An open letter to The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP

Dear Dr Cable,

I am writing to you as a concerned Huntingdon constituent with regard to the recent decision by the Competition Commission to enforce the sale of one of Cambridge’s cinemas owned by the Cineworld chain: either its main multiplex or the Arts Picturehouse, which it acquired when Cineworld purchased the owners of the Picturehouse group, City Screen Ltd, last year.

No decision has yet been taken by Cineworld as to which cinema it will divest, but the likelihood is that the Picturehouse will be the one sold off, given its smaller profit margins and (thanks to its central location) higher running costs. In Aberdeen and Bury St Edmunds, the other two cities that have been forced to sell either a Cineworld or Picturehouse cinema, Cineworld have already chosen the Picturehouse as the one to be sold. It is therefore urgent that the case be made for reviewing the Competition Commission’s final decision, which I and many other cinema-goers believe to be fundamentally flawed (the well-publicised petition to save the three Picturehouses was signed by over 14,000 people – http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/competition-commission-stop-the-enforced-sale-of-three-picturehouse-cinemas).

Though Cambridge is outside Huntingdon’s constituency boundaries, the potential sale of the Arts Picturehouse will be keenly felt by those of us who live across the region. Huntingdon has a Cineworld multiplex of its own, but there is no nearby alternative to the Picturehouse. Contrary to the Commission’s ill-informed findings, the Arts Picturehouse offers a distinctly different programme and experience from major multiplexes like Cineworld or Odeon.

For cinema-goers keen to look beyond standard Hollywood blockbuster fare to more artistically daring films from Britain or abroad, or just any film that isn’t backed by a gargantuan marketing campaign, the Arts Picturehouse represents the only local venue to find such content. Rising cinema talent need opportunities to have their films shown to the public, and cinemas like the Arts Picturehouse are often the only outlet willing to take that chance. Likewise, films with more limited appeal, such as that from overseas or the BFI’s archives, would struggle to find an audience without the backing of a substantial group of cinemas that have the expertise and savvy to invest in them.

The Picturehouse chain makes use of a diverse programme of films, some of which do admittedly overlap with Cineworld, to run a profitable business. But the Commission have failed to take in to account the fact that far less profitable films are only shown at Picturehouse cinemas, many of which might never have otherwise been screened. Indeed, cinema-goers would have to travel to London to see the kind of films shown at the Arts Picturehouse if it were to be replaced by a standard multiplex.

The type of films physically capable of being shown at the Arts Picturehouse also distinguishes it from the Cineworld. The ability to project 70mm films is now limited to a tiny number of cinemas across the UK, and Cambridgeshire should be proud that we have one such venue. There is no guarantee the technical setup would be retained under new management.

The Picturehouse experience is very different from a customer perspective too. The atmosphere and surroundings are much more appealing to an older audience than that of a Cineworld: less brash, more inviting and relaxed. The bar is excellent and the staff are always friendly and helpful. Alcoholic drinks purchased at the bar can be taken in to screens. Special screenings, for over-60s or parents with babies for example, cater for groups often excluded from the usual cinema experience. Local cultural events are often promoted inside, and there are active links with local businesses.

The Arts Picturehouse also provides support for local ventures such as the Cambridge Film Trust, which runs the annual Cambridge Film Festival – one of the highlights of the region’s cultural calendar – and the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium, which runs educational activities related to film. There is no provision for these activities being safeguarded or continued in the event of the Arts Picturehouse being sold off.

The film industry itself has rallied support for the affected cinemas. Letters from Lord Puttnam and Amanda Nevill, Chief Executive of the BFI, to the Competition Commission attest to the damage that the sale of the Picturehouse cinemas will do to their respective localities. The BFI in particular single out the Arts Picturehouse as

“an exemplary regional ‘arthouse’ cinema. It is host to a well respected annual film festival, carries out strong educational work and is one of a handful of venues in the UK with the facility to show 70mm film.”

It is clear to me that the Arts Picturehouse is a pillar of the region’s cultural and economic activities. Without it, the city of Cambridge and the surrounding area will be materially worse off. I would urge you in your capacity as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to determine what action can be taken to overturn or review the Commission’s findings, with a view to finding a way forward that doesn’t compromise the quality of life for Cambridgeshire’s residents or risk one of the area’s major cultural providers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your response.

