Burning Down the Picturehouse

Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb

Moviescope writes, on December 6th, about the purchase of Picturehouse by Cineworld:

Arts Alliance has been the majority shareholder of Picturehouse – which trades as City Screen Group – since 2002. Cineworld are now in possession of a total of 21 Picturehouse sites across the country, as well as Picturehouse Entertainment, the company’s distribution arm. It adds to Cineworld’s 80 sites around the UK.

Cineworld used its twitter feed this morning to assure Picturehouse patrons: “We love Picturehouse… so (we’re) not planning to get involved with how it’s run.”

Picturehouse will hope to open up to ten more cinemas already mooted across the country using the extra funds now available at Cineworld. The acquisition will also strengthen its hand in pursuit of opening a site in central London.

Read the full article here.

My love of the Picturehouse chain stems back to my own arrival in London in 2008. Suffice to say, it was not always easy to see the latest independent or art house film up north. One of my first visits to the Clapham Picturehouse was to listen to critic Mark Kermode discuss his latest book – It’s Only a Movie: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive. It was brilliant a cinema had a bigger interest in the medium as an art form; indeed, showing an appreciation of critics – and fans of film critics.

Cineworld and Picturehouse have both claimed that it will be “business as usual”, and that the purchase is crucially about expanding the Picturehouse brand. Understandably, with only 21 sites making a turnover of £2.5m in 2011 alone, they cannot open 10 new cinemas within a year unless they receive backing from a chain that understands the business model. Picturehouse also wants to hold a stake in the West End, as they currently fail to own a Picturehouse in the hub-bub of Central London – the closest is perhaps The Gate in Notting Hill. Central London art house cinemas are currently all owned by Curzon Cinemas – with the BFI and Prince Charles Cinema attracting their own audience.  Maybe the future is bright if Picturehouse manage to ‘take on’ Curzon and Odeon: Covent Garden.

Personally, I worry. Reading the wide range of articles available, it seems that the Picturehouse has made a deal with the devil – and the patrons may not look too kindly on this. Cineworld – of all cinemas – is seen as a very cheap alternative – even to Odeon and Vue. The one Central London Cineworld is on Shaftesbury Avenue, buried deep within the bowels of the Trocadero. It’s old, within a building that lost its edge when SEGA left in the late 90s, and screens only the American, big-budget films – no attempt whatsoever to draw people away from the Curzon across the road. Suffice to say, with such a prime location, ticket prices aren’t cheap either as Cineworld cash-in on the tourists who just want to watch a film (opposed to the Cineworld card holders who, by paying a lump sum each month, have no need to place any sense of value on what they watch).

But there is a lot at stake. Let’s not be coy – the profit Picturehouse has made in the last year was not exclusively due to the art house and indie crowd. They screen the mainstream films – Avengers Assemble, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises all had multiple screens in the chain. I’m sure the many sell-out screenings were due to these successful films. Maybe Cineworld decides that, to separate the two markets, Picturehouse cater exclusively to the art house and indie crowd, whilst Cineworld take all the bigger films? The two are not in competition any more – and Cineworld could argue that they want Picturehouse to do “what it does best”. Fact is, it won’t make the same types of profit and, shock horror, Cineworld may have to intervene and turn multiple Picturehouses into Cineworlds. Indeed, the Ritzy and Clapham Picturehouse are walking distance from each other, whilst I can’t think of a Cineworld close by. It would only be good business to turn one of these into a Cineworld to cater to one crowd, whilst the other caters to the remaining filmgoers. It is possible that, if Cineworld want to slowly destroy the brand (a la GAME destroying Gamestation), this type of self-destruction can be placed firmly on the heads of the Picturehouse chain itself.

This decision is not exclusively about Picturehouse – it has to benefit Cineworld. This is the part which we are not seeing. Cineworld talk about ‘learning’ from Picturehouse – but they never learnt to improve the standard of screens in Shaftesbury Avenue. Since I’ve lived in London, the uniqueness of Picturehouse has remained – and I would imagine Cineworld could’ve learned from them in all that time. Why can they only ‘learn’ from them by buying them out?

The older crowd to Picturehouse may seem like the obvious market to up-the-prices on. Indeed, I assume the majority of Picturehouse patrons are educated and earn money – but the tickets prices between Picturehouse and Cineworld are vastly different. I doubt they are going to be cheaper tickets at Cineworld.

The fact remains that now, when I buy a ticket to a Picturehouse film, I know that the profit partly funds Cineworld. I know that the two are inextricably linked. I am now not funding a company that I hope builds into a national, dominant brand – I am funding a dominant cinema chain that, though supporting the smaller films in Picturehouse, also support the idea of all-you-can-watch cinema tickets that take away any sense of quality (“it doesn’t cost me anything, so I might as well watch Transformers 4”). All the bad-quality projections and frustrations with loud-food – all my problems with cinema-chains like Odeon, Vue and Cineworld, I am – in part – funding through my ticket to a Picturehouse film. Let’s hope we see Cineworld ‘learn’ from Picturehouse sooner rather than later.

Simon Columb

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  • Pstroik

    Sorry , what utter crap. Cineworld are actually very good and I couldn't disagree more with what your saying. Their unlimited card cost me 15 quid a month and has opened up a world of choice , allowing me to see more and more films from all over , even low budget British film, MET opera , Nft And so on. Don't tar all their cinemas based on Shaftesbury avenue!!

  • Simon

    I can appreciate that there may be Cineworld's which are of a higher standard – indeed, I prefer VUE to Odeon and the others. But it is nevertheless the size of the chain which is disconcerting, and crucially, how this deal will benefit Cineworld. I do not believe this is a case of Cineworld simply helping out the little guy – there is a mutual benefit. I question how this deal will benefit

  • You seem to have completely forgotten about Cineworld Haymarket, which often seems to mirror the programming at Curzon Soho and all wrapped up in faded 1920s grandeur with a crowd with an eye for less mainstream films without the air of pretence you sometimes find at the Curzon.

  • Simon

    Thanks Tom. I haven't visited that cinema – but I shall try to through your recommendation.