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Boutique Cinemas - Driving The Sector’s Popularity; a personal view by Bill Chew

31 Dec 2021 5:20 PM | Anonymous

There has been much talk in cinema circles about boutique cinemas but have you wondered what they are? There is no definition of boutique cinemas that I can find. But clearly its derivation is from another building type, namely ‘boutique hotels’. These hotels have sprung up all over the world since the 80s to counter the domination by international hotel brands, whose hallmark is brand consistency. For example on a recent business visit to Romania I stayed in a five star international hotel in Bucharest- for all you know this could have been an international hotel in London such is the apparent uniformity of the design. It would not have mattered one jot. My own view is that there is ’blandness’ about these kinds of brands whether they are hotels or shopping malls. I prefer buildings that have a bit more character so that we can identify them individually. We can either like or dislike them and perhaps start a conversation.

  As consumers we are becoming more discerning, demand more for our money and above all we have a choice. Smaller hospitality operators recognise this and have responded by offering hotels with distinctive styles of architecture and design, good levels of service and even offering new facilities not found in international standardised hotels (such as small luxury cinemas within their premises). Like the hotel sector the exhibition industry in the UK is dominated by large brands- Odeon, Cineworld and Vue who between them control approximately over 80% of market share by numbers of screens owned (note 1). Below this tier are companies such as Curzon, Everyman, The Light, Scott, Reel Cinemas and a selection of others owning 5 to 10 or more sites. At the bottom strata lie the origins of the boutique cinema phenomenon currently in vogue in the UK. Individuals, smaller companies or families who operate a handful of sites generally own these cinemas. The boutique concept as such is not new- it dates back to the late 80s/ early 90s. But its current manifestation is new. We now have boutique cinemas that are well-designed (generally with auditoria having stadium seating), have good quality finishes and front-of-house facilities and exteriors matching the sumptuousness of the interior.   I talk regularly to colleagues and other professionals in this industry and am frequently made aware of new cinema openings. Examples are The Odyssey St Albans, The Olympic Cinema Barnes (see my post on LI, July 2014), The Regal Cinema, Evesham, The Lexi Cinema in Kensal Green (run as a charity) (note 2),  The Showroom Sheffield, to name but a few.   In the case of my practice, we have recently completed a boutique cinema in Stockport, Cheshire for retained clients. The cinema is The Savoy Heaton Moor, completed in October 2015, and is the third site that we have worked on for our Clients in the past 10 years (see cover photo).   What are the factors contributing towards this trend? There are five that I think are worth mentioning 1) The democratisation of cinema with the advent of digital 2) Uniqueness of architecture and design 3) Levels of comfort and up to date technology 4) Friendliness of service 5) Alternative concession/ food and drink offering utilising local suppliers.   Since the digital rollout from around 2006, it is easier now to run cinemas by anybody who wishes to do so. Most cinemas employ young people who are generally more tech savvy as they have grown up with the digital age. Unfortunately the corollary is the demise of the ‘chief’ (chief projectionist in older style cinemas). Employees in cinemas are now trained to undertake a variety of roles from running the film, serving customers to involvement with back of house duties. Most are young, willing to learn and enthusiastic. In the past you started as a trainee and worked your way up to manager or ‘chief’. Roles were demarcated- ushers were ushers, etc. This is no longer the norm.   Flexibility of such offerings as ‘events cinema’ (i.e. live opera or concerts broadcast simultaneously across various venues and continents) have made cinema going very popular especially amongst older and wealthier sections of the community.  This has strengthened the appeal of boutique cinemas and is a main driver of its success combined with flexibility of film programming.   Boutique cinemas, being small and independent, do not have to conform to templates laid down by company HQ, which govern bulk purchasing to create economies of scale. Because they have one, two or at best three screens these auditoria can be designed with inventiveness (and perhaps even quirkiness) much like some home cinemas. They can be fun and inspiring places. Many have been designed as superb film spaces with good sight lines and incorporating high standards of seating comfort. Most feature the latest sound (including immersive sound such as Dolby Atmos), projection and screen technologies.   Some of these ideas in boutique cinemas have been so successful that the major players have themselves in recent years created ‘lounge’ cinemas to sit alongside more traditional multiplex halls. In this way cinemas have actually mirrored the boutique hotel model, by a willingness to invest in architecture and design which has given the picture house a new lease of life and driven business forward.   If motivated staff are recruited and loyalty acknowledged by management the levels of service in a cinema can be high according to some I have talked to. Snacks, food and drink offerings sold at boutique cinemas can also be different from products sold at a multiplex as these can be sourced from local suppliers, thus helping to improve the local economy. In addition in my view there is no reason why boutique cinemas cannot feature bookshops, restaurants (some already have these) or other facilities where there is demonstrable and established need.   Boutique cinemas can be a refurbishment or a new build project. Whatever happens they are now a firm part of the contemporary cinema landscape in the UK. Boutique cinemas can only get better and add further to the popularity of cinema going.


Note 1: Figures extrapolated from UK Cinema Association (formerly CEA) statistics and Google search. Note 2: See my article on Boothless Cinemas, Cinema Technology, December 2012. 

Ó Copyright 2016, Bill Chew Note: First posted on LinkedIn, 21 March 2016

About the Author, Bill Chew

Bill Chew Architect Ltd is an established architectural, consultancy and project management practice based in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The practice has completed commercial, leisure and residential projects in the UK and abroad ranging from £100,000 to £10M. The practice’s completed projects have been widely published and publicized in various national building, leisure and specialist technical magazines.

Bill Chew studied architecture at Leeds School of Architecture and the Architectural Association, qualifying as an Architect in 1976. He spent over 10 years working in Qatar and the UAE over 3 different periods. Bill has spent over 8 years working in Doha on Qatar University (1980-86; 2009-2011). In the mid 80s he was Technical Consultant to the Diwan Emiri advising on QU working with the late Dr. Kamal el Kafrawi. His latest period in Qatar was in the role of Chief Architect at Arab Architects working on 4 major projects at QU. Bill is therefore entirely at ‘home’ working in Qatar and is familiar with working practices and procedures there. He is looking to form a collaboration with a local practice in his specialist field of media design and cinema architecture (including the design of film studios).  Bill wishes to impart his knowledge to the next generation of architects and would consider a visiting tutor role at a University.


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