The acclaimed short film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, when discussing his perspective on going to the movies, was quoted in The Skinny as saying “I always feel that seeing film is an event […] it is performative. Sometimes the actual films are secondary”. It is a philosophy taken to heart by the modern multiplex experience. Though the polar opposite of Weerasethakul’s arthouse shorts, the two are united by this surprisingly similar outlook on what the cinema experience is all about.
When cinema attendance plummeted in the 1980s, movie theatres were quick to make a trip through their doors about a lot more than just seeing a movie. Cue the arrival of the UK’s first multiplex in 1984, soon replicated throughout the country, with nearly every major city today having at least one. Now however, multiplexes all over the place are getting revamped, remade and redecorated like never before. Cinema Technology describes it as the biggest transformation in cinemas since the move to digital projection.
Edinburgh has been at the centre of this revolution, and the Scottish capital provides a fascinating example. Odeon Wester Hailes, one of the more retro multiplexes located near Napier University’s Sighthill campus, is unrecognisable now as Odeon Luxe Edinburgh West. It is one of seven Odeon cinemas nationwide to get the Luxe treatment.
They all now have leather reclining seats, a state-of-the art 4K digital projector (that’s four times the image quality of standard HD) and a new restaurant named after the company’s founder Oscar Deutsch.
VUE has also been transforming. Like the new Odeon, every seat at their Ocean Terminal home is now a leather recliner – a privilege normally reserved for more expensive ticket holders. The idea behind changes like this is that this will draw back those who have not been to the cinema for some time, or are looking to make it a part of a big day out with family or friends. This is especially important for a cinema chain that tends to have higher prices than its two main rivals.
Cineworld meanwhile has introduced 4DX, because apparently seeing a film is not enough anymore. You need to experience it with all of your senses; your chairs move, you can feel wind being blown onto your face and you even get sprinkled with water sometimes. It was a big investment for Cineworld – including Edinburgh, 17 outlets have had 4DX installed. Cineworld claim that it provides “a revolutionary cinematic experience”, not least of all because hot food and drink is not allowed for health and safety reasons. Feeling like you’re being rained on is a superior experience to eating nice snacks in a comfortable chair, it turns out.
The modern multiplex is clearly evolving. This has meant that it is increasingly less about the movie itself, and more about the experience of just being in the building. Edinburgh, with six multiplexes currently in the city (one Cineworld, two VUEs and three Odeons) is clearly a prime site for trying to get one up on the competition.
If metaphors are your thing, look no further than coffee: nothing says ‘new 21st century experience’ than barista-crafted flat whites in a paper cup. Gone are the fully automated budget hot drinks, and in their place you now have devilishly tempting, hand-made cups of modern luxury. Costa, Starbucks and Lavazza have set up shop in Odeon, Cineworld and VUE respectively. All in the name of making the multiplex experience exactly that: an experience.
This evolution is needed because cinema chains are no longer competing solely amongst themselves. They are up against the ever-growing might of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Netflix in particular, with its recent high profile releases The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation, is muscling in on territory once reserved for the cinema. New releases can be enjoyed at home in your pyjamas. There is no need to pay up to £10 for a ticket to go and see one film on a big screen when you can pay under £10 a month to see as many as you like.
While it is good to think that there will always be room for large scale cinematic experiences, this is hardly something to be complacent about. Making cinemas increasingly more about everything else, the movie playing second fiddle, helps multiplexes to compete with their online rivals.
What might this mean for Edinburgh’s other cinemas? While not all of the small cinemas are independent, they are still important places in Edinburgh’s rich cultural scene. The Cameo for instance has been part of the Picturehouse chain since 2012, which in turn is owned by Cineworld. However, it first opened in 1914, and was independent for almost 100 years being one of the oldest cinemas anywhere in Scotland.
When Quentin Tarantino visited the cinema in 1994, he decreed it to be one of his favourite picturehouses anywhere in the world. Edinburgh’s rich film history is embodied by places like the Cameo, and its classic, understated look stands in stark contrast to the ever-changing multiplexes.
The Cameo is not alone however. Filmhouse sees itself as “Scotland’s leading independent cinema” and specialises in arthouse and foreign films as well as special 70mm screenings. The Dominion in Morningside is also independently owned but is very different to Filmhouse, treating itself as a retro cinema that shows all the same big releases as its multiplex rivals.
The Dominion actually played on the whole ‘greater experience’ trend long before the chain cinemas did. You can grab a full meal there, be treated to a fine selection of drinks and lounge in massive leather sofas when watching your movie of choice.
The changing multiplex experience could have different effects on Edinburgh’s more niche cinema scene. The pessimistic prediction is that, as chain cinemas draw people in with glitzy promises of spanking new technology and soya milk, the local picturehouses will lose out.
Edinburgh has lost too many cinemas over the years, their outsides now aging monuments that litter the streets. The New Victoria, which opened in 1930, is now a carcass on Clerk Street and a stone’s throw away from Edinburgh Bargain Store. That’s just one of the ones that are still standing. Many others are gone forever.
On the other hand, if local cinemas keep their vintage charm and character as the multiplexes get ever more modern, it should make them more distinct from their nation-leading competitors. Having a more unique selling point compared to the likes of Cineworld may actually favour small cinemas like the Cameo or Filmhouse, since they will be offering something more obviously different.
There is seemingly a soft spot in audience members’ hearts for a more traditional cinema experience, an affection played on by the presence of old cinemas in new movies such as The Shape of Water. The more quirky and unique they can be, the more appealing they will seem to many who want something different to Dwayne Johnson in ultra-HD (as magnificent as that is).
There is of course nothing wrong with choosing a modern multiplex, and there are good reasons to do so. VUE and the like would not be bothering with all of these expensive changes if they didn’t think that there would be a positive reaction to it. Making cinema a grand day out, making it about more than the film itself, is the latest tactic in trying to keep the UK going to the movies and keep the film industry going.
The reckoning however may not be headed their way, but in the direction of local picturehouses. They are at a critical crossroads – they can either mimic the multiplex experience like The Dominion, or remain more arthouse and antique like the Cameo.
However the cinema scene in Edinburgh and further afield may change, there should always be room for these wonderful figures of the city’s cultural history.
Image: Olívia Proença via Wikimedia Commons