Post-lockdown London has seen cinema veer in three directions: the perennial expansion of high capacity chains that screen every film at every time of day; the enduring vogue of luxury picturehouses that ramp up prices for a reclined relaxing experience; and a select few long-standing independent cinemas that have gone the other way.

The latter have remained ardent on capacity and eschewed choice overkill, as well as rallied against the gold rush of the silver screen. But how do these cinemas stay afloat in a cost of living crisis? I spoke to the Peckhamplex and Whirled Cinema to understand more about the importance of pricing, film selection and community for success in Southwark and Lambeth.

According to the UK Cinema Association, the number of cinema admissions has been on the rise. In the 80s, average annual admissions to cinema in the UK stood at 77.5m, the 90s saw 119.2m, the noughties 163.4m and 2010s 169.98m.

This still pales in comparison to the 1.64bn record set in 1946, but shows cinema has weathered many storms of late including DVD and streaming services. Lockdown blighted cinema attendance, with just 44m admissions in 2020 and 74m in 2021. Time will tell if cinema fully recovers. Its survival might well lie in its ability to adapt, or perhaps, offer something from the past. 

In Southwark and Lambeth, the 13 cinemas are fairly evenly spread into catchment areas. Where chain cinemas capture audiences through cutting-edge technology and abundant film selection, and luxury picturehouses appeal to those seeking a plush experience, is there another draw to independent cinema through an affordable and personable community-based outlook?

The Peckhamplex, a stalwart of the Southwark community since 1994, offers a wide range of films at the affordable price of £4.99 which has remained unchanged for over 10 years.

Peckhamplex director Simone Brown said: “Peckhamplex has long been a supporter of local and independent filmmakers and organisations; hosting the Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival since its beginning and a founding contributor to the Peckham Peculiar and Mountview Academy.

“Our standing in the community was demonstrated when a ‘Save the Plex’ campaign was launched during the Local Authority consultation on a possible demolition of our building and at the start of lockdown when we were inundated with offers of crowdfunding and customers wanting to buy gift vouchers for when we reopened.”

Across the borough border, Lambeth’s Whirled Cinema took a unique approach when it was founded in 2010 by operating as a members cinema, complete with members cards that provide access to the cinema and bar area. 

Memberships start from £9.99 a month and provide access to all screenings with a free guest ticket, while non-member tickets are on sale at £12.

The cinema’s founder, Mike Atterby, said: “It’s almost like a local pub kind of feeling.

“Local cinema has greater ability to connect with its audience on a more personal level.

“We’re a local, independent cinema that is based in a particular community, for that community, whereas something like an ODEON is not like that.”

Coming out of lockdown, there has never been a more pertinent time to reverse the effects of social isolation and seek out establishments that go beyond service to embrace community.

Cinema, an occasion usually marked by sitting in appreciative and respectful silence, seems an unlikely destination for social interaction. And yet, as seen by the outpouring of love for the Peckhamplex and its work in the community, and likewise Whirled’s encouragement for members to sit in the bar before and after to talk, it can do just this.

So, just how expensive is cinema and does this have an impact on audience satisfaction?

The data in this article is drawn from early December 2022. Cinemas are set in order of their average Google rating, and where ratings are the same the cinema with the higher number of reviews is placed higher. Whirled is assigned its general public price rather than membership fee.

Unsurprisingly, most cinemas raised their prices over the weekend to both capitalise on higher weekend footfall and entice audiences to attend on weekdays. A notable outlier is the Peckhamplex, which remained firm on its £4.99 price commitment. The general trend shows cheaper cinemas receiving the lowest Google rating average, rising to a cluster of well rated mid-priced cinemas, and topped by the three most expensive cinemas. 

This suggests audiences are historically more satisfied when paying for a premium product. This notion of reassuringly expensive adds weight to the idea that a cinema trip has become a less frequent, special outing. Streaming services and pirate websites have blown open access to the newest and biggest blockbusters. Therefore, audiences are attending cinema for something ‘different’, that they cannot replicate at home, and are therefore happier to pay a premium to ensure this. 

However, this might well be subject to change given the current cost-of living crisis. Whirled Cinema opened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and founder Mike Atterby believes it can once again be there to cater for a market feeling the pinch. 

Likewise, Simone Brown said: “All business especially the hospitality industry is affected by the cost-of-living crisis and customers will no doubt be price conscious when deciding how to spend their leisure time. 

“While costs continue to rise Peckhamplex’s unchanged ticket price of £4.99 shows our commitment to offering an affordable option for customers.”

Being affordable and embedded in the community is one thing, but how can independent cinema compete with the sheer number of films on show and screenings at chain outlets?

On the whole, there is a slight downward trend for both total number of films on show and total showings, in line with the cinema’s Google rating. This is indicative of a trend whereby choice overkill can lead to less audience satisfaction. However, the correlation is not that pronounced. Variety itself may not be the main issue. 

On variety, Simone Brown said: “Peckhamplex endeavours to screen a wide range of films from Hollywood blockbusters to independent and foreign language films as well as less mainstream art and niche product. 

“Our customers are varied, and we aim to offer something for everyone, we have not found that this results in less viewer satisfaction.”

Above is a graph of the cinema’s total number of screenings divided by the number of different films shown. It is interesting to note that the biggest chain in the area, ODEON, had the greatest number of screenings per film and received the lowest rating.

Despite having the third highest number of showings, the Peckhamplex has a fairly low ratio, especially on weekdays, reflecting its commitment to screening a wide variety of films. 

With just one screening per film, Mike Atterby stressed the benefits of Whirled Cinema being able to tailor film selection towards its target audience through direct feedback from its members. 

Atterby said: “I think the main thing about the local cinema is that if it's independent you can show what you want and you can appeal to your specific audience, your local audience.”

Despite this attention on film selection, it’s not really about the film at all. In this case, it’s about the relationship between the venue and its audience. It's about the experience of cinema. This is the crux for modern cinema - that to entice and satisfy audiences, a venue must provide a value add to that which a person can do from the comfort and affordability of their own home. 

Audiences will pay a premium for experience, whether it be the feel of community or an element of luxury. At the same time, cinephiles are generally becoming reluctant to sit on their own in a cavernous auditorium attending one of that day’s eight screenings of Fast and Furious 14

However counterintuitive it may seem, many people would sacrifice good seats for a full theatre. The play's the thing, but in the nostalgic and social ritual of participation rather than on screen.

Understanding this need to generate an atmosphere beyond surround sound is what independent, community-minded cinema does best.

Thank you to Simone Brown and Mike Atterby for all your help.

Picture Credits:
Avery Murray on Unsplash
Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash
Myke Simon on Unsplash
Corina Rainer on Unsplash
Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash