We’re far from hosting the Last Picture Show – rethink retail space as a cinema opportunity

It has recently been estimated that up to 14% of the UK’s high streets could be standing empty by the end of 2020[1]. Covid has dramatically accelerated the speed in which retail space around the country is going out of use. Following the recent news of the demise of Debenhams as well, much of this space is sizable department store property – spaces that many would consider hard to fill.

This problem goes much deeper than unlet property space however and upkeep costs. It is particularly blighting smaller towns around the UK – the ones which previously would have been served by a Beales or Debenhams, but now lack a major retail focal point. For smaller town council and their inhabitants, this is a concern – it potentially hastens the demise of that location’s commercial hub and entertainment centre.

So in the face of massive evolution in UK retail – the country is third in the world when it comes to online shopping growth after only China and Japan – what can property owners do to tempt people back into these town centre locations and keep the local lifeblood ticking over? One option is to reconsider a local cinema.

Cinemas themselves have also faced a difficult 2020. Many of the larger chains have been especially hampered by their own property costs even without the drought which appeared of new releases for them to screen, even when they could remain open under local lockdown restrictions. But these are challenges faced by the larger chains and almost entirely covid fuelled. Appetite for cinema attendance remains high – one survey suggested that one third of the UK said that the cinema was their most anticipated activity post covid lockdowns.

Retail centres and cinemas often go hand in hand, but until recently the trend was for large out of town destinations. However, Mike Thomson, founding director at The Big Picture which advises local councils and cinema developers alike, thinks this could be about to change given the climate. “We have predicted the development of smaller, community facing, multi-media venues, anchored by a 4-6 screen cinema replacing the big out of town multiplex. The venue should no longer consider itself just to be a cinema – it is an entertainment and multi-arts venue with an ever broadening offer, driven by the developments in technology, flexible distribution, new types of content and local demand. These new models of cinema will have an important role to play both in their local community, as localisation increases, but also to harness the new content distribution streams from the studios. Innovation will provide an opportunity to deliver greater customer choice which is in turn will drive greater consumer demand.”

Cinemas often act as entertainment hubs, encouraging more leisure businesses into an area as ticketholders on a night out seek restaurants and bars to make an evening of it. Repurposing these large, empty and central spaces into cinema venues is much more possible now that digital technology has meant a lesser footprint is needed for sites. Equally, interested property owners need to think outside of multiplex boxy designs if their properties have less standard and rigid layouts.

Likewise, pre-covid, the country was moving away from the multiplex cinema experience, and a massive growth was being experienced by smaller more independent chains such as Curzon and Everyman. Many of these have been set up in non-standard cinema sites. In fact, to create standout cinema locations, there are a raft of fresh ideas which could really put locations on the map. The Ōma cinema concept, for example, is suitable for both new build and renovated sites, and seats the audience in a series of vertical balconies, allowing for a more bespoke and unique environment than large format stadium seating which many associate with the multiplex screen experience.

Cinemas act as arts hubs, making access to streamed theatre and ballet straight from world-renowned locations to venues around the country. Many locations forge strong connections with nearby communities too, running screenings for mother and baby groups, and even special needs communities where they can meet, mingle and be entertained. And cinemas often provide an avenue for local artists and filmmakers to showcase their work and inspire further generations. The key to reengaging audiences with these spaces is often communication – make it frequent, and really focused on the benefits to the local population. Many nearby residents will see the benefits of bringing fresh life to their nearby high street, and should also welcome the thought of new eating establishments and the jobs they can bring to an area.

Cinemas are facing a new era in their development, and central to making them successful will be regular community engagement and communication to make sure any managers are staying flexible to local community needs. This is a symbiotic relationship, and it is an ongoing one. Given the high profile difficulties the cinema industry has faced in 2020, it is critical that any property owners interested in investing in the silver screen have plans to keep an entertainment destination flexible to local audience needs and in tune with changing demands. Even in the face of rising home streaming entertainment access however, the silver screen and collective audience experience it offers holds a unique appeal – one study found some 82%[2] of respondents would prefer to watch a film collectively than through home streaming.

So while unloved department store property space may be standing vacant around the country, with some creative thinking that space could be reworked into a vibrant community hub and bring more leisure activities into town centres. Dormant high street property locations needn’t bring on the last act for town centre space – it could actually raise the curtain on a whole new central entertainment hub for a town.

By Katrina Jackson, associate director, Franklin Rae


About the author

Kat Jackson is associate director at Franklin Rae PR, and a seasoned PR professional with over 18 years’ experience. She specialises in raising the business profiles of a range of different businesses, to help them to achieve their growth objectives and enhance their reputations with new audiences. She has a particular specialism in cinema, media, marketing and driving communications strategies for fast growing businesses.

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