How can we make cinemas themselves magical again?

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Cinemas might be better equipped than ever, but they’re losing the art of putting on a show: a few thoughts on some small and not so small improvements.

There’s a multiplex cinema near me that, around a decade ago, installed an IMAX screen. Nothing revolutionary there, given that many were jumping over themselves to do the same. However, the management of said multiplex just wanted to add a small something. It was a brainwave didn’t go down too well with every member of staff.


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The idea was simple: just before the screening began, a member of staff would stand at the front, with a microphone, and take 20 seconds to introduce the film. The thinking was nice: just a small extra human touch, in a time where multiplex cinemas are perceived to be run by computers. And whilst the edge was taken off a little by a succession of nervous young staff members with mighty Brummie accents uttering a very quiet introduction (no shade there: I’ve got one of them), I always admired the gesture. Someone was trying.

In the last year or two in particular, many words have been spilled on the death of the multiplex as we know it. Cinema is in decline, we’re told, and fewer people want their films on the big screen. That may or may not be so, but I do think cinemas have a part to play here in their own comeback. That they need to seize the initiative, and make the experience of visiting the cinema a bit more special.

For most of us now, we barely need to talk to a human being to go to the cinema, assuming we’re smuggling a bag of Skittles in from the corner shop rather than paying concession stand prices. We book online, get a code, the code is scanned – sometimes – by someone who doesn’t actually have to say anything to us, we go to our seat.

Once seated, we won’t see another member of cinema staff until we’re on the way out. In the case of my local, that’s when they’re gamely standing at the exit with a bin bag, and a look that forlornly hopes remnant popcorn is going in the bag rather than being liberally sprayed against the floor. Reality bites just minutes later.

And that’s it. Around ten minutes of adverts, then some trailers, then some more adverts, then the film, then the lights beam up at the first sniff of end credits. Then off you go.

I do want to say this nice and early: I think we’re in an era where the presentation of films on screen has rarely been better. The picture quality and sound is generally very good at worst (albeit turned up to deafening levels), and audio in particular is a far, far way removed from what I got growing up. The actually core job of showing a film to a standard is something cinemas are very good at. The rest of it all though? There’s a lot of room for improvement.

Thing is, amongst all the doom and gloom and end of cinema naysaying, I think there’s an opportunity here. Not just the obvious stuff, either, but a chance to try and make cinemas special again. We already see independents who are good at this, adding human touches to the way they present films. We’re seeing interesting programming too (in multiplexes and indies): beambacks of live theatre productions and concerts, Q&As, vintage screenings.

But let’s look at the broader experience of visiting a cinema. There’s the obvious human stuff that feels like a battle lost. Someone radical like an actual person behind a ticket desk helping to wrangle the collection machines.  Ticket sellers who are behind a desk rather than the popcorn stand. Ushers to tell people to STFU. Projectionists to spot problems, and sort them. These are the big ticket things that I can’t see coming back, at least to multiplexes. But I do think they should be on the list.

Cinema box office

Don’t sell your tickets at the counter you sell your sweets and drinks.

Yet I think cinemas should delve back into their past too. I’d like to see them introduce just a series of small little things. Things that in themselves won’t turn things around, but collectively might just make a small difference. Just enough for someone to look around and think you know what, this place might be a bit special.

Look at those posters adorning the walls when you go in. All for new and upcoming releases, right? Go to a theatre though, and you’ll see posters and pictures from historical productions too. Just a sense that there was a past to the place. Try that. Just in one picture frame. What have you got to lose? Have some character to the foyer. Give it a style. Let’s not have every multiplex cut out of the same cookie-cutter interior style. Have something particular to that area. Were there films shot in the vicinity? Celebrate that! Get that on the walls. Make it a picture place. A place where movies are celebrated when you’re outside the auditorium as well as in it.

Small touch too, and at my local multiplex they’re good at this: say hello to people on the way in. Give them a human contact. This isn’t Tesco, with unexpected items in bagging areas. This is a place where people pay extra to watch a film on a big screen. Most of us now have tellies at home that are pretty good at this too. So tempt us to the cinema, and don’t just rely on an individual film to do the job. Make the cinema a really nice place to just visit. The whole feel should start from the minute you walk through the door, and you absolutely need some proper human contact as part of that.

