SCREEN FILM SUMMIT: Industry debate continues about how to grow cinema audiences after a tough year at the box office.

Vue CEO Tim Richards told industry yesterday that ticket pricing is “absolutely not” the cause of, or answer to, falling cinema admissions in the UK.

Richards was one of a number of leading UK film industry executives to discuss the issue during the Screen Film Summit held at the BFI in London.

“Any dialogue that helps drive attendance is a good thing but pricing is not it: absolutely not it,” said the executive, who oversees a fleet of 83 cinemas in the UK and 187 across Europe and Asia.

“We’re in an industry in which people will pay virtually anything to see a film they really want to see. If there is a film they do not want to see they will not go even if it is free,” he continued.

“Every study we’ve done of our customers – and we do exhaustive surveys – shows that pricing is typically third or fourth on the scale [of concerns]. Parking is number one.”

Richards admitted that 2014 was “one of the worst performing years at the box office in memory,” with UK admissions down 5.3% year-on-year.

Admissions also dropped in 2013, from 172.5m in 2012 to 165.5m.

But the executive urged that the recent slump was a global and cyclical problem:

“This is a global issue in large part down to a weak Hollywood slate. This is not a Netflix issue or an infrastructural issue. It’s a movie slate issue… It’s important to note that this year’s fall in admissions is not unprecedented. It’s not unusual to see a decline then to have recovery in following years.”

“I’m very nervous of knee jerk reactions,” he added. “This is a bad year but I don’t think there’s anything wrong or broken so there’s nothing to fix. If we’re having this same discussion in two years there’s an issue we need to address.”

Lionsgate UK CEO Zygi Kamasa reiterated his suggestion from last week that there was a debate to be had around lower ticket prices for British films as a means to stimulate admissions and boost the UK industry:

“My objective is simple,” he said. “I want to increase cinema admissions. Particularly for British movies. This idea may go nowhere. But we need to have the debate and explore other opportunities. The market has changed dramatically and we must do something to bring consumers to the cinema.”

StudioCanal CEO Danny Perkins had earlier in the day disagreed with the idea of cheaper ticket prices for British films: “I think it’s an interesting idea but it’s not one that I would agree with. For me, it’s all about films having to compete on the same level. I’m not sure someone would go to the cinema and choose to see a film because it was cheap…. The film has to stand on its own two legs.”

However, the executive recognized that a “behind the scenes” subsidy could prove beneficial: “It might be better to look behind the scenes as to how we support these films because it is super tough for them, rather than having something up front and public facing because I’m not sure long-term that’s the best message to the consumer”.

“There may be something that can be done, whether it is a VAT break on theatrical returns or something like [Creative Europe’s] Automatic [scheme], which supports distributors for supporting European art house films. That scheme creates a virtuous cycle of investment and return.”

BBC Films head Christine Langan pointed to the different advertising budgets available to indies and studios as key to the challenge faced by British films entering the market: “What we’re seeing is that there are almost two separate industries. The diary going forward for the next couple of years is full of enormous Hollywood films, which are branded goods. There’s another industry that is much more personal, which is about auteur voices and human stories. Digital distribution is only so helpful for those pieces because they don’t have the advertising [budgets] to get above the parapet. Audiences often don’t know they exist. It’s about availability, knowledge and access.”

Big Talk producer Mathew Justice said that as a producer he was “agnostic” when it came to ticket pricing, but Perkins wryly suggested that cheaper ticket prices for British films would “be a ‘fun’ argument to have with a filmmaker who has struggled with a project for five years”.