One would think that with developments in home entertainment, from more capable televisions to the explosion of affordable streaming services on offer in recent years, that the multiplex might be facing a similar fate to the one it ushered in for Glasgow’s single-screen picturehouses decades ago. On the contrary, it appears, as last year cinemas across the UK enjoyed their biggest box office figures since 1971, with roughly 176 million tickets bought. If anything the only remarkable figure is quite how much Glasgow’s multiplexes are charging these millions, given the average cinema ticket prices across the UK have almost doubled since the turn of the millennium. As such the question seems far from how has the multiplex survived, but rather how are they justifying their prices; what are they offering in return?
My fears in this respect, as with most of Glasgow’s ongoing development, are best exemplified by London. During a brief misadventure in the capital earlier last year, I was due to meet a friend somewhere near a tube station (they have a lot of those). But London is a place where pedestrians go to die, and so me and my knackered legs were lingering near our specific tube station a few hours earlier than planned. It was raining, and London has very few sheltered places to sit idly for free that aren’t crowded museums or an eight kilometre horizontal hike through homicidal traffic way. So I ducked into a nearby cinema, not thinking it anything more than an excuse to dry off for a couple of hours. A machine was extended towards me, I tapped my card and the digits 16.50 flashed onscreen in that exact order – which is coincidentally what my heart rate dropped to. The film, Leave No Trace, was fantastic, but it’s emotional heft was offset significantly by the lightness in my pocket.
To put the Curzon’s figure into perspective, if it really needs it, the average ticket price at the turn of the millennium was £4.40. A ticket at a Glasgow multiplex today meanwhile, even with no student discount attached, would still be roughly a fiver less. What the Curzon offered in exchange for this price hike wasn’t much beyond brutalist aesthetics and a seat that tipped back whenever I sneezed. When I finally caught my friend outside that tube station and explained to him in no uncertain terms what my wallet had endured, the distinction across London’s cinemas became apparent. That the Curzon, like many others across the city, was one of a number of high-end cinemas, distinct from the city’s multiplex venues in exclusivity, in audience and in price.
I write this early in the wake of one these up-market cinema chains having recently opened a venue in Princes Square: an Everyman, ironically. Though it’s well worth noting a ticket for a regular Everyman screening is little above what most mainstream cinemas in the city would charge for a regular screening. But even without a distinct ambassador of high-price viewing in the city centre, the invasion of luxury into Glasgow’s cinema experiences is nonetheless well upon us. And its effects are best seen not so much in ‘boutique’ venues such as your Curzons and Everymans, where luxury trimmings are expected and specifically forked out for, but rather in the mainstream venues slowly climbing their prices towards the high-end.
Take Glasgow’s Cineworld, which has recently undergone refurbishment to dedicate its upper floors to a VIP Lounge: an explicit declaration of exclusive luxury above the multitude of viewing experiences on offer up and down the 12-storey monolith. This luxury seems to be trickling to the building’s lower floors too, as its trappings are visible even in vanilla viewing experiences, which have begun selling themselves as luxury. Not just in their gimmicks, like paying a few extra pounds for a vibrating seat or a wider screen, but in the ways in which the entire experience of cinema viewing is being sold to us: that a trip to the pictures isn’t something to spend a few hours on of an afternoon or evening, but rather an entire night out in itself. With the cinema experience, rather than the film onscreen, being the main event.
I suppose in many ways it makes sense as, while home viewing experiences only improve in quality and accessibility, multiplexes will need to do ever more to differentiate themselves from your living room; like making sure their seats do the daft kind of things your sofa can’t (and probably shouldn’t). The issue here isn’t these gimmicks themselves, as most are fun distractions from even the most tedious blockbuster, but that a result of them seems to be a slow sliding of the basic cinema experience towards exclusivity, and a quick rise in cost for the bargain. A shift which for many makes a night at the pictures a hard watch.