The UK’s ambitious exhibition sector is pioneering new release concepts to defy the credit crunch and harness the territory’s cinema-going boom.

Me And Orson Welles

In Cannes last month, UK multiplex operator Vue Entertainment announced a groundbreaking deal with CinemaNX (NX), the film financing and production venture supported by the Isle of Man government. Vue undertook to release at least three NX movies into its cinemas and other theatres across the UK.

The first release later this year will be Richard Linklater’s Me And Orson Welles, a period drama starring Zac Efron about a teenager in late 1930s New York given a role in Orson Welles’ Broadway production of Julius Caesar.

What is significant about the deal is that it bypasses a distributor. NX is dealing directly with the UK cinema chain.

“This gives us the opportunity to stick with our investment, the film, for as long as possible,” says Steve Christian, chairman of CinemaNX. “We can determine how it is monetised throughout the value chain. We want to have total flexibility from theatrical release right down to VoD and all the ancillaries.”

“For us, it is a natural evolution,” says Tim Richards, CEO of Vue Entertainment. “You don’t have to look very far on the continent to see exhibitors who are heavily involved in the distribution and even production in some cases [of films].”

Me And Orson Welles will reach Vue cinemas in the last quarter of the year and is expected to go out on 150-200 screens.

Ground-breaking approach

The alliance between Vue and NX is just one of a number of innovative deals struck recently in UK exhibition as the sector adjusts to rapidly changing times.

In late April, HMV, the UK’s leading DVD retailer, and distributor/exhibitor Curzon Artificial Eye (CAE), launched hmvcurzon — a bold plan to set up cinemas in selected HMV stores. This followed an earlier initiative from Artificial Eye — a partnership with Sky Box Office to release Fatih Akin’s The Edge Of Heavenon pay-per-view TV simultaneously with its appearance in cinemas.

In 2007, Odeon and Sky formed a distribution company called Odeon and Sky Filmworks. This is a joint venture through which films such as Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance and Alex de la Iglesia’s The Oxford Murders have been released theatrically in Odeon cinemas as well as other chains and then made available to Sky viewers through its download service. Sky also has all UK TV rights.

Cinema chains, aware their screens are dark for up to 75% of the time, are looking for ways to fill the gaps. They are becoming more open to the live transmission of sporting events, plays, concerts and even to staging gaming events. In addition to the advent of digital 3D (and the premium prices exhibitors can charge for the privilege) there is more flexibility than ever before in terms of programming and the product available.

Cineworld, for example, trumpets its success with Bollywood films in the UK, claiming a 58% share of the UK market for Bollywood releases through films such as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Singh Is Kinng and Jodhaa Akbar. It is also the only major chain to screen Tamil films.

But there is a paradox at the heart of UK exhibition. The sector is both innovative and very conservative. On the face of it, the major exhibitors do not need to change their traditional business models. The UK is one of the world’s biggest box-office markets in terms of revenue generated, and 2008 was a bumper year.

Admissions reached 164.2 million, a 1.1% increase on 2007, with growth in box office of 5% to around $1.6bn (£950m). This year could be even more lucrative on the back of Pathé’s Slumdog Millionaireand with Pixar’s Up and Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince on the way.

Theatrical window ‘sacrosanct’

The three major exhibitors — Odeon, Cineworld and Vue — control around 70% of the market. Despite all the rhetoric from distributors about the attraction of simultaneous multi-platform releases, the theatrical ‘window’
remains sacrosanct. Theatrical exhibition is still seen, as one observer puts it, “as a very large marketing exercise for all the ancillary revenue streams of the product’s life”.

In other words, a traditional cinema release is considered the best way to generate sales on TV, DVD and VoD. The industry may be on the cusp of a brave new digital age but, for bigger movies at least, the old release patterns are not likely to change any time soon.

“Five years ago, they were predicting the demise of [theatrical] exhibition or the elimination of the windows,” says Vue’s Richards. “The thinking right now seems to be going towards two major releases — a very large theatrical release followed by some form of downloading or something else.”

Indeed, many believe that, far from being saturated, the UK film market is under-screened. “The market has expanded dramatically in the last five years. We’ve gone up from 400 releases a year to over 500 releases a year in a short period of time,” points out Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association. “The number of screens available has not increased by anything like that proportion.”

This means competition is ferocious. Some 92 different distributors released 531 films in the UK last year. Inevitably, many of these titles — especially the smaller ones — sank without trace.

Perhaps surprisingly, London’s West End is short of screens. That shortage will be exacerbated further with the demolition of the Odeon West End in London’s iconic Leicester Square. The site will be redeveloped as a hotel complex and although the new complex will include two cinema screens, they will be considerably smaller than the current auditoria.

Meanwhile, as the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association pointed out in its recent 2008 annual report, the expectation that UK rollout of digital cinema technology would gather pace during 2008 was not realised.

At the end of last year, 305 digital screens were operational across 231 cinema sites — around 8% of the entire UK exhibition market. That figure has now risen above 10% but there has been a far from universal embrace of digital.

“The reason for that is a simple one — it’s the credit markets,” says Richards. Converting screens to digital is an expensive business.

One barometer of the UK sector’s health will be the result of the ongoing sale of the 21 National Amusement cinemas, recently put on the market by Sumner Redstone as the US media magnate seeks to reduce his debt pile.

Odeon, Cineworld and Vue are understood to have put in bids for at least some of the cinemas, as have other players. The UK assets of National Amusements were valued at $500m 18 months ago. It remains to be seen what price the cinemas might sell for today — or whether they will be sold at all.

Dramatic new business models

The venture capitalists which came into the industry five years ago when Terra Firma acquired Odeon, and Cineworld (a subsidiary of The Blackstone Group) took control of UGC’s operations in the UK, have done well out of their investments.

However, in the wake of the global economic crisis, the appetite for striking major deals — whether acquisitions or investment in new digital technology — has clearly diminished. While cinema-going is booming and everyone agrees the digital age offers extraordinary new opportunities, UK exhibitors are not in the position to take advantage fully of these opportunities.

“If there was a very substantial deal to be done, that would be very difficult in the current climate,” Richards says. “Some of our much bigger plans may be back-burnered for 12-18 months.”

However, if the brakes have been put on, it is likely the slowdown is temporary. UK cinema-going in the late 1940s was at more than a billion attendances a year. By 1984, that figure had plummeted to 54 million. Then came the multiplex revolution. Since then, the industry has been on an upward surge.

Richards for one insists that surge is nowhere near over. “What you are seeing [in exhibition] is a whole new way of thinking. You’re getting business people and not ego-driven circuits. You’re get­ting people who are doing something dramatic, like giving customers what they want.”


Number of Vue screens on which Me And Orson Welles will be directly released


Market share of UK digital screens


Number of films released in the UK in 2008


Number of UK distributors in 2008


Total market share of Vue, Cineworld and Odeon


Total UK box office in 2008