MEDIA Salles' contribution,
at the "Rencontres de Lille", 30 October 2004
The Nineties: a decade of transformation of
the structures and modalities of cinema-going in cinemas*
Both the big screen and the company
of friends: these are the characteristics that make cinema a special
experience and make it preferable to other ways of viewing films.
This is what emerges from a survey conducted throughout Europe by
MEDIA Salles and dedicated to young viewers, that is, children from
the age of 8 to 11 years old.
It is interesting to note how these observations, once transferred
to the world of adults, can be used also as keys to understanding
the transformation of the structure of cinema exhibition in Europe
and of the changes in the manners of cinema-going during the Nineties.
The children said that they adored the "big screen" because
the "size" makes a difference in respect to films on television
or on video and makes the images and stories more involving and
exciting. The children liked the "socializing" linked
to frequenting the cinema.
In the language of adults, if one looks at the characteristics of
cinemas that established themselves during the Nineties, the "big
screen" means technology and comfort, that is welcoming cinemas,
that guarantee a good sound and image quality. The demand for enjoyment
and socialization, linked to cinema viewing, was supplied by inserting
the cinema into contexts that allow other modes of free-time utilization:
sports, fun, shopping and restaurants.
The idea is of transforming the vision of a film into a "special"
occasion from different points of view, the goal is of bringing
the spectator to choose not only (or not just) the film, as much
as the cinema, for the multiple "needs" that it manages
Even just a rapid look at the transformation of the cinema structure
and of its territorial placement over the last ten years allows
us to gain a feeling of this phenomenon.
In the Seventies, in countries such as France and Germany, the first
reaction of the cinema exhibitors regarding the competition of television,
the main cause of the drop in admissions in the cinemas, was the
subdivision of traditional-style cinemas - with many seats - and
located in the city center - into multi-screen complexes, with many
The tactic of subdividing space was in a certain sense so exasperated,
as to create the so-called "multi-box" structures, where
the screens became so small that there no longer was a substantial
difference in respect to television viewing. This formula, that,
at first, attracted spectators for the multiplicity of titles offered
in a single space, soon began to suffer for its technological inadequacy.
The Eighties saw the arrival in Europe of the "multiplex"
model. Invented in the USA, it foresees a purpose-built structure
hosting a number of
screens of different sizes, so as to conserve an ample choice for
spectators and allowing the exhibitor not only scale economies,
but also the possibility of exploiting the last remaining demand
for a film. Though in a different manner, according to the peculiarities
of the markets, and company strategies, the quality of the sound
and images, and the variety of services offered to spectators, they
are elements common to the various types of multiplexes.
These new structures, for their size, require ample space, found
generally in suburban zones of the city and within more recent urban
contexts. The automobile has become consequentially an essential
element: generally one gains access to these structures only through
private transportation. Ample parking space is thus a definite need
The experience of the so far existing complexes has demonstrated
that the patrons generally is ready to drive up to 30 minutes to
arrive at a cinema.
But in the face of a transfer of an hour, they desire to find also
in the same location the possibility of dedicating themselves to
The Nineties saw both the arrival of multiplexes in all European
countries, after a "pioneering" role carried out mainly
by the United Kingdom and Belgium, and the development of integrated
models of cinema/shopping/dining/fun/sports all in one place. Customs
of the audience changed too.
If in the Fifties, cinema, that is the traditional single-screen
cinema, was right next to one's home, today's multiplexes have concentrated
screens in a relatively lower number of points upon the territory.
Not only is there the tendency to think always more about cinema
as a service located on the margins of the city and along the roads
that pass through the most densely populated areas of each city,
not only do people reach cinemas by automobile, but it has also
become a widespread habit to reserve tickets ahead of time, and
inserting the cinema vision within a larger programme of free-time
usage. For example, it could be a Saturday afternoon passed shopping
in the city center at a commercial complex or long week-end nights,
that could include the viewing of a film at 1 am.
This manner of "living cinema" doesn't quite satisfy all
the segments of the public: the more affectionate multiplex clients
are above all youth between 18 and 30 years of age, equipped with
an automobile, that are attracted by the global service and particular
aspects of a certain type of cinema, rather than being attracted
by a certain film.