Then, when you’re in the auditorium? Again, keep at least trying. I know Odeon gets a lot of criticism, but at least when I walk into one of its screens, I get that thing where there’s a huge ‘O’ on the screen, and a hum in the background. It’s something. Other chains are using the time when you walk in to project adverts onto the screen, and it just contributes to the whole feeling of sell-sell-sell. By all means flog the snacks – although vary them, and never sell crisps – on the outside. But stop flogging me your stuff at every turn, even when I’m sat down. If you must have slides on the screen when I come in, show me some community projects. Put a few snaps of local filmmakers up. Make it worth watching.

Going back to the Odeon animation: obviously it eventually goes tits up when voiceover man kicks in with the inane forced joys. “The trailers, oooh I love the trailers” he enthuses to broad irritation. He’s second only to automated announcements on train platforms in my book.

Odeon and its on-screen 'O'

This image, courtesy of Odeon, gives an impression of what that animated ‘O’ looks like before you go in. I can live without voiceover man, but at least there’s some sense of anticipation having it on screen.

Back to the cinemas though, and I’m going to go one step further with something I think would be really rather special. It’s a simple idea: put curtains back over the screens.

I understand why they went. They cost money, they get tatty, it eats up 15 seconds opening them. But I go back to teenage me, stumbling into a multiplex to watch a film. The screen was covered by huge curtains, and there was a small ripple of excitement when they started to pull back. A little mechanical whir, and the screen was revealed. And let me tell you folks, it’s much better than Odeon’s ‘O’ soaring off into CG-land.

Then the trailers and ads played. I’m not naïve, I know cinemas have always needed that and likely always will. But here’s a thing: vary the trailers a little. Stop trying to sell me variants on exactly the same type of film I’m watching. If I go and watch a comic book movie, I expect trailers for four more. A horror? A load of horror trailers. Action? The same. My suggestion here: surprise me! Make the trailer in the middle for something entirely different. Have three in a similar genre, and one that’s leftfield. Tempt me to try something different.

And then when the ads are over, as insufferable as they tend to be, the movie nerd in my loves it when the screen changes size before my eyes. Films, after all, are projected in different aspect ratios, and there’s the occasional multiplex now that’ll resize the screen to match, or at least give the impression of doing so. Most of them though just have the biggest possible screen in a room, and leave gaps should the film’s aspect ratio not fill them,

I think that’s less special. There’s no magic to that. If the technology is there to resize the screen, resize the screen (I know it was a curtain effect, but it was a good one). Just a small thing. It won’t impress the older patrons, but for a ten year, they might just look at it with some degree of wonder. And that’s the aim isn’t it? Show people from day one that watching a film in a cinema, from start to finish, is different.

Back to the film, then. When it finishes, another request, before you pull back those glorious curtains again: don’t instantly smack the lights on full. Lift them a little if you must – again, I’m not naïve, I know most people want to go home – but don’t give me the instant impression that you want me out. I know you do, I know you’ve cramped the screenings together to give your sparse staff barely a few minutes to mop up the gallons of Coke and sweep away the eruption of popcorn. I know all of these ideas have to interface with some commercial reality. But: if people want to watch the credits in a darkened room, let them.

It’s not much of a manifesto this – heck, I’ve left the organ player out, and I’d love to have thrown that in – but I do think it’s a series of relatively small things that just make it all feel like someone cares. That it’s a thing to go the cinema.

If you turn up and end up watching Morbius or something, then there’s not much the cinema can do. It doesn’t make the films. But it does show them. And I do believe there’s a value, if not the kind that lands on an Excel sheet, to making a cinema someone looks forward to visiting, even before the film starts playing.

My local cinema no longer does, to my knowledge, that IMAX intro. It’s gone back to QR codes and prebooking your popcorn. It’s not the biggest loss to cinema, nor to multiplexes. But it was something. And it was, in the midst of it all, a tacit acknowledgement of what the finest projectionists argue cinema should be all about: putting on a show. I think those days are worth fighting for.

Images: BigStock, Odeon

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