When I arrived to take up the job of cinema programmer at Watershed nearly 30 years ago, one of the first meetings I had was with other Bristol exhibitors (the people who run cinemas). I remember being greeted by a manager of one of the commercial cinemas in the city who said to me “Enjoy it whilst you can, you won’t be here for long.” (I wonder why that should have stuck in my mind!). This was 1994 pre-multiplex Bristol. There was then a mixture of single screen ABCs carved up (badly) to have more screens, the remnants of traditional single screen high street cinemas, and the then relatively young kid on the block Watershed - 'Britain’s first media and communication centre' - and some screenings taking place at non-cinema arts venues.
The multiplex revolution - and it was indeed a film exhibition revolution - started in Milton Keynes in 1982, coincidently the same year Watershed opened. Its roll out across the UK didn’t hit Bristol until 1994 with the opening of the 14 screen Showcase Avonmeads. Over the next decade, three more multiplexes would open around Bristol: Cineworld Hengrove, Warner Village (now Vue) at Cribbs Causeway and Longwell Green. Then in 2008, the 14 screen Showcase de Lux opened as part of the city centre Cabot’s Circus development. Over this period, Bristol went from having shabby high street cinemas of varying degrees of comfort and quality to over 40 screens of state-of-the-art film presentation.
In retrospect, I think that manager may have been speaking to himself.
The multiplex reshaped the film exhibition landscape and helped to grow cinema-going audiences from 64million in 1982 to a high of circa 170million by 2019. That reshaping provided a quality experience for a broadly commercial film offer. And by commercial, let’s face it, we really mean films from the Hollywood studios.
Commercially the multiplex model flourished and indeed cinema going was reinvigorated. I remember, back in the analogue world of the late 90s, the local newspaper adverts went from small blocks to full page ads listing the multiplex releases. Cinema’s profile was on the rise. Marketing spend was helping boost film's profile, multiplexes delivered an exciting atmosphere to watch the films.
When Covid hit, Bristol had a thriving cinema going culture with a healthy mix of multiplex and independents which ranged across; Watershed which had expanded from 2 to 3 screens, the Cube’s Microplex, the Orpheus, the Arnolfini’s occasional film programme and boutique chain The Everyman. Audiences were on an upward growth curve. (Watershed was looking to build a 4th screen.) Post Covid and all this is changing. The Cineworld Hengrove is now closed and the site is being redeveloped for flats and the Showcase Cinema de Lux sadly closes today.
The Independent Cinema Office’s (ICO) recently published report on independent exhibition makes for stark reading.
Here are a few of the headlines:
45% of respondents forecast that they would be operating with a loss at the end of this financial year.
61% of respondents said they were not meeting their income targets for this financial year.
- When asked how long the venue could continue to operate within the current climate, 42% answered between three months to a year.
There are signs that audiences are returning to cinemas. In the commercial world the summer Barbenheimer phenomenon demonstrated the possibilities. Here at Watershed audiences have shown a real appetite for films like Celine Song’s Past Lives and Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper. We have had enthusiastic audiences for director events like Molly Manning Walker in conversation about her debut feature How to Have Sex and Tilda Swinton & Joanna Hogg with their new film The Eternal Daughter. Recently our Mujer with a Movie Camera season looking at Latin American cinema has had multiple sold-out screenings and, just next door to Watershed, the repurposing of Bristol’s Imax for the Forbidden Worlds Film Festival points to positive possibilities.
However, the harsh economic context and impact of Covid continue to be real challenges to cinemas’ business model in both the commercial and independent sectors: so that despite evident audience appetite here at Watershed we are all still operating at circa 20% below pre-covid levels of admissions whilst facing increased running costs - described by a partner venue as “existential”.
Into this already precarious situation has come the recent WGA writers’ and SAG-AFTRA actors’ strikes that have impacted on the production and release of finished films. The Hollywood film model is nothing if not industrial with production and release schedules tightly managed and planning 3 - 5 years ahead. Multiplexes need the reassurance of the blockbuster release timetable to have confidence in box-office expectations and business projections. What the strikes in America have revealed though is a structural imbalance and the UK’s reliance on Hollywood.
It is of course great for jobs and the skills of the UK film production workforce that the latest Tom Cruise film is made in the UK and that our studios are packed with the latest streaming productions but when that disappears there is nothing to fall back on and jobs are lost. The industry may well get back to business as usual in terms of production, and lots of observers are hoping it will.
But is that what we really want? Should we not be building a more resilient and independent UK film culture?
Mark Cosgrove, Cinema Curator, Watershed, November 2023
Want to help?
Come and see some films, here's what we have coming up at Watershed but be sure to check out all the other cinemas in Bristol and beyond too. You can also sign up as a monthly donor (with any custom amount) to support Watershed directly, or simply come and see us and have a coffee or a beer.
Thank you for your support x