What is the future of cinema?

There was once a time when film studios reigned supreme in their control of theatrical movie presentation, with many of the biggest studio names in Hollywood running prestigious theatre chains. However, by the early 1950s, the system that had helped create Hollywood was slowly dying, alongside a studio system grappling with the impact of TV, out-of-control budgets and a desire to create something new. Many, at the time, openly talked about the death of cinema, and by the 1960s and 70s, many sprawling one-screen art deco theatres risked becoming obsolete. 

The 70s and 80s would see the birth of the multiplex and the lazy sub-division of many once beautiful and majestic theatres into multiple screens. The move to a multiplex format, where auditoriums were attached to shopping centres and out-of-town developments, provided choice and apparent long-term viability for the cinema experience as VHS began its march. But despite the concerns around TV, VHS and home cinema, the theatrical experience survived. However, did it lose its soul along the way?

As COVID-19 hit our world, cinema experienced the most challenging crisis in its history, with projector lamps cold and auditoriums silent for the first time since the Second World War. This caused what can only be described as a cardiac arrest in theatrical entertainment, as studios rushed online and cinemas were left trying to apply CPR. But it also raised an important question that had been avoided for years: Had cinemas become complacent? And did the theatrical experience still offer audiences what they were looking for?


The COVID shockwave hit all cinemas, no matter their size or delivery model, with independent cinemas hit by zero takings and little wriggle room in financial recovery. At the same time, larger chains closed their doors with little planning on how to keep loyal customers engaged. Some chains used innovative approaches; for example, Curzon used its Home Cinema platform while providing cinema snacks through Uber Eats. Meanwhile, BFI continued to bring us film festivals through BFI Player and Shift. However, the big beasts of ODEON, Cineworld and Vue remained largely quiet, neither fully embracing new technology nor their customers during a period of social change. Meanwhile, studio distribution ground to a halt, with their prized assets forced into hiatus as the distribution model collapsed into an ocean of doubt.

This new landscape neither supported streaming nor theatrical as films entered a no-mans land between the two. Even as cinemas slowly reopened with Tenant, box office takings remained subdued, and many screamed for streaming releases, which many studios embraced with Cinema at Home rental options. Does that mean that the public has fallen out of love with cinema? The answer is no, even though the reset button has been pushed, and just as cinema has reinvented itself in the past, it must now reinvent itself for the future.


But what will this new model look like in practice? One answer may involve looking to the past and event cinema of the 1950s and 60s—a trip to the cinema used to be a theatrical experience akin to a trip to the theatre. Roadshow pictures would carry intervals, 70mm presentation, and six-track sound to lure those seeking a special night out. These films were presented with care and attention to detail in large auditoriums where the architecture wrapped you in a world of wonder and escape. For too long, cinemas have focused on nacho meal deals rather than presentation, leading customers to complain about kiosk prices before then experiencing a lacklustre film presentation.

If cinemas are to survive, the big screen experience must once again sit at the heart of a customer journey with large panoramic screens that eclipse anything available at home. ODEON has recently invested in many of its art deco venues, from Holloway to Swiss Cottage and Leicester Square, placing the experience centre stage. At the same time, Curzon has continued to embrace an ‘experience’ model that dovetails high presentation standards with food, drink and unique venues. But there are still far too many multiplex locations where presentation and experience are sadly lacking – venues where staff have no interest in film and are merely coached to sell as many hot dogs as possible. If cinema can embrace its lost artistry, passion and experience, the future is safe, and we all continue to talk about the big screen for decades to come.

ODEON Holloway
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