So, chugging through the nasty retail park on the peninsula on the way home from a miserable game of football the other night, and what should I see from the bus window? Some men up a crane next to the Greenwich Odeon (nee Filmworks). Another change of moniker? Nope. They were attaching a new word to the sign. “IMAX”.
Yup, the Odeon in Greenwich has now got an Imax screen. I wonder what we’ve done to deserve that honour? Well, it’s probably more proof of the big competition for bums on cinema seats around here. The economy’s shrinking, everything’s gloomy, but it’s boomtime if you want to see a (Hollywood) movie in SE10.
It wasn’t always this way. Greenwich Council had to help fund the original Greenwich Cinema when it opened in the late 1980s (“built by this council for your enjoyment”, a voiceover trilled before every film, accompanied by an obselete council logo). The 1970s and 1980s saw the closure of cinemas in Blackheath (the Roxy, on Old Dover Road), Woolwich (the ABC), Lewisham and Deptford. The multiplex revolution had yet to hit town, and old stagers like the Woolwich and Well Hall Coronets staggered on, along with ABCs in Catford and Sidcup.
But the 1990s saw those old screens wiped out as multiplexes marched in at Surrey Quays and Bexleyheath (since Catford’s demise, Lewisham borough has no cinemas, although there’s a few just beyond its boundaries). And finally, the multiplex came to Greenwich with the Filmworks (now Odeon) in 2001. Big, glitzy, and spotless, it was a world away from the smelly old Woolwich Coronet. Greenwich Cinema, by now looking tatty, shut its doors in 2002 when its owners went under, re-emerging as the Picturehouse three years later.
I heard somewhere that the Odeon was one of, if not, the busiest cinemas in the country. I’ve not been there for a few years, because I can’t think of anywhere worse to spend an evening than a retail park, but its easy to see why it does such a good trade – huge car park and not much competition for miles around. Until last year, its nearest competition south of the river was in awkward Surrey Quays or distant Bexleyheath.
When the Dome became the O2 last year, up stepped some competition for the all-conquering Odeon. The Vue‘s Screen 11 is the biggest in the country – I saw Quantum of Solace on it last month and it wasn’t bad at all, although the cinema’s fiddly to find your way around.
So we have two huge chains on our doorstep, and one smaller one down the road. Are we spoilt for choice? Not really. Both the big chains are showing pretty much identical fare (although you can see Mamma Mia! again at the Odeon and the Vue is still showing Burn After Reading, but only late at night). They’re both even showing Bollywood movie Dostana. Is the Picturehouse offering that much different? It’s the only place showing Waltz With Bashir consistently, and there’s patchy screenings of Easy Virtue and The Baader-Meinhof Complex, but… it’s tough justifying £11 for Bond, Changeling and Body of Lies when you can see them up the road for cheaper.
How do the cinemas fight, then? On technology and ambience. The Vue has its great mega-screen, the Odeon now has its Imax which might tempt me back inside for a look… and the Picturehouse? It doesn’t have the plebs that attend the other two, I suppose they’d like to say but can’t. I actually prefer the Picturehouse because the staff are good, I like its bar, and it’s much nicer going to the cinema in a town centre rather than a car park or the sterile O2. But then if it’s showing the same films as the other two places… I’ll probably start to vote with my wallet.
At least, however, we’ve got three good cinemas that are actively trying to pull in the crowds. Those of us who remember dismal blind dates at the Sidcup ABC (King Ralph) or smuggling booze into the Woolwich Coronet (some Star Trek film, I think) can at least appreciate how much better things are. Hopefully they’ll survive the tough times ahead – and develop to offer us a bit more choice. Picturehouse bosses, I hope you’re reading…