Watching a film in a theatre is all about the cinematic ‘experience’; the big screen, the surround sound, the effects of IMAX or 3D (or even both). There is a wide variety of cinemas to choose from in the UK, but does the type of theatre actually make much of a difference? When it comes to the multiplex vs. the independent cinema, is one really better than the other?
Film critic Mark Kermode went through so much trouble while queuing at his local cinema complex that in the introduction to his book, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex’, he was moved to write:
‘I was suddenly filled with a vision of a great gaping void… This was presumably the void of which Nietzsche was thinking when he warned us that “when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks right back into you.” Right now, the abyss was indeed looking back into me, apparently eager for me to get out of the way so that it could look long into the person standing behind me in the queue, who probably wanted two tickets and an industrial-sized vat of popcorn.’
Many hardened film-goers will be familiar with these sentiments; sometimes a multiplex cinema can seem a little too much like a fast food restaurant, shovelling films down the throats of the masses in easy to swallow chunks. But what are the real differences between the multiplex and the indie theatre? For one thing, indie theatres are usually more expensive. At Vue Cinemas, one of the UK’s most popular multiplexes, a full price adult ticket costs about £10, while at Curzon, a chain of six art house cinemas located in London, tickets can cost £11 or £12. In contrast, the average cost of food and drink is often vastly inflated at multiplexes, while at independents the prices are a bit more reasonable (plus most independent cinemas have their own bars, meaning that patrons can take booze into their screenings – a practice utterly excommunicated by the multiplex).
If money is the only consideration, then then there are ways of getting around it. Almost all cinemas, whether multiplex or independent, offer some sort of membership scheme; with Curzon Cinemas you can become a ‘Curzon Cineaste’, which entitles you to two free tickets and 10% off all subsequent purchases; this costs £50 a year (or, there is the option of taking it one step further with ‘Curzon Auteur’, which comes with two free tickets to all screenings, plus a free subscription to Little White Lies Magazine – this package costs a whopping £700 pounds a year, and is probably only worth it if you spend more time in the cinema than you do in your own house).
Not to be outdone, the Odeon multiplex gives patrons the opportunity to join the ‘Odeon Premiere Club’. Prices start at £1.99 and finish at £9.99; members collect ten points for every pound spent at Odeon, which can then be exchanged for tickets and snacks (a ticket costs about 800 points). Vue don’t have a membership scheme, although they do have a deal with Sainsbury’s supermarket whereby nectar points can be traded in for discounts on films. The multiplex puts far more emphasis on consumerism and profit margins; lower prices and larger cinemas mean more people buying more tickets (and popcorn, and nachos, and soft drinks, and so on).
But, this is all from a completely mercenary viewpoint; there are more things besides price to consider when choosing between independent and multiplex. Indie cinemas are undoubtedly prettier, replete with retro Roman columns, balcony seats, red carpets, chandeliers and old-fashioned ticket booths; in other words, they look a little less like popcorn factories and a little more like somewhere you might bump into Alfred Hitchcock. Multiplexes may be cheaper, and are usually more conveniently situated, but most of them would be no match for an indie theatre in a beauty contest (plus you’re more likely to find your feet stuck to the floor). Some limited release films are only screened at indie cinemas, which seem to be less nervous about putting on risqué or foreign language films. Indie cinemas also do more for film, screening festivals, cult movies and little known classics rarely seen on the big screen. The Prince Charles Cinema near Leicester Square even puts on hilarious film-based events such as ‘Swear Along with Team America’, or masquerade balls in the style of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
The multiplex and the independent cinema both perform important functions regarding film distribution. In the end, it’s simply a matter of personal choice, of picking which one fits us best as viewers. As long as the screen is big enough, the sound and image are clear, and some idiot doesn’t forget to switch the lights off, the really crucial issue isn’t the surroundings a film is watched in, but the film itself.