Curzon, a chain of British cinemas that specialises in art house films, has existed since 1934. But it’s a turbulent time to be a cinema chain — the number of cinemas in the UK has dropped every year since 2006. Curzon is bucking the trend, though, and plans to open several new cinemas in the next two years.
Business Insider spoke to Curzon COO Mel Alcock and the head of its home cinema business, Philip Mordecai, to find out how it’s growing at a time when independent cinema chains are struggling.
Modern cinema chains like Vue and Odeon have figured out an easy way to make money: Pack as many seats and screens into a venue as possible. But independent cinemas can’t compete at the scale of large multiplexes, so they have to do something different.
What makes Curzon different
Curzon outfits many of its venues with padded, armchair-like seats, complete with little tables to put your wine glass on (the selection of wines is handpicked and cinemas also sell Brewdog Beer.) It’s a very different experience to the big chains.
It’s not just the seats that sets Curzon apart. The selection of films it screens is also very different to what you would find in a normal cinema. It’s usually an eclectic mixture of big-name releases, documentaries, and foreign-language films. Alcock explains that Curzon has method of choosing which films it screens that’s called “the three Cs.”
We curate it, what do our consumers want, and is it commercially viable? … What we tend to look at in exhibition is we might take what we call a crossover film, where as long as there is some degree of heritage or quality — for example, a “Spectre” of this world, a Sam Mendes — we would actually show that because we believe that meets our curated quality.
That doesn’t mean that Curzon only shows niche films. It recently screened the latest “Star Wars” movie. “Our customers wouldn’t want to go to a multiplex to watch ‘Star Wars’ to effectively have, I’m being flippant to a certain extent, a whole bunch of kids eating popcorn and making noises throughout the film,” Alcock says.
What’s happening in the UK, Alcock says, is that multiplex chains are using their dominance over the cinema industry to strike new deals with filmmakers:
A lot of the multiplexes are turning round to movie producers and saying: ‘If you want us to show your film, you’ve got to commit X amount of millions in advertising.’ For the independent producers, that is becoming a very challenging business model because what could happen to them is that they could satisfy that criteria, spend the millions of pounds, lo and behold their film fails at the box office, the exhibitor throws them out because it’s a very fickle world, there’s a holdover process on a Monday, and their product is consigned to the DVD bin. That’s the end of their million pounds.
How Curzon rebuilt itself with the help of Alison Ive
Alcock says that Curzon raised a “significant amount of money” three years ago and then embarked on a campaign to analyse the business. He says that Curzon was “rebuilt” with the help of Alison Ive, a marketing consultant who also happens to be the sister of Apple’s design chief Sir Jony Ive.
“We’ve completely rebuilt the business,” Alcock said. “And that rebuilding has been everything from technology, point of sale, through to e-commerce, through to branding, through to basically upskilling a whole raft of middle to senior managers that have core competency in their line of business.”
Curzon isn’t just a chain of cinemas. It has three distinct parts of the business: The cinema side of things, the distribution company, and the home cinema company. As well as screening movies in its cinemas, Curzon also buys the rights to distribute films in the UK and Ireland. One movie that Curzon bought the rights to is “Anomalisa,” which has received extremely favourable reviews.
“The exhibition model is under enormous amounts of pressure,” Alcock says. “When you’re looking at Vue and Odeon, their business model is challenged because they’re having to pay away large proportions of the ticket price to third parties. As opposed to a customer that comes into my business, an exhibition, and there’s ‘Anomalisa,’ I retain 100% of that revenue.”
Combining a traditional cinema with a movie distributor is an unusual model, but it seems to be working. The UK Cinema Association says the number of cinemas in the UK has fallen every year since 2006. But the number of screens has actually been increasing. In 2004 there was an average of 4.5 screens per cinema, but that climbed year-on-year to 5.3 screens per cinema in 2014. It shows a move towards larger “multiplex” cinemas instead of traditional cinema chains.
Why some property developers would rather a Curzon than an Odeon
However, Curzon is actually expanding, not shrinking. It’s planning to open three new cinemas this year, and three in 2017 too. In 2015, Curzon opened cinemas in Sheffield and Canterbury and also refitted its Soho and Bloomsbury venues.
Alcock says that Curzon is seen by property development company Land Securities as an “anchor tenant.”
“Land Securities approached us to develop in Victoria because what they wanted, effectively, is a cinema of certain stature because we encourage a reciprocal customer base.” Alcock said. “They much prefer to have a Curzon because they can have a Carluccio’s and a VIDA as opposed to a Vue and an Odeon and a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald’s.”
Bringing Curzon to the living room
The other component of Curzon is the home cinema service that lets customers watch films online. It’s not too different to renting movies on iTunes, but Curzon’s Philip Mordecai explains that it has made the service with the customer base in mind. The company creates bespoke trailers for content on the site, selects its own screenshots, and writes its own descriptions for the films too.
The traditional model of the cinema business may be struggling, but smaller chains like Curzon are rebranding or launching online services in order to stay relevant. But there are always more radical ideas out there.
Hot Tub Cinema is expanding around the world to offer, well, a cinema experience in a hot tub. And then there’s also companies like Secret Cinema which offer fans an immersive experience involving actors and fancy dress. How does Curzon compete with that?
“Check out the next one,” Mordecai hints. “We’re involved with it.”