I’ve been going to the cinema since my earliest days - from about 4 years old onwards I believe (first film - Disney’s Jungle Book). As a kid growing up in Iceland - the cinema was most kids’ favourite regular pastime and something that could be enjoyed all-year-round and in all kinds of weather - especially good for rainy days. It’s something that’s stayed with me throughout my teenage years and carried on in to adult life - where I still go to the cinema typically on a weekly basis.
Cinema for me is a multi-sensory experience and includes sight, sound and smell - amongst the chief of these. Most UK cinema guests though have to forego the wonderful aroma of freshly made popcorn, as it’s pretty much all low quality bought-in packaging material grade now. The greater percent of Icelandic cinemas still make their popcorn on the premises, and it’s a significant part of the experience.
On Saturday I went to see ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road - a fairly recently refurbished cinema. I sat in a VIP seat which I would describe as anything but, in and old-fashioned fan-style auditorium with a relatively small screen, and only average sound. Although Odeon is probably the largest cinema chain in the UK, it’s also one of the worst for the overall quality of its core offering.
The following categories are what I consider when rating the quality of a cinema experience, and not one cinema in the Central London area has got it right:
Here, the bigger the better really, although the seating plan and shape of auditorium plays a critical part also. I would say the best screen that I have experienced in London is the one at the IMAX Waterloo - where I last watched the Icelandic-filmed Sci-fi spectacular ’Oblivion’, and the screen was very much the 5th Beatle of the experience - fully immersing the audience into the action of the movie. Second best screen is likely the IMAX at the Empire, Leicester Square, but the seats are so awful (q.v.) that it quite ruins the experience. My favourite regular screens are the ones at Vue Westfield - both in the Scene and Xtreme auditoria - the screens take up the whole of the front wall - spanning side-to-side and top-to-bottom for a superior immersive experience. Most of the Odeon auditoria are old-fashioned amphitheatre-style / fan-shaped - with a relatively small screen.
I frequently experience the best sound quality in Icelandic cinemas - many of which have superbly-tuned THX rigs, which are demonstrated to brilliant effect during late night ’Power Shows’. Most UK cinemas make do with middle-of-the-road / entry-level Dolby systems, although the best sound I have so far experienced was watching ’Star Trek Into Darkness’ in the pre-IMAX Empire Screen 1. The ’Dolby Atmos’ sound travelled over, through and to the left and right of you - lending an extra almost tangible dimension of realism to the many flying craft sequences of that movie. When sound is conveyed at the highest level it is absolutely a critical part of the experience, yet one which is typically under-served in the UK.
I must confess that I’m a big fan of the Vue box-shaped auditoria format - where the screen takes up the whole of the front wall, and every audience member has a great and immersive view of said screen. Odeon for whatever reason employ the old-fashioned theatre-style / fan-shaped format where the screen is relatively small, and if you are sitting in the left or right margins you end up cricking your neck, and the back rows have heavily reduced visibility as the screen is really too small. Vue’s formula provides the very best viewing experience for everyone, it’s strange that more cinemas don’t follow the same model.
There’s a science to film snacks - particularly when watching action flicks / thrillers - as a sugary drink and salty popcorn raise your heart-rate and increase the excitement and enjoyment of the film. For me - good popcorn is an essential part of the experience, but not a single one of the central London cinemas I visit makes their own popcorn any more. Empire, Leicester Square used to, as did Odeon at Whiteleys - but I’ve not encountered a single one recently which still does. There is also a gulf in the quality of supplied popcorn with the Empire providing by far the best tasting popcorn and the Odeon and Vue often little better than packaging material. I kind of struggled to eat my Odeon popcorn this last Saturday, and there have been times it has made me sick. With popcorn-making on-site, you get that unmistakeable movie theatre aroma - which reminds me of my childhood - smell is the most memorable of the senses, yet hardly any UK cinemas take advantage of this - moreover they charge a ridiculous amount of money for woeful and substandard fare.
As I mentioned previously, a sugary drink makes the experience more exciting, and often helps you get through over-salted and not-quite-good-enough popcorn. My preferred choice is Sprite - which contains half the sugar of Coke or Pepsi, but this is available only at Vue. Cinemas make profits in the several hundred percents on both popcorn and soda, it’s hard to see why they can’t improve the quality and service therefore - surely it pays for itself?
Apart from Popcorn, there are a myriad of choices - hot dogs, nachos, ice creams and the like - even a three-course-meal if you visit the Odeon Lounge at Whiteleys - which I have. The Odeon Lounge though is a strange hybrid which does not really work for me. You don’t get interrupted really by the waiting staff, but more by the uncertainty of the waiting. I ordered 4 different things which arrived at very random times in the movie, and quite broke my concentration and interrupted the enjoyment of the film. You spend far too long wondering exactly when your food is going to arrive, and it often arrives at the most inopportune moments - getting in the way of a critical scene. The food was OK, but nothing special really, expensive to a degree, but not too expensive to make it ridiculous. The TV-Dinner kind of approach does not sit well with me, and it’s quite different picking up handfuls of corn versus getting food onto your fork or spoon and safely transferring it to your mouth!
