UKCA VIEW: The business of prediction

What makes for box office gold at a time when we have more viewing options than ever? Who can say for, but as the UK Cinema Association’s chief executive Phil Clapp writes, the auditorium doors are opening wide to welcome the movie-going public this year.


Already we have come to the end of Q2 2019 and we’ve seen “Avengers: End Game” and, to a lesser extent, “Captain Marvel”, leading a superheroic charge at the box office — but, as most would confirm, predicting what will chime with the cinema-going public is largely a fool’s errand. For example, don’t believe anyone who tells you that they predicted at the outset of
last year that 2018 would see the highest level of admissions since 1970. It’s worth letting that sink in for a moment.

At a time of economic and political uncertainty, when the public has never had so many film-watching — let alone leisure — opportunities, and when we’re regularly told the big screen is yesterday’s news, UK cinemas welcomed more visitors than at any time in the past 50 years. Undoubtedly a strong slate played a major role — not in the guise of one or two titles which stood head-and-shoulders above all others, but in respect of a large number of films which did well (in some cases very well), maintaining a steady drum-beat of interest and revenue across the full 12 months of the year.

If you look at the top 10 for the year, even among familiar genres such as superheroes there was diversity — few could say that “Avengers: Infinity War”, “Deadpool 2” and “Black Panther” shared much common DNA, a feature which extended to others of the big hits of the year — “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “The Greatest Showman”, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!” and “Peter Rabbit”. Scratch beneath the surface, though and it won’t surpise you to discern a ‘feel good’ factor in some of these titles, What has undoubtedly underpinned last year’s success — and will stand the sector in good stead in 2019 and beyond (regardless of the vagaries of the slate) — has been the enthusiastic public response to the levels of investment in all aspects of the big screen experience.

In the past five years, we have seen unprecedented diversification of the cinema business model at all levels in the UK. Larger operators are investing in new sites and/or upscaling venues, the ‘neighbourhood’ and boutique sectors are seeing new venues spring up, and key smaller players are looking to expand their reach into communities which may not have had a mainstream cinema for several decades.

Happily, there is every sign that much of this growth is additive — there are numerous instances where the arrival of a new site, offering something different to the local cinema ‘mix’, not only doesn’t detract from the audience at existing sites, but seems to boost interest and — in turn — numbers there as well. So all good and positive.


Keeping up with technological Joneses
As the UKCA conference in March made clear, staying ahead of the curve in terms of technology to deliver the best cinema offer is increasingly challenging. Whatever other benefits the arrival of digital cinema delivered — greater consistency and quality of image, more flexible programming, and increased revenue from 3D and event cinema — it also put operators in the UK (and elsewhere) on a more complex and demanding trajectory when it comes to technological investment.

Identifying what each new development — be it immersive sound, laser illumination, high dynamic range or (at some point) direct view display — can contribute to a cinema’s business is often more of an art than a science.

More than one speaker at the conference confirmed their audience would probably discern little or no visible difference as a result of that investment. But knowing and being able to promote a new technology can help retain cinema’s place at the cutting-edge in the mind of the customer, or ensure the operator has invaluable practical knowledge of a given technology before it is widely adopted.

As a trade body, here as elsewhere, the UKCA will not — for reasons of expertise as much as any — advise its members on which avenue to go down. But recognising that many of its smaller members often lack the bandwidth or networks to stay abreast of all that’s happening in this regard, it can encourage partners to impart understandable and objective information that makes the decisions more straightforward. That was the primary purpose of the conference in March and it is a process that will continue over the coming year and beyond, helping to support the ongoing transformation of an industry which continues to confound naysayers.