The Hollywood studio system came to an end in the late 40’s because of anti-trust laws. A Supreme Court ruling dictated that film production, distribution and exhibition should be separated thus ending vertical integration. Was it a good or a bad thing? There were merits and drawbacks, we will never know how things would have been different had the laws not been passed. Although on a smaller scale, we are seeing an example of government competition rules interfering with the film industry here in the UK following Cineworld’s purchase of The Picturehouse group.
Last December Cineworld purchased Picturehouse Cinemas for a reported £47.3m. With their largest cinema (The Ritzy in London) having five screens Picture house Cinemas are very different from the multiplexes that dominate the market (and form the basis for Cineworld‘s own branded sites). They also cater to less mainstream tastes with an emphasis on foreign language, independent and cult movies as well as mainstream Hollywood films. Most of their locations are named and include some famous cinemas: The Cameo in Edinburgh, The Ritzy in Brixton, The Belmont in Aberdeen and Phoenix in Oxford (not to be confused with The Phoenix East Finchley). They offer a good balance between independent and chain cinemas.
Unfortunately, The Competition Commission has decided that the group must sell venues in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. They have “reluctantly” agreed to sell The Belmont in Aberdeen, and its Picturehouse cinema in Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. Concerned local filmgoers have written to Competition Commission and signed a petition (including a reported 14,000 names to save the St Andrew’s Street cinema in Cambridge), explaining that a new operator will change the nature of the cinemas or even worse fail to make a profit jeopardising the future of the venues. Sticking to their guns, the Competition Commission are sticking to their guns and have stated: “The sale of one of the cinemas in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge to a competing cinema operator will restore competition in these areas and protect customers’ interests.”
If one chain owned all the multiplexes in a town they could dictate what movies are available for people to watch and how much they pay for them. In this instance it would make sense to split them up, but the situation here is very different. The two brands are very different and can happily exist within the same group. Cineworld seem to be a good match for Picturehouse, even in their multiplexes they show a reasonable number of smaller independent and foreign language movies. They also have an “Unlimited Card” allowing customers to see as many films as they like for a monthly fee. This makes it much cheaper for regular cinema goers. On the downside, like so many multiplexes they make most of their money from food and drink, and in some locations close their box-office forcing customers to buy tickets from the concessions stand.
I could be overreacting, and a buyer could be found who will make a better job of running The Belmont in Aberdeen, The Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds and Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge. Before I come across as an apologist for Cineworld, they don’t come out of this scot-free. I am not so naive to think that Cineworld would have spent a millisecond thinking about selling one of its multiplexes instead of one of the arts cinemas. However; it is hard to believe that a company like Cineworld didn’t employ an army of lawyers who warned them this could happen. As I don’t live near a Picturehouse cinema, I have no vested interest in the situation, however as someone who lives in a city containing a great multiplex (with an IMAX screen) and a fantastic independent cinema, I know how fortunate I am as s movie lover.