Source: Sundance Film Festival


The industry is used to stories about UK cinema­going being in decline since the pandemic and younger viewers finding other ways to spend their leisure time. But a number of independent exhibitors counter that narrative based on their own experiences. While none downplay the struggles that arthouse cinema releases still face at the UK box office, many also highlight reasons for optimism. 

“We are seeing a flourishing of young cinephile audiences,” says Jake Garriock, director of publicity at leading UK arthouse distributor/exhibitor Curzon.

David Sin, head of cinemas at the Independent Cinema Office (ICO), echoes that view. “A number of the highest-grossing films in that [arthouse] space in the post-­pandemic era have been films that are aimed at a younger audience than traditional arthouse cinema,” he says, citing titles such as Decision To Leave, Triangle Of Sadness and “a slew of British independent films like Scrapper and Saint Maud, aimed primarily at millennial and Gen Z audiences”. 

Sin believes UK arthouse distributors have been slanting their slates toward younger spectators, realising older audiences were initially reluctant post-Covid to come back to cinemas. Over the last two years, independent releases including Anatomy Of A Fall, La Chimera, Aftersun and The Zone Of Interest have played well with a younger demographic. More mainstream indie titles such as Saltburn and Challengers have played extremely well in university towns.

“This younger audience has replaced the more traditional arthouse audience as the core supporter of independent and arthouse cinemas in the UK,” Sin suggests. 

Levelling up

Indeed, ICO has helped indie cinemas devise marketing initiatives that engage with younger audiences in the 16-25 or 18-30 age groups. Film clubs with a younger profile have also been springing up across the UK, including the TAPE Collective in London and Matchbox CineClub in Glasgow.

“They see the level of engagement with that audience as being much more than just a transactional thing,” Sin adds. “Those venues that have been successful have been using social-media platforms to engage with that audience, including [cinephile social platform] Letterboxd.”

Gemma Gracewood

Source: Letterboxd

Gemma Gracewood

As Letterboxd editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood observes, the pandemic caused huge upheaval in the exhibition sector and yet it may also have nurtured a new generation of cinema lovers. “Covid lockdowns were when we started to see a significant growth in our membership,” she says. “People were using Letterboxd to explore filmographies and go deeper into film histories than they had done before.”

As these members came out of lockdowns, they started going back to cinemas. One barrier that looks as if it has completely disappeared among younger filmgoers is an aversion to subtitles. “I think young people often enjoy subtitles, whether that’s subtitles from a foreign-­language film or because they have subtitles on Instagram and TikTok,” says Fiona Evans, recently appointed CEO of film education charity Into Film. “They’re multi-­nodal and enjoy the words alongside the pictures.”

In order to attract younger audiences, venues are increasingly giving younger “gatekeepers” the chance to choose the films that are shown. This is a strategy Barbican Cinemas has pursued with the Emerging Film Curators Lab, its scheme for young programmers, and the Chronic Youth Film Festival, which these neophyte programmers oversee. 

The Barbican credits this strategy for helping to fuel a rise in admissions. It recently posted near record-­breaking figures for the 2023-24 financial year — box office of $1.8m (£1.4m) against 188,675 tickets sold — which is just short of its best year ever for box ­office, 2019-20, when it achieved $1.9m (£1.5m).

Gali Gold, head of cinema at the Barbican, points to the 76,000 current members of the Young Barbican scheme, which provides cut-price tickets. This scheme is not just for cinema — music and arts events at the venue are also included. “[But] we know the most popular art form for this membership is the cinema,” Gold says. “We offer Young Barbican tickets for all our screenings. It’s a free membership. Anything below £15 [$19.20] they will get it for £5 [$6.40], anything above they will get it for a tenner.”

On Challengers, 34% of admissions were Young Barbican tickets. That figure was 49% on The Sweet East, 27% on Evil Does Not Exist and 26% for Priscilla. These figures are encouraging in terms of how younger audiences are engaging with arthouse releases. 

Mark Cosgrove, head of cinema at Bristol’s Watershed, remembers his wariness about programming Yi Yi (2000) by Edward Yang at the venue. Who was going to come and watch a Taiwanese arthouse film that was already more than 20 years old? He put the picture in one of the venue’s smaller auditoriums, hoping to sell around 40 tickets.

“You underestimate your audience, whatever age, at your own peril,” Cosgrove says. “We ended up moving it into a bigger screen and we got [an audience of] 170. A large percentage of that audience was young people.”

As it turned out, Yi Yi had been recommended on Letterboxd, where it is currently number 11 on the top 250 list of narrative features from titles with a minimum of 5,000 ratings. “That list is drawn entirely from our members’ rating,” says Gracewood. “If [Yi Yi] is showing on 35mm and you’ve had that on your list for some time, you’re going to want to see it in the best form possible.” 

Jake Garriock Curzon

Source: Rosalind Boulton

Jake Garriock

Curzon’s Garriock talks of a similar experience screening Wings Of Desire (1987) as part of a season dedicated to director Wim Wenders. At a BFI Southbank event, the host asked who in the audience had not seen the film before. “I would say 60% to 70% of the audience put their hands up,” says Garriock. “You could see it was a young crowd.”

When releasing older catalogue titles, Garriock highlights the importance of providing fresh marketing hooks — for instance new trailers — for younger viewers. “The most successful repertory that works for young audiences is when you do something to elevate it.”

Curzon recruited young filmmakers who had been influenced by Wenders, such as Turner Ross (Gasoline Rainbow), to record introductions to the films, while Ari Aster did a video essay for a Lars von Trier season. On newer releases, Curzon has also come up with marketing tie-ins to attract the young cinephiles: on La Chimera, it worked with streetwear brand SCRT to design t-shirts. “They sold out within a day,” says Garriock.

Price points

Pricing is also key to attracting younger cinemagoers. In Bristol, Watershed pioneered a £5 ($6.40) ticket offer for audiences under 25, and virtually all the major indie venues now offer something similar. Curzon has a free under-25 membership that offers discounts on tickets and concessions. This gives peak tickets for £9 ($11.50) and off-peak tickets for £6 ($7.70). Other exhibitors also have membership schemes and initiatives such as Picturehouse Cinema’s Film Club, which offers ‘branded screenings’ for £1 ($1.30).

The sector is even catering to cinephile audiences of school age. Into Film has a network of more than 7,500 active extracurricular film clubs for school children, and in the summer of 2021 launched its streaming service Into Film+. Evans talks of bringing “arthouse content directly into the classroom”. The organisation works with more than 40 distributors and in recent years has held previews of films including County Lines, Whale Rider and The Cup. Its annual Into Film Festival hosts 350,000 children across the UK, with TishYour Fat Friend and How To Have Sex all performing well at the most recent festival.

These are all encouraging trends, although no-one is in denial about the parlous state of independent arthouse distribution. They need only look at the Comscore box-office figures for a reality check. However, if younger audiences continue to engage with arthouse cinema in growing numbers, then that must be considered a beacon of hope for the future of UK cinemagoing.