The goal of not minimizing the other types of spectators (from those
above 30, to those that don't wish to or can't use an automobile,
to those that don't like the "smell" of pop-corn, down
to those that choose above all the title of the film they wish to
see) is one of the reasons for the affirmation of other types of
Associated also with these reasons is often the "reaction"
to the so-called "unwanted" effects of the diffusion of
multiplexes in its more classical formulation,
that, though being aware of excessive simplification, we could define
One of these effects is the crisis and disappearance of screens
from city centers, that for many reasons - starting from the lack
of space - can't keep up with the competition. This phenomenon has
alarmed not only the exhibiting companies involved, but also the
public administrations of the interested city centers. A neighbourhood
that loses a cinema also easily loses the commercial activities
linked to it, from pizzerias to bookstores.
The Nineties have thus seen a rethinking, both from industry and
from politicians, about the localization of cinema complexes.
Maybe the most significative case is of the United Kingdom. Considered
as the European home of the multiplex, characterized by a significative
liberal modus operandi and by intervention of the public powers
within the audiovisual industry that is decidedly less important
than that of France or Italy, this country adopted measures aimed
at protecting the vitality and well-being of the city centers, compromised
by the transfer of commercial activities towards areas on the limits
of large urban centers.
These measures are also applied to theatres, whose role is considered
qualifying, for the life of the city.
In the face of the danger of degradation of the city centers, the
end of Nineties saw the re-launch of the concept of "close-to-home"
cinema, that must be capable of cohabiting spaces together with
multiplexes and megaplexes.
Cityplexes and miniplexes are names often used to identify these
complexes. A better definition just isn't possible. What is certain
is that even these cinemas, often conceived for a more mature and
demanding public, must guarantee the spectator the possibility of
choosing between different titles, high-quality technology and secondary
Whatever may be the formula chosen for these new-generation screens,
it is clear that the Eighties and even more so the Nineties represented
a period of investment for exhibitors, that the likes of hadn't
been seen since the Fifties.
What were the results in terms of quantitative results? In the Nineties,
spectators in Western Europe have undoubtedly risen in number: in
fact, they have passed from about 600 million (1989) to beyond 900
million (2001). And the fact of having counted upon the characteristics
that the children individuated as essential for cinema - large screens
and good company - seems to have been the winning choice.
But, in the "world of adults", one has to be aware that
the route by which the transformation of the exhibition sector has
developed, or rather the development of multiplexes (in 1999, the
complexes with at least 8 screens represented about 15% of the offer,
in 2003 about 30%) also had the undesirable effects that we mentioned.
That is, furthermore, private companies and institutions are worried
that the optimistic forecasts of growth of the annual average frequency
per inhabitant haven't fully manifested, that should have brought
the European figures closer to those of the United States. Overseas
each citizen buys more than 5 tickets per year, meanwhile in Western
Europe, the average is of 2.5 tickets.
The open questions
The early years of 2000: is diversification
the key word to development?
Different screens for different sectors of
Pointing upon a single type of exhibition means
limiting the possibility of cinema offer and, more generally, of
development of cinema frequency.
The goal is of trying to maintain a varied panorama that at the
end is to the advantage of cinema, the spectators and the local
communities. Varying the type of exhibition also varies the type
of product. The large part of exhibitors are only interested in
films that produce profits; only when an art-house film starts to
be interesting under this aspect, is it taken into consideration
by the main exhibitors. But that is not how European cinema stays
alive. This reality needs to be able to count on both a significant
number of screens destined to programming of high-quality cinema
- that in my opinion means a third of those active on the territory
- and of a sufficient number of copies distributed.
Can technology help the cinemas diversify
From the training course recently held by MEDIA Salles, titled "DigiTraining
Plus: New Technologies for European Cinemas", it has become
obvious that one of the motives of prevailing interest for exhibitors,
regarding digital screening is represented by the possibility of
diversifying the offer.
Can one expect, however, that benefits such as minor cost and greater
flexibility are able to be translated into a quantitatively and
and qualitatively better offer for the public? Or rather, can the
cinemas propose a more diversified offer, that also include films
whose distribution is not very economical, or will the distributive
advantages go to the favor of an even more massive presence of those
films that by now cover even more than 30% of the screens of a country?
*Updating of the article appeared on the quarterly
magazine "Cinecittà" 3/4.