THE film business thrives on hyperbole, but the opening of a new Odeon multiplex in Bournemouth two months ago really was the biggest event in many decades for the town’s cinema-goers.
It was the culmination of years of debate and speculation, during which several operators and sites had been in the running.
In the end, the 10-screen cinema was to be part of the BH2 leisure complex, where the town’s bus station once stood.
Yet the cinema’s busiest spell so far was not that opening weekend, but the release of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast. That week saw 26,000 filmgoers in a complex that seats up to 1,600.
“It’s proved to be a huge blockbuster not just across the UK but across the whole globe,” said general manager Richard Rowe, 28.
“It shows everybody still wants to see a good old Disney musical.”
For a long time, multiplex openings tended to happen in out-of-town venues with free parking. Yet Odeon went for a town centre, opening the same day as Showcase opened its own 10-screen multiplex in Southampton city centre.
“The fantastic thing about having everyone in one location in the town centre with the other restaurants and bars and leisure outlets is it really helps increase footfall,” said Mr Rowe.
Odeon has made much of the technical specs of its Bournemouth site. Its main auditorium carries the iSense branding – meaning a giant screen, 4K projection and 56-channel sound. Other auditoriums have the option of reclining seats.
“The way cinema works has really changed over the last few years. Whereas before you could sell it as ‘Get people in, show a film and get people out again’, in this age of Netflix and online downloads, home entertainment has improved,” said Mr Rowe.
“Cinema is about an overall experience, not just coming to see a film. People want to be able to relax, almost have the red carpet treatment during the show.”
The Odeon chain was for generations part of the Rank Group, before a succession of sales. Last July, it was bought by America’s AMC Theatres, which is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group – making it a stablemate of Poole’s Sunseeker.
Some film fans still shudder at a 2007 remark by Guy Hands, founder of Odeon’s former owner Terra Firma, that “the management team really believed they were part of the film business” and “I had the difficult job of explaining to them that they were in the popcorn-selling business”.
Refreshments are crucial to the cinema business, with a relatively small slice of ticket money retained by the venue. But while Odeon makes much of its catering – including beers and wine, pizzas, “planks”, popcorn and customised Cokes – Mr Rowe insists there is a balance.
“The way we view it is that all elements of the business are critical. The fact of us being in the popcorn selling business doesn’t necessarily engage our guests and doesn’t actually bring people through the doors,” he said.
“Anyway, without a spectacular film show you don’t get the people coming through the door to even be able to sell popcorn to.
“We welcome people going to restaurants beforehand or even bringing their own food. We don’t have an issue with that but I do think having a snack with your film does improve the experience.”
Reels of film are nowhere to be seen in the modern multiplex – even printed posters have disappeared, to be replaced by the digital kind. Movies arrive by satellite dish and Mr Rowe says this brings flexibility. “A single cinema can show six different films,” he said.
“It’s a common myth that cinemas no longer have projectionists. All our leadership team are trained in digital projection to a very high standard. It’s important that you see on screen is spot on. All our team know how to troubleshoot shows when required to.”
He says digital projection has given the business the ability to try different kinds of films.
“Bournemouth has a really diverse demographic, where people who want to see a variety of films, whether that be art house right through to some of our foreign films, Bollywood and Polish-made, through to mainstream blockbusters,” he said.
“The business has been able to show films it’s never been able to show before. Three years ago we weren’t in a situation where we could show the Bollywood or Polish films. It was difficult to say whether they would have been a success. With modern technology we can show these films and create a fantastic audience.”
He said there was a company ethos of “test and learn”, with local managers given more flexibility than people might imagine.
“One of the things I love about working in the cinema industry and Odeon particularly is that you’re given lots of scope to really work as a team and do what you feel is right for the business at a local level,” he added.