Competition Commission |

Picturehouses & the Competition Commission

APHThis morning the initial findings of a much anticipated Competition Commission report were published, regarding the aftermath of the Cineworld acquisition of the Picturehouse chain. The Commission were initially concerned about the lessening of competition in a number of areas. Some have been ‘cleared’ so to speak, but one place that wasn’t is Cambridge (along with Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen).

The recommendations have caused alarm in Cambridge, and I think it is for very good reason. Before we begin, however, there needs to be a shelving of snobbery towards the Cineworld outlet in Cambridge. I am a frequent visitor to Cineworld, and given the comparatively miserable multiplex experience offered by VUE Cambridge their presence is very welcome. Although it is the acquisition which has set in motion these events, Cineworld are not the immediate issue. In fact, in the event that Cineworld Cambridge was to be sold (rather than the Arts Picturehouse) this would likely have adverse effects of its own.

The fact of the matter is that the audiences going to either cinema are really quite different…

The entire recommendation is based upon the idea that the presence of two Cineworld-owned cinemas in the city leads to a ‘substantial lessening of competition’. The fact of the matter is that the audiences going to either cinema are really quite different, even if there is some inevitable overlap from the most voracious of cinema consumers. There has always been a wide variation in the programming outlook of each Picturehouse cinema, and it should be obvious upon further inspection that the Arts Picturehouse tends more towards the eclectic end of the spectrum. This is particularly the case since Madeleine Mullet took over programming at the location – for my money she has done an excellent job at further diversifying the offering in recent months. Crucially, this has occurred as part of the Picturehouse chain – an entity which looks to get a mixture of cinema on to its screens and considers the demand of the local audience.

The summary of the Commission’s preliminary findings itself says that by “making the acquisition, Cineworld’s strategy was to reach what it perceived to be a new and growing segment.” Cineworld were not acquiring more locations to bring multiplex programming to city centres, rather than out-of-town behemoths. This was acquiring an audience they did not have, as well as expertise on improving cinema-going experiences. In reality, this was an entry into a linked – but different – market, rather than the aggressive elimination of a competitor.

[Cineworld] was acquiring an audience they did not have […], rather than the aggressive elimination of a competitor.

Apparently “the [Commission] will have regard to the need to achieve as comprehensive a solution as is reasonable and practicable to remedy the [substantial lessening of competition] and any adverse effects resulting from it.” The sale of either site does not achieve these goals. The Commission states that “benefits might comprise lower prices, higher quality or greater choice of goods or services or greater innovation in relation to such goods and services.” There are two scenarios to consider, the sale of either cinema, and neither seems to have the desired effect the Commission seeks.

The sale of the Arts Picturehouse is fraught with pitfalls. The worst case scenario is the elimination of the arthouse cinema scene in Cambridge, should the only sale option be to a non-cinema company (e.g. as opposed to, say, Curzon) – hardly a goal I would imagine the Commission think provides “greater choice of goods or services or greater innovation.” However, looking at other options (site acquisition by another independent operator) neglects the fact that the very programme offered by the Arts is a result of its membership of the Picturehouse chain. This is even before the unknown knock-ons to events such as the Cambridge Film Festival and other smaller events throughout the year.

Whichever way you slice it, there is an adverse effect upon different cinema audiences.

It’s sad, however, many do not see the benefit of Cineworld. Were the site at Cambridge Leisure to be sold to e.g. ODEON, then the Unlimited membership would go with it. For those of us who like to take in big budget Hollywood films, this would increase costs markedly regardless of the illusion of more competition. So that option fails the “lower prices” option in the Commission’s desired goals.

Whichever way you slice it, there is an adverse effect upon different cinema audiences. Although I can’t comment directly upon the situation in the other two locations, I find it hard to believe some of these issues don’t apply there also, as well as some specific to them.

As I have said before, the longer term effects of the takeover were hard to predict and they still are. What I am certain about, however, is that charging into the Cambridge cinema landscape the way the Commission is recommending will not achieve what it seeks to.

8 thoughts on “Picturehouses & the Competition Commission”

  1. Good thoughts here Jim; as you say it’s hard to see what way it will go (and I am no expert) but endangering either of these two cinemas would seem to reduce the apparently essential ‘competition’ element in Cambridge – isn’t that what the CC claim to protect? Both cinemas attract different audiences with inevitable overlap, and what’s the beef with the prices? I don’t get that. Many of us just won’t go to the cinema if APH loses. And just as the British film industry seems to be getting a smidgeon of the right kind of attention from government: it’s madness to potentially decrease access to film. I agree that the recent programming has been really lively and exciting. Yours sincerely, Disappointed of Cambridge.

  2. Thanks, Jim ! I believe that it’s bogus to believe that this commission is interested in competition, and not just in the dumb exercise of realizing where there is a Cineworld and a Picturehouse in the same place, which is more to do with whether there is a monopoly (under its old name) : two cinemas owned by Cineworld out of three, and to hell with what’s happening in those cinemas, because it ‘must be’ bad for the consumer.
    Let’s hope that they might have the teeniest scope to listen to what the cinema-going public say that they want, rather than telling us and spoiling everything… !

  3. This is pretty spot on – I hope this site expands on all this. I enjoyed the link to Movie Evangelist on twitter that backs up what Jim has said here with some numbers. The whole thing goes against what they claim to be protecting and would gut Cambridge of one of its best non-theatre assets.

  4. I’ve remember the Arts Cinema when it was in Trinity Passage. In those days, what it showed was Herzog, Kurasawa, Bunuel, etc etc. No Hollywood blockbusters at all. It is where we learned what great cinema was. Things have gone downhill ever since. When the Trinity Passage venue closed, people literally wept on the streets, but both the move to Regent St and the takeover by Cineworld were accompanied by protestations from the management that nothing was going to change. Now classic films – Eisenstein, Resnais, Murnau and so on – hardly ever turn up, except as part of the U3A or the University Modern European Cinema programmes. I feel sorry for the current generation who will only have the chance to get to know these films on DVD.

    The Picturehouse is still of course an institution worth preserving, but if the Competition Commission’s ruling nudges Cineworld into differentiating Picturehouse programmes more clearly from the rest of its offerings, some good might come of it.

    1. Thanks for reading, Sheila. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, there is more at stake than simply what is programmed in any given week. The Arts Picturehouse is very much a cultural space, as well as a cinema – with the work of the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium and Cambridge Film Trust (and the festival, by extension) all operating out of it. It’s sad you feel the programme isn’t sufficiently different from CW, I strongly disagree and I’d argue it by pointing you to some of Mark Liversidge’s analysis (

      The only way I (and many others) feel that APH can be preserved (as you note we should at the end there) is to make noise about this. If you personally want the result to be “differentiating Picturehouse programmes more clearly” from Cineworld, then that is not an option on the table right now – a sale is. If sold outside City Screen Ltd, make no mistake, the programming of the Arts will move much closer to that of Cineworld.

      1. Well I am not arguing for the sale, nor am I disagreeing with you that there is more to the Picturehouse than just the weekly programmes it shows. All I was suggesting was that maybe Cineworld could help to prevent the sale by promising to mimimise the overlap.

        I have no idea who the potential purchasers might be, assuming it were sold as a going concern rather than – worst option of all – being turned into yet more flats, and I would be curious to know. Is it quite out of the question that the British Film Institute might be interested in taking it over?

    2. It is not Trinity Passage, but Market Passage.
      You seem to forget that when the one-screen cinema closed, it did not re-open for a long time. I cannot comprehend looking back to the middle or late 1980s and still expecting everything to be the same – after all, although I can only guess, why did the old cinema close ?

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