10
Dec 03

I Am Curious Orange

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 The EasyCinema Experience

In the exploded cross section of a US business district that is Milton Keynes, it stands out. Merely by virtue of painting its utilitarian structure a thoroughly unsuitable colour. Everything else in the new town is utilitarian after all; the mile long shopping centre, the Xscape leisure mall over the road. But for them the typical glass-and-steel grey fulfils the remit. The EasyCinema is a big, orange shed – in-your-face and provocative, much like its creator Stelios sees himself, a man on a mission to upset the cinema industry. On this visit though, all he is going to upset is the customer.

In bringing his ‘buy early and buy cheap’ air carrier ethos to the world of filmgoing, the EasyJet owner has missed something crucial about the cinema industry. People do not care that much about ticket price. If the differential is between one pound and five pounds, are you really going to fanny around two weeks in advance on the internet? This is the stated aim, to bring big savings to regular cinema goers and in the process fill up as many seats as possible. Every empty seat is a lost punter, an ethos that holds more economically true in the area of flights than in the low margin world of the cinema. If you sell your first fifty seats at 20p and ramp up the prices after that, then unfortunately what you might find is that you end up selling fifty seats at no profit at all.

It is a clean building, this EasyCinema. Stelios is all about us keeping ourselves clean. He is right of course, my mother does not work at EasyCinema and no-one should be expected to clean up after me. Luckily, without popcorn or other frills there is not much to make a mess with. Though in theory the management would not mind if I took in a pizza. Perhaps it is this change to the cinemagoing experience that is truly revolutionary. An unmanned shed where they show the film and we do all the hard work. Still there is something a bit strange about tucking into a packed lunch in front of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), especially if it contains beef jerky.

The idea of no concessions and no ticket office is to cut down on the biggest overhead of them all. Staff. Unfortunately with no ticket office and just a couple of computers there are more than enough staff flitting around telling us exactly what we need to do to book a ticket. This is of course log on to the EasyCinema site and do what we would have done at home. If we had an internet connection at home. How kids without credit cards are supposed to buy tickets is never clear. Considering the importance of the child market, and the potential pocket money boosting boom the cheapness represents, this is another strike against the EasyCinema.

It has only been EC for six months. Before then it was The Point, Britain’s first ever multiplex. It opened in 1989 to much fanfare (I think Rambo III may have premiered there) its business model being copied for the multiplex boom of the nineties. The Point in question was the large neon pyramid building that now sits next to EasyCinema, not actually part of the operation. Well, neon costs money right? As apparently do showing films during the day (EasyCinema opened on Saturday at 5:30 oddly missing out the potential shopping crowd), showing adverts and having turnstiles that work. Indeed I would recommend anyone passing EasyCinema who fancies a film to just walk up to your screen of choice and see if the access turnstiles are actually working. If not, just walk in – the demoralised staff seem resigned to this.

All this palaver to see The Medallion, the appalling Jackie Chan/Lee Evans together-again-for-the-first-time movie. The poor quality of the film was augmented by watching the first four minutes without any sound. The beauty of only having paid £1.60 is the ability to walk out without feeling cheated. Stupidly we stayed and felt cheated. Perhaps Stelios has never been to the cinema before, perhaps he hates people: no human ticket selling contact, no-one to tell us if we were in the right screen, no trailers. Also a very friendly sign saying that if we left the auditorium to go to the toilets, we would not be able to get back in. EasyCinema or Gulag?

So it’s a lousy business model, showing films as stripped down and bare as they can be – where is the point. (Next door, ha ha). EasyJet was all about cartel busting in the airline business. EasyCinema seems to be a similar attack on the hegemony held by the four major distributors and four major cinema chains. And certainly there is a big point to be made. In multiplexes up and down the country at any one time you have about eight films on popular release by the big distributors to perm between. The cinemas are guaranteed the big films, the distributors are guaranteed the return and the screen space. How can the small film compete? It cannot, and this is the fight that EasyCinema is waging.

This time however with its no frills (and no quality) set up, EasyCorp does not have public support. It has already been stitched up partially by the distributors who won’t let it have first run films. When you are choosing between The Medallion, Mystic River, Seabiscuit and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), on the week Love Actually opens over the road you are going to be in trouble. Perhaps Stelios will be able to use this in his usually well-fought court battles. But by then the EasyCinema model will have ground whatever faithful custom it has into the ground with the inability to source decent films and then show them well.

There are so many problems with the exhibition of films in the UK. Various multiplex chains have their own foibles (Warner Village insisting on giving me a seat number when there are five people in the cinema, for instance). And certainly the restrictive practices of the distributors and exhibitors are already showing signs of weakening. EasyCinema is not the Trojan horse that is going to bring the edifice down though. For one, it really is a demoralising experience. For two, no-one ever launched a successful battle from the edge of a car park in Milton Keynes. But most saliently: the Trojans would not have accepted the horse if it had been painted orange.

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