An initiative of the EU MEDIA Programme with the support of the Italian Government
Since 1992 MEDIA Salles has been promoting the European cinema and its circulation at theatrical level

MEDIA Salles' contribution,
at the "Rencontres de Lille", 30 October 2004

Which cinemas?

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 to satisfy.
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 smaller screens.
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 for multiplexes.
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 other activities.
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 cinema complexes.
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 as "suburban/pop-corn/blockbusters".
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 services.
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 the public

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 their offer?
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.