, small-scale cinemas are popping up everywhere. Curzon, Everyman, Picturehouse and small independents are all eager to take space in the right locations. Appropriately, some of the old cinemas of a bygone period are being brought back to life. Everyman Bristol is in a 1920s Grade II-listed building, and Everyman York has recently opened in a former art deco Odeon cinema — another grade II-listed building, now used as a four-screen cinema, with many of the original art deco features renovated in full.


We are now seeing bespoke, small-scale cinemas appearing as a key element of the planning strategies for town centres. Eltham Cinema is now under construction — a stylish, multi-level Vue cinema complete with a sky-bar. To illustrate further how successful cinema has become, and how cyclical the development of cinema is, a 1913, Category A-listed cinema has been brought back to life by Picturehouse in the small Scottish village of Campbeltown. Anyone who has been to Campbeltown on a dreich (miserable), wet Sunday afternoon prior to the reopening of the cinema will appreciate the positive effect this has on the town. It is transformational.


And it is not just small boutique cinemas that are bringing about positive change. The ‘traditional’ multiplex (how quickly the ‘new’ of the 90s became the ‘traditional’ of 2018!) is showing how cinema can bring life to a struggling out-of-town development. The 14-screen Cineworld at Silverburn, Glasgow, has saved a large shopping centre from further decline. The cinema opened in 2015 and increased footfall by over 20% almost immediately. Its success has brought in new F&B offers and, together, they provide a clear example of the positive impact the right combination of cinema and multiple quality restaurants/cafés can make in combating the threats that retailers face from online shopping.


Gloucester Quays is another good example — a typical retail development from the 1990s with a large shopping centre on one side of the main road and a typical cinema with restaurant units on the other. That planning made sense in the 1990s, allowing the cinema to stay open late after the shopping centre was closed in the early evening. One did not have to stay open for the other. However, when the shopping centre began to suffer from reduced footfall, the developer’s team made the smart decision to move the cinema into the shopping centre. They then developed the former cinema site for another purpose. Gloucester Quays is now one of the busiest retail developments in the UK.


The Light Cinema in Stockport has activated a part of the town that was dying. The way operator and town council collaborated to develop the site is an example that others should follow. It opened earlier this year, and has surpassed all expectations.


For the near future, cinema will continue to contribute to and enliven whatever location it is in. Whether in a town centre or in an out-of-town retail development, people love to go to the cinema.


The industry is investing heavily in new technologies, such as immersive sound systems, laser projection, super-reflective screens, massive contrast ratios, the whitest of whites and the blackest of blacks. Seats are reclining, sometimes custom-made and leg room is increasing. Cinema operators are developing their own restaurant and café brands. Social media is allowing likeminded aficionados of particular movies and genres to come together to request that the cinema show those features.


The same creativity is happening in other parts of the world. The Dubai Mall recently opened the ‘world’s most luxurious cinema’. In Dubai’s Mall of Emirates cinema, you can even have a meal created in partnership with Michelin star chef Gary Rhodes.


Decisions in the mid-1980s by major studios to invest heavily in cinema development is paying dividends. No longer are the summer and Christmas holidays the only time to see the best movies. Great films are released every month, with record levels of investment, encouraging people to go back to the cinema and keeping the wheel turning. Perhaps the most obvious sign that cinema has come full circle since its low point in 1984 is how the shape of TVs are now inspired by cinema. Cinemascope ratio TVs are a must-have item. Televisions follow cinema these days.