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The Fall of the Multiplex

Independent cinemas are not going to usurp the multiplex any time soon, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The major chains are slowly but surely beginning to recognise that their current business practice is losing them patrons, cinefiles or not.

The multiplex's rise in the mid-1970s was not unlike that of a dictator, seizing upon a popular movement - in this case New Hollywood - and aligning itself with one of the key facets of the movement - the blockbuster culture fostered by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas - before quickly revealing its true, ulterior motive. These were not to be magisterial movie houses with enough screens for not just Spielberg's and Lucas's popcorn fare, but for their less commercial cohorts, such as Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin.

Aligning the cineplex with murderous despots may seem unnecessarily alarmist, but just look at the way, in the following four decades, that the multiplex has throttled creativity in Hollywood cinema to the point of extinction. When they arrived at the tail end of the 1970s (Cineplex zero is considered to have been founded in Toronto in 1979), Apocalypse Now and Alien had just been released, the New Hollywood directors were still in full effect, and Kramer vs. Kramer topped the box office. Last year, all but two of the top ten grossing films were sequels or prequels (the two exceptions are The Hunger Games, which is duly in the process of being given the franchise treatment, and The Amazing Spiderman, itself a reboot of a series that only ended in 2007). Whilst some directors, such as Spielberg and (somewhat surprisingly) Scorsese have managed to survive the shuffle and remain productive and well-backed, others, including the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and even Lucas have found themselves as pariahs, cast out from the very world that they were instrumental in saving and rejuvenating.

However, the tide may finally be turning. After years at the hands of the uncaring silver screen, after seeing independent cinema after independent cinema go under and great director after great director left in the wilderness because their films don't feature enough explosions, charming misunderstandings or fighting robots, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. The seeds of dissent have been sewn.

The past few years have seen independent cinemas and smaller chains such as Arts Picturehouse stage an unlikely comeback, but it's not hard to see why. There are now multiple generations who until recently had only had the vaunted "cinema experience" with the caveats of overpriced popcorn and sticky floors. I still vividly remember my first smaller cinema trip at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and, at the risk of sounding like a contrarian hipster, there really is no comparison between the two.

In my defence, you'd be hard pressed to find a director who wouldn't agree with me, The choice between an intimate, 30-seater screen with a bum on every one or a 250-seater with ten people dotted about because the same film's on again in ten minutes in jaw-dropping, eye-popping 3D isn't a hard one. Rather than engage in a bit of oligopolistic collusion and fix prices a bit lower, the big chains are quite content to slowly but surely inflate their ticket prices against one another, meaning that even the smallest, least profitable cinemas are now able to compete, all whilst offering an invariably better service. The Electric Cinema in Birmingham, for example, runs a service that allows you to text your order to the bar mid-film - something of a step up from watered-down Fanta and suspect hot dogs.

It's not just the service that's driving more and more customers through the doors. Even the most casual cinema-goer can't help to have noticed the sheer saturation of blockbusters and rom-coms, all developed from an identical formula with an occasional variable tweaked, trailed one after the other before the main feature. One superb example from this year can be found in the instantly recognisable form of the White House. In March, Olympus has Fallen was released; in it, a Secret Service agent, through a series of unlikely circumstances, finds himself as the last bulwark between North Korean terrorists and the President. Fast forward to June, and we were treated to White House Down, which follows a Capitol Policeman who, after a series of unexpected mishaps, must single-handedly protect the President and his family from an armed paramilitary group storming the Oval Office. The similarities are about as subtle as The Expendables, and you don't need to be at the cinema three times a week to see it happening time and again. Despite a comparatively tiny number of screens at their disposal, independent cinemas are the ones leading the way in showcasing independent (or even just less-commercially viable) film, and consumers are recognising this.

Independent cinemas are not going to usurp the multiplex any time soon, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The major chains are slowly but surely beginning to recognise that their current business practice is losing them patrons, cinefiles or not. Special events, such as the excellent Back in Vue season at Vue, are a well-needed and refreshing break, and will continue for as long as small screens can compete. Viva la Revolución.

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