I really looked forward to the IMAX arriving at Empire, Leicester Square, as I have had such good experiences at the one at Waterloo. The one at the Empire though is a bit of an abject failure - as the seats are not banked sufficiently, nor are they wide enough or comfortable enough. There is far too little space between seats - both vertically and horizontally. My brother Markus was barely able to fit his legs in adequately and suffered in discomfort. It’s as if they had got Ryan Air in to arrange the seating for them - in what should be a luxury auditorium. The Odeon at Whiteleys has these amazing lazy-boy-style reclinable seats with airplane-like trays that swivel in for food and beverages - yet they somehow don’t end up nearly as comfortable as they look. The Odeon VIP seating is really a joke, as in a couple of cinemas I would swear the leg-room is worse than for regular seats and the padding hard and unyielding. Generally though the Odeon seats are too close together and not sufficiently comfortable. In some of its older auditoria - the Empire, Leicester Square has some 70’s style plush seating with spring-loaded backs which are more comfortable than its newer seating. For the best standard of VIP seating you need to go to Vue. Here the seats are wide and comfortable in both VIP and in the more luxurious Scene screens - with ample leg-room.
In some cinemas it’s quite critical where you sit - particularly in the fan-shaped ones, as if you’re sat on the margins, the screen is too small, and you don’t get a great experience. Many of these cinemas also don’t bank their seats sufficiently - meaning if you have an above average person sitting in front of you - they obscure your view of the screen. The IMAX screens are both wonderful, as are the Vue Xtreme and Scene screens. One issue that you still get in Iceland is that the screen is too close if you sit in the first 3 rows - Vue seem to have got this distance sorted somewhat and you don’t have to contort your posture to view the film in relative comfort. Of course for best viewing and audio quality / effect - a middle-middle location is optimal.
A place to set aside your drink and popcorn and or any other accoutrements you may need to offload. Saturday at the Odeon the cup-holders were set too far back - so you need to crook your arm to grab your drink - meaning you are forever elbowing the person sat next to you. The longer arm-rest cup-holders allow you to reach for your drink without disrupting your neighbour/s. The best provision is in the Vue luxury Scene auditoria where every two seats have a side-table between them and on the aisle, and the armrests have a wooden plate at then end - perfect for a wine glass or a soda.
For several years now Iceland has had at least a couple of ticketing websites - including midi.is - which allow you to print off your tickets at home. Yet in the UK, cinemas have just swapped one queue for another as most people used to queue at the box-office, but now queue at the ticket machines to collect their pre-booked tickets - quite moronic when you think about it. Cinema for me is usually a ’connected’ activity meaning I mostly visit the cinema these days en-route to something else - or in the proximity of another sequential activity. Thus I select a cinema along the route of where I need to do shopping, go to restaurant etc. My two nearest cinemas are Odeons - Marble Arch and Whiteleys, but as I’ve indicated I prefer to go to Vue and Empire, occasionally venturing out to Curzon for more independent material - although much of this can now be viewed on-demand at home through a variety of web-enabled services.
In my youth, the typical film was 90 minutes long and Icelandic cinemas had regular time-slots of 3 | 5 | 7 | 9| 11 and occasionally 1 - both before and after midnight. This meant you could pitch up at any cinema at the appointed times, and if one film was sold out, you could simply switch to another one starting at the same time. Since the 80’s though film times have grown somewhat such that the typical film is now nearer 120 minutes and all standardisation has gone out the window. Larger multiplexes have the advantage of more auditoria which are doubled up for the most popular features meaning if you miss one showing for whatever reason - late arrival or sell-out, the next showing time is only 20 or so minutes later. Timing is a major factor of flexibility, I would love for there to be a 24 hour cinema in London - like you get in New York, but all have very conventional time slots. Possibly when the night tube starts up on Friday and Saturday nights, this will encourage one or two cinemas to stay open for longer.
As is stated in ’Ease of Access’ above, it’s often a cinema’s proximity which is the key factor - whether proximity to home, nearest negotiable tube line or near some other common venue or activity. Some cinemas have cafes and restaurants attached to them, but I’ve seen none with significant relevant amenities - say a gift shop and gaming arcade or similar - that encourage you to spend more time at the venue. Most which have restaurant or bar facilities are really only as a second thought - an annexe or alcove and are not run with any zeal or imagination. In the 80’s and 90’s I pictured a venue which had back-to-back amenities - cinema, night club, restaurant, themed rooms etc. where you could extend your experience - e.g. watch film, then buy soundtrack and T-shirt, and extend the experience via a themed event in one of the adjacent club / bar or restaurant annexes. The contemporary ’Secret Cinema’ organisation covers much of this nowadays, but not quite in the way I had envisaged - as an extension to the feel-good-factor you pick up at the cinema.
There are a number of interesting boutique cinemas in London - like the Mayfair Curzon or the Electric on Portobello Road. But very few and far between that represent the classic American movie-going experience in the best way. Of the big chains I would say Vue have got it the most right, altough their snacks and service are rather sub-par. I really don’t understand why the largest chain Odeon is not better quality. And I must say that overall the UK cinema-going experience is not on par with what you regularly get in Iceland - it somehow seems less of an event.
All cinemas now have fairly painful pre-roll advertisements, which I recall at the worst taking up nearly 25 minutes - in advance of a film which itself lasted nearly 3 hours. Icelandic cinemas mostly have half-way intervals - which you are very grateful for when watching a 4 hour epic, yet somewhat annoyed at when interrupting a 90 minute film. I would tend to only have intervals for films of circa 2 hours or more - and they need to cut out/in at just the right time too, so as not to ruin the flow of the film.
With Home Movie technology continually improving, cinemas need to provide something special to keep pulling in audiences. If they don’t do a good enough job, people will just stay at home with their own 3D TVs and Surround Sound and proper home-made popcorn and proper fresh refreshments. I still can’t understand why hardly any UK cinema makes fresh popcorn any more ...