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Don't Make UK Cinemas a Victim of 'Small Government' Ideology

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Keen followers of the cinema and film industry amongst you may know that the government is considering plans to change the way in which cinemas are licensed. While this might seem a trivial issue, anyone who cares about the cinema-going experience should take note.

Under the proposals being put forward, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would lower the barrier to those who can legally exhibit big screen content in the community, meaning that that could soon include the local bingo hall, social club, pub or church.

The question needs to be asked whether communities really want their local pub or church multi-tasking as a part-time cinema. Like the best landlords nurture their hostelries, for several decades cinema exhibitors across the UK have been busy creating a unique entertainment experience. From investing huge amounts in some of the county's most iconic buildings to bring Hollywood glamour to our high streets, to installing the latest digital sound and picture innovations.

And it's not just the big circuits who have been striving (and thriving). The UK is lucky to have a vibrant and healthy independent cinema sector, now in the finishing straights of its transformation to digital cinema technology. At around £50,000 a piece, high quality cinema standard digital projectors are expensive. Perhaps not always knowingly, cinema-goers have come to expect the ultra high definition clarity they bring to our favourite big screens. Through financial and in-kind support given by major circuits via the Digital Funding Partnership, over 100 small cinema companies have been able to make the transition to digital technology, without which they would have had no future.

Across the board, UK cinema is in a healthy state, so it's not at all clear why the Government wants in effect to start fiddling around the edges. There is no evidence that the current safeguards - put in place to ensure standards of safety and comfort - are acting as a barrier to those who truly want to provide a safe and enjoyable big screen experience. In short, the Government is seeking to tackle a problem that doesn't exist; in the last five years there has been a flourishing of film clubs, film societies and pop-up cinemas. While exhibitors would argue that none of these match the experience of watching a film in a busy modern cinema, that growth provides ample evidence that all can live quite happily alongside the commercial and supported sector. All within the current safeguards.

The proposals claim that deregulation would help to bring communities closer together, but don't provide any arguments as to how or why. If government is looking for examples of how this can truly be done, there are a significant number of community-run cinemas across the country, all reliant on the input of voluntary activity alongside paid staff. Two brilliant examples of thriving community cinemas are the Plaza in Crosby, Liverpool and the Curzon in Clevedon, near Bristol. Neither of these, or similar groups across the country, would benefit from the planned changes (and in fact they might be threatened as fly-by-night operators nibble away at their audiences).

And there's a darker edge to all of this. It seems inevitable that any relaxation of licensing, and a growth in the number of films being shown in unregulated venues, will increase the risks of film piracy, even though it is a stated aim of Government - and in particular DCMS - to tackle this problem. According to the market researchers Ipsos MediaCT, in 2011 film theft cost the UK film industry £448million in lost revenues, including a £220million chunk of the box office. The cinema industry's revenue last year was just over £1billion, so £220million of that is about 10 weeks' income. That's about 21% of business, or 36million admissions. If piracy were legit, it would be a FTSE 100 company.

And cinema as a business employs over 17,000 people in theatres across the UK, with many more local jobs reliant on the trade cinemas bring. All of which film theft puts at risk.

It just doesn't make sense for the current system to be tampered. Without the effective licensing controls which exist today we risk losing the one thing that people treasure most: the trip to the cinema as a unique entertainment experience.