Friday, December 29, 2006

Paying For It

It was 111 years ago today that the first ever paying audience assembled to watch a film together. The screening, held at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, was of La Sortie des usines Lumière or, in English, The Exit from the Lumière Factory. Of course, films had been seen before then, and in groups, but the practice of shelling out to sit down and check out a movie was born that day.

It's been a few days since I paid to see a film myself - Night at the Museum on Boxing Day. Tomorrow, I think I'll be doing it again - Miss Potter, most likely, possibly as well as or just instead of The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D, which I've been putting off for a few weeks, for one reason or another. I know I'm part of a dying breed - and in fact, in the last couple of years, my cinemagoing has cooled off considerably (not because I don't want to see, or pay for, the films being released, but for other, personal, ancillary reasons). I wish I could go much more regularly.

All the same, I think that ticket prices are criminally high and that this is, pretty much alone, the reason that cinema admissions are tumbling. Sure, home cinema screens are getting bigger, new iterations of digital disc media offer better and better picture quality and your own armchair is likely to be more comfortable to you than anything at the multiplex but the group atmosphere in a decent sized audience and the build-up of heading to a specific location for a specific showtime can really give the experience a boost.

And it is an experience. Imagine trying to read a good book in the middle of a nightclub, or eat a good meal from your lap on the back seat of a bumpy double decker bus - I can find trying to watch a film at home a little too like this, at times.

Some cinemas are getting it more right than others. Take, for example, the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Place, central London. The seats are comfortable enough, the projection is always of a decent standard, the selection of films is varied - and I mean that in the best possible sense - and the staff are more than proficient in their ticket retailing and tearing and customer greeting duties. What makes the Prince Charles really work, though, is the pricing.

Say I want to go next Wednesday. The films they are showing are Zidane, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Little Miss Sunshine and Red Road. More than likely something for you in that little lot. If I want to sit and see all four back-to-back, how much will it cost me?

At most, £14. At the nearest cinema, I'd be spending over £10 to see just one film (and out here, in Oxford, that's two normally-priced, £7 tickets) and the Prince Charles total could be as low as £9 for members of the cinema's loyalty scheme (I became a lifetime member for £15).

If I lived in London, I'd surely be one of the Prince Charles' most regular customers. As it is, I still scan ahead on their listings, on the lookout for a double, triple or quadruple bill that will make the trip to London worth it. Thankfully, they're fairly common.

So, paying for it is 111 years old... but what happens now? I'll speculate a little. Why not?

Cinema going will either become (relatively speaking) much more expensive, or much less so. I don't know which, wouldn't like to hazard a guess. Ticket prices could soar to around the £20 mark quite easily, making the 'theatrical experience' more akin to an... er... theatrical experience. With the great unwashed settling for DVDs at home and the big screen experience pushed towards (at least) the middle classes, what will that do for the blockbuster industry?

Or perhaps ticket prices will drop and the box office will swing upwards again. This one is what I'm hoping for.

Either way, it isn't hard to imagine that so-called independent or specialist interest films will be pulling in as much cinema business as the bigger budget fare before long. Furthermore, it is isn't inconceivable that the next generation of blockbusters will be made for and marketed to a more affluent audience so that, say, Miss Potter may become the model of big studio films, instead of Ghost Rider.

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