The UK cinema industry is having another great year. In 2016, box office revenue was a record at almost £1.33bn. This year we are well ahead even of that figure, reaching £1bn at the box office on 24 September, a full 14 days earlier than the same point in 2016.
Nor are we an exception. Globally – driven in large part by continuing growth in China – cinema box office reached a record $38.6bn in 2016.
Those numbers might surprise you. After all, the cinema industry in the UK has been written off in pretty much every decade since the invention of television. And if not TV, then VHS, DVDs, the Internet, and no doubt now pretty soon augmented reality have all been seen as carrying the scythe.
One of the main reasons why it hasn’t happened is adaptability.
Adaptability for mainstream cinema-goers in terms of facilities and quality of presentation.
For niche audiences with better food, innovative seating and event screenings.
And adaptations of the cinema experience for disabled customers.
Progress made by the UK cinema industry over the last twenty years or so has allowed millions of disabled cinema-goers to enjoy the big screen experience and placed us as a genuine world leader in the area of accessible cinema.
Many sites have seen major physical improvements through, for example, the greater provision of ramps and lifts, wheelchair bays, accessible toilets, hearing loops and power-assisted doors.
But if anything the growth in accessible screenings – where adjustments are made for particular disabilities – has been even more significant. From a standing start in the early 2000s, deaf and hearing-impaired customers are now able to enjoy any of over 1,500 subtitled screenings per week.
And thanks to the support of colleagues in film distribution, the vast majority of major film releases are now available with audio description, where a spoken narrative explains the action on the screen for blind and visually-impaired customers through special headphones.
Over the last few years though, attention has broadened to encompass so-called ‘hidden’ disabilities: conditions where the symptoms are perhaps less immediately obvious but where the impact on those affected are just as acute.
Several of the major circuit companies and a large number of smaller operators have started to provide autism-friendly screenings. Involving subtle adjustments to the cinema environment – lights left on at a low level, the volume of sound slightly reduced and audience members made welcome to move around. Their success is not just felt by the disabled people themselves; for family and friends, the opportunity to share the enjoyment of the big screen experience can be transformative.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Only last week the industry launched a new guide intended to encourage and support the development of a new area of provision: dementia-friendly screenings for those with Alzheimer’s and other related conditions.
The guide – produced by the UK Cinema Association in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society and its initiative Dementia Friends, along with colleagues at the BFI Film Audience Network – was launched in London last week with the support of BAFTA-winning actress Carey Mulligan, an Ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society with her own personal family experience of the challenges presented by the disease.
There is a great deal of research to suggest that the moving image – and film in particular – can play a particular role in stimulating the minds of those with such degenerative illnesses, although adjustments need to be made to an environment that can be at times loud and confusing, and staff need to be suitably trained. Certainly the experience of those operators who have begun these screenings has been a very positive one.
The initiative is hugely valuable in its own right, but it also makes a broader point about the UK cinema industry. This is an innovative sector which is always looking for new ways to be at the heart of the communities it serves.
Cinemas have been doing that for more than 120 years and haven’t run out of ideas yet.