The real cinema paradiso

Financial Times 

The timing may be off, coming in the middle of one of Europe’s worst recessions, but the spread of upmarket boutique cinemas was perhaps a trend waiting to happen.

If you have had enough of the hustle and bustle of coke-and-popcorn multiplex cinemas, listen up. Why not pay a bit more for more classy touches such as leather seats and waiter-service, fancy snacks and cocktails? That is the proposition behind a growing cinema niche positioned between multi-screen complexes and art house venues.

Tom Huddleston, cinema critic for London’s Time Out listings magazine, says the idea of cinemas with “enormous chairs and wine coolers” is catching on be­c­ause “a treat-yourself night out, especially for couples, is appealing – it smacks of quality”.

Upmarket boutique cinemas are offering customers leather seats, waiter-service, fancy snacks and cocktails in spite of the recession.

Cinema companies have been tapping into the high-end trend to offer more varied film-going experiences. But there are management challenges involved in applying the business model. The size of the potential market is unclear, as are the best ways to provide value for money, with tickets costing up to twice the standard price.

Some big chains are also experimenting with improving the experience for discerning cinema-goers. In the UK, the Vue chain caused uproar last year when it an­nounced its intention to experiment with designating some showings for over-18s because they would be better behaved.

One of London’s newest boutique cinemas is the Everyman Belsize Park, a spin-off from the original, the nearby Hampstead Everyman, well known for decades as an arthouse screen in one of the city’s posher residential areas and now part of a growing chain of boutique screens. Everyman took over the Belsize Park venue from a tiny chain and gave it a facelift. It has a chic café-style foyer and an auditorium with 130 leather seats (half the number before the relaunch). Tickets cost £12-£16 ($17.50-$23, €13.50-€18) each, with no concessions.

In the foyer are bowls of lemon salted almonds and wasabi peas, while wine glasses and cocktail mixers line up behind the bar. The auditorium is also different from most multiplexes. The seats are more like sofas, and most are two-seaters with lots of leg room. Small tables nestle between the seats, with space for wine coolers, drinks and food. Cinema-goers order refreshments, which are delivered by waiters during the trailers. Such touches, combined with high-tech innovations – such as a digital projector and online bookings that zip the ticket to your mobile phone – give the cinema a cool, modern feel.

The Astor in west Berlin – where tickets cost €12.50-€17 ($16-$22, £11-£15), with concessions for children – is even grander. Bellboys provide a valet parking service, and guests receive a free glass of sparkling wine on arrival. A free cloakroom means coats do not have to be squashed under seats. The luxurious auditorium, refurbished last December but dating from the late 1940s, is spacious, as are the 250 armchair seats, each with a table for the cinema’s popular cocktails.

Like the Everyman, Astor serves snacks that will not involve distracting rustlings or smells, an annoyance in big-chain cinemas. Cabaret artists sometimes perform before the film as a change from adverts and film trailers. Both the Everyman and Astor report good business, especially at weekends, and in both cases the companies that own them plan to open further upscale cinemas across the UK and Germany respectively, adding to the handful that exist in Europe.

In a sign that bigger entertainment companies are taking the trend seriously, multiscreen cinemas are opening VIP lounges or seating areas, notes Kath Sloggett, chief executive of Everyman Media Group. Jürgen Friedrich, manager of the Astor, says: “Cinema audiences [in Germany] have been falling, and that is partly because many people are turned off by multiscreen venues.”

Karen Wood, manager at the Everyman Belsize Park, points out that her venue is only a little more expensive than most cinemas in London’s West End. However, there have been complaints from cash-strapped customers about the relatively high ticket prices, she admits.

“Our aim is for a ‘one-stop’ night out, providing couples with a chance to meet friends, have a drink and watch a movie in one comfortable location,” she says. Full meals in on-site restaurants are among future plans.

Both the Everyman and the Astor are joining the growing trend of using cinemas for other, non-feature film events, such as the live broadcast, via satellite, of opera from central London or New York, for which tickets cost up­wards of £20. The Everyman group is also experimenting with games sessions, where the audience plays video games that are shown on the big screen.

Ms Sloggett says the recession has caused the group’s expansion plans to be been scaled back, however. The Time Out film critic, meanwhile, fears that the trend could hit investment in other cinemas. It makes normal independents “look less respectable than they really are”, says Mr Huddleston. Perhaps such nights will serve well as special occasions, but not replace normal cinema visits. “It’s like upgrading to business class in an aeroplane,” says one cinema-goer.