Yours sincerely,

Gavin Midgley

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Where have all the DVDs gone? Part II: The Recession

Firstly, apologies (to anyone who cares) for the long absence since my last post – time seemed to get sucked away from me, what with DIYing a new bathroom and the rather busy Christmas period. Hope you had a good break, anyway. My old Sony CRT television decided to give up the ghost during December, so I’ve now upgraded to a 40inch Sony LCD, which has also (agreeably) taken up some of my time. Good for dvd-watching (next on the shopping list: a Blu Ray player), not so good for Freeview-watching – everything gets quite blocky in low-lit scenes. But I’ll get used to it I suppose.

Anyway, I digress. Back in July 07, not long after I first started writing this little blog-ette, I wrote a small piece lamenting the decline in the number of high street retailers selling dvds. What on earth is a film addict supposed to do with their lunch break if there are no discs to peruse? Back in those easy-credit days, I rather glumly noted:

“…enjoy your high street dvd retailers while they’re still there: you never know when they’ll be forced to pack up and go the way of the do-do.”

Curse my prophetic words of doom! 18 months on, we’re in the grip of a rather nasty recession that no-one seemed to predict (with the exception of Vince Cable, apparently) and high street retailers are falling over left, right and centre. This week alone has seen the final demise of Woolworths, one of the last remaining shops stocking a reasonable number of dvds instore. This was a particularly painful loss, not just for me but for the British people in general; long had Woolies been the shopper’s refuge from rain, the source of useful odds and ends, and the rites-of-passage that was the singles, album and film charts. Of course I bought my first 45s and cassettes there, but also my first videos: copies of Alien or Star Wars, plus battered old lesser items rescued from the bargain bin (RoboCop for £3 – that was good in them days).

In recent years you could still find the occasional nugget of gold, but the internet really ate in to its trade. Even so, the most I would have expected is that it would give up selling music and films, and concentrate on its more profitable areas of trade – sadly, it appears that there were no profitable areas. At all.

However, the internet has not been immune to the credit crunch either. Zavvi became the first major online dvd retailing casualty, closing its website just before Christmas 2008 (though its stores remain open for the time being). Who’s next? It’s a fair bet that other online retailers will follow suit. The top players like Amazon and Play.com should be able to weather the storm, but if Zavvi and Woolies can go down the pan, then so could anyone else, quite frankly.

So, who’s left then? On the high street, if Zavvi disappear, then HMV are basically the last man standing. No other nationwide music/film/games retailers spring to mind. If you’re feeling charitable you might include Blockbusters, but they concentrate on rentals, and they certainly don’t stock music. If you’re lucky, a supermarket might have a reasonable selection on offer, but for sheer choice, they can’t compete with a specialist trader.

Does it even matter anymore? If we’ve got the internet, do we need a high street retailer? Well, it’s certainly true that nearly all of my filmic purchases are made via the web, but when I walk past a store like HMV, I still can’t resist poking my head inside to see what’s on offer. This is the modern dilemma of the physical entertainment form versus the digital. I like to see the films in front of my eyes – hold the packaging, admire the artwork, choose the one I like the look of best. Music fans who treasure their CD or vinyl collections will know what I mean. Browsing a store is so much more interesting than clicking around a website (though admittedly, not having to queue on the web is a definite plus). And how can a downloaded film or music collection ever be as interesting and fun as a real collection of discs, ones you picked up here and there down the years, and that can be lovingly admired and perused? The act of browsing can be very pleasurable, and that’s the experience the web and downloads have yet to match.

So I will miss the high street dvd sellers – the Zavvis and Virgins, the MVCs and Music Zones, Choices, and of course Woolies – with their tempting but ludicrously over-priced chart displays and their bargain bins of naffness. I certainly enjoyed many a lunchtime searching for the nugget of gold hidden away in their stores. And if you happen to be walking past an HMV, pop inside and take a look around – don’t let it go the way of the do-do (or Woolworths).