Resist! ... and Reconcile: Brand Image and Independent Cinemas

21 July 2014

How independent cinemas and the way they consciously brand themselves may be reinforcing class divisions and more. Originally written May 2012.

Like many other independent exhibitors wishing to programme films on current theatrical release, Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema must continually negotiate a cultural space found between two primary poles: its educational aims as a charity and the pressures of financially sustaining itself. Because this tension is determined by the systemic particularities of capitalism itself, we might also view these poles, respectively, in terms of resistance and reconciliation. The negotiational process emerging within this space, however, is dialectical: drawn into a network of comparators and competitors, individual exhibitors like the Tyneside inevitably reproduce the contradictory forces that challenge their survival and are thus ultimately unable to overcome them.[1]

As a result, despite and because of the relative dearth in scholarly material dealing specifically with this negotiation – indeed, I would contend not enough is being done to put the fundamental laws that demand such negotiation into question – I am interested less in arguing the case for politico-economic alternatives here than in examining the ways in which, under present conditions, an exhibitor strategically defines itself against others in an inherently and increasingly competitive market. In order to explicate this seemingly endless negotiational task, I consider firstly how the Tyneside’s programming policy is informed by its educational aims as a registered charity; secondly, I look at its recent decision to adopt mainstream films within this programming policy, which is designed to expand its audience and provide strategic points of access to the ideas contained within its educational framework.

One question: is a cinema's educational framework problematised by an incorporation of mainstream films, and if so how does an independent exhibitor such as the Tyneside define its brand image so that such a problematisation can be negotiated? In answer, I argue that with an increasing overlap in competing cinemas’ programming, a large part of this negotiation relies on the physical distinctions of its venue, which lend a sense of history, tradition and 'resistance', all of which benefit from the perceived corporate facelessness of neighbouring multiplexes.

1. Cultural frameworks and commercial targets

As a registered charity, the Tyneside’s mission is to “engage people in unique experiences of cinema culture” (Tyneside Cinema, Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2009 1). Within this aim fall two components – the motivational and the educative. Firstly, it is hoped that audiences “enjoy themselves and are enriched and inspired”, “become more self-confident, questioning, motivated and open to others’ perspectives” and “decide to do something different in their lives” (ibid) as a result of attending the cinema. Secondly, it is hoped audiences also “develop their knowledge and understanding” as well as “new skills” (ibid) as a result of attending the cinema. The Tyneside seeks to fulfil these aims primarily through the exhibition of “cultural,[2] independent, repertory and foreign language films” (ibid), as well as through its education and outreach projects across the region’s venues.

Both within and supporting this educational framework is the need to develop a business strategy that lessens the company’s dependency on public revenue funds (Tyneside Cinema, Report and Accounts 2), which are increasingly threatened by economic austerity. A large part of this strategy is to grow audiences; it is in this that the exhibition of mainstream films is intended to function. Indeed, mainstream films provide access points to a programming policy otherwise dominated by what the BFI – after the UK Film Council – broadly defines as “specialised film” (“Definition of Specialised Film”).[3] Thus, increasing its admissions through the exhibition of mainstream films allows the Tyneside to apparently fulfil both its desire for audience expansion and engage its audience in a motivational and educative experience. Put another way, because of the commercial nature of the film industry, boosting its capital suggests an exhibitor is also expanding its audience; because the latter represents the former, the two are, seemingly, directly related. This direct relation can be illustrated as in Fig. 1.

Some figures seem to corroborate this model. As of 2010-11 (Tull, “Tyneside Cinema Programming Process”), since reopening after a £7m renovation in May 2008, the Tyneside had screened a number of mainstream films that it would not have considered prior to its renovation (Tull, “Re: Placement”); in the same period, it grew audiences by almost 50%, selling more than 161,000 tickets in 2010-11 alone – 41,000 more than its pre-reopening target (Tull, “Tyneside Cinema Programming Process”). Furthermore, of the 184,000 tickets sold in 2011-12, 147,000 were for specialised film (Tull, “Re: Placement”), which means that once the Tyneside’s footfall for mainstream films, regular clubs’ screenings and alternative content such as live operas are taken out of the equation, 80% of its overall sales are comprised of specialised film.

However, the extent to which the exhibition of mainstream films directly boosts attendance to specialised films is questionable. In order to substantiate such a suggestion, one would need to look closely at the viewing habits of audiences: specifically, those whose first point of access was through mainstream films, but who then attended specialised films thereafter. The problem, however, is that the only audiences whose viewing habits are traceable in this way – via customer relationship management software Newman Online – are those with a Friends membership; numbering 3,000, Tyneside members comprise less than 2% of the 184,000 tickets sold last year. Any resulting trend would therefore be speculative. Such an enquiry is beyond the scope of this piece. My point is to suggest that without such quantifiable data, even if the Tyneside has indeed seen a boost in its specialised audiences, the “commercial needs = cultural aims” equation upon which a harmonious brand rests remains the more utopian explanation.

An additional consideration is that the Tyneside is one of 25 independent cinemas that pay for the programming expertise of City Screen, the UK’s leading exhibitor and programmer of specialised film. As Nick James points out (5), because it programmes the Screen, Curzon and Picturehouse chains and also books films for venues like the Tyneside, City Screen is in something of a monopoly position when it comes to specialised film distribution in the UK. Indeed, cinemas like the Tyneside benefit from the commercial element and the closer market and industrial relations (Tull, “Re: Placement”) ensured by City Screen precisely because of this monopoly position. City Screen’s expertise, then, regardless of its intended opposition to multiplex models and its overall aspiration towards quality and diversity (“About Us”), is profitability. While this is often unproblematic, to the point where James can admit that “you’d be hard pushed to find a more varied programme than what’s on offer in some of their cinemas” (5), City Screen’s chief responsibility towards the independent cinemas who pay for its services remains to select works that will work best there commercially; as James notes, its “sole real criterion is profit” (ibid).

Because of this, exhibitors’ relationship to City Screen is dialectical, whereby their own profitability is considerably strengthened by the services provided, [4] but whereby a dependence upon such services naturally develops, at some point, beyond their realistic control. Any mainstream film’s commercially successful exhibition at a site inevitably lends justification to similar bookings in the future. Both The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, for instance, are upcoming sequels to films screened in 2008, whose predictable success secured the advance booking of the latest instalments. Booked by City Screen on behalf of the distribution companies whose investment in such films is expected to be profitable, such films are commonly contracted to screen in exhibitors’ largest auditoriums and for the maximum number of screenings per day. In the common event these auditoriums are booked out – for schools’ study days or alternative content, for instance – these larger films play in smaller auditoriums at the expense of the specialised films that would otherwise be exhibited in them.

The impact this has on smaller films is not difficult to imagine. During a 70-hour placement I undertook with its Programming and Marketing team, for instance, the Tyneside opened The Hunger Games on Friday, 23 March 2012 for an agreed-upon four screenings per day in its largest auditorium, the Classic. However, the auditorium was pre-booked for other events for lengthy portions of Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29; on all three occasions, The Hunger Games moved into either of the cinema’s two smaller auditoriums  – because it was contracted to screen four times per day – the Electra or the Roxy, affecting the number of screenings given to The Kid with a Bike, In Darkness or Once upon a Time in Anatolia.

Such developments are understandable. With less means of securing their own financial stability, exhibitors competing within this particular market are reliant upon City Screen in order to maintain healthy rapports with distributors. With particular regard to the Tyneside, then, its brand is not the result of a harmonious relationship between cultural aims and commercial needs, but rather problematised. From the hypothetical equation posited in Fig. 1, we move to the reality of Fig. 2:

Since these commercial pressures are systemic, the Tyneside is as an individual business unable to challenge them without seeing its own profitability (thus sustainability) quickly diminish, which is precisely why it ineluctably upholds class tensions in negotiating them. If this process, in which cultural aims are strangled to some extent by the pursuit of profit, is unavoidable under present conditions, it is more appropriate to examine how the Tyneside’s current brand image negotiates it. From whom, in other words, is it able to establish repeated patronage without its problematic brand being appreciably challenged?

2. Branding negotiation

The intentions behind and decisions informing the Tyneside’s brand are indicated by market research carried out prior to its reopening in 2008, in which a focus group was held for non-attendees whose attributes the cinema associated with its target audience. The focus group consisted of males and females aged 22-45, who 1) attended other cinemas regularly with a partner; 2) considered themselves a film lover; 3) had a good income (Tull, “Marketing Presentation”). Regardless of the fact that the frequency with which one attends the cinema, the extent and variety of one’s cinephilia and one’s income are all extremely relative, some idea as to the kind of audience with whom the Tyneside wishes to be associated can be gathered, even if by means of elimination.

Firstly, the cinema’s target audience does not attend alone. The cinema’s brand, therefore, must cater towards the social experience of going to see a film. A material example of this is the recurrent parting line used in the cinema’s direct mail: “See you at the pictures!” An informal tone and old-fashioned lexis ("pictures" rather than "cinema") combine here to reintegrate the social into a pastime that might otherwise be seen as outdated. Secondly, with regard to the type of cinephilia its target audience embodies, two observations emerged from the focus group: it was happy to wait until after a film’s opening week/end to see it – during which it will have screened at nearby competitors – and it was the quality not the type that mattered, which meant that blockbusters were as legitimate as foreign-language films; no other significant preferences emerged.[5] As well as promoting the social experience of cinema-going, then, the Tyneside’s brand benefits from flexibility with regard to both the dates upon which the cinema exhibits first-run titles and the range of films included in its programme, as opposed to catering to an audience that similarly identifies itself as cinephilic but which prefers to see a film during its opening week/end and is more particular in its tastes. Examples of first-run titles screened a week after their theatrical releases include The Fighter, which opened at the Tyneside a week after its 4 May 2010 theatrical release, and Shame, which opened a week after its 13 January 2012 release.

Thirdly, with regard to income, the Tyneside consciously situates itself within the “chic venues” and “high-end retail outlets” (Tull, “Marketing Presentation”) that its focus group participants enjoy. Its target audience, in other words, identifies itself in line with a particular lifestyle; in this case, that of the aspirational middle class, for whom the social experience of cinema-going is a leisure activity defined by comfort and privilege. The Tyneside’s brand, consequently, must emphasise such qualities by, for example, selling fine foods and other appropriate stock such as wine, which can be taken into the auditorium to enjoy alongside the viewing experience. Furthermore, since reopening, the Tyneside has reserved the theatre-style circle of its Classic auditorium as an area to which audiences can upgrade for a fee. That access to this area is not permitted to those who have purchased tickets with a jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefits concession illustrates my earlier suggestion regarding individual exhibitors within a competitive network inevitably reproducing systemic (i.e. class) tensions. The Tyneside contributes to the marginalisation of certain social sectors.

As is evident here, the Tyneside bases its brand on the tastes of an audience the cinema itself consciously targets, which results in a strategic and effective image that emphasises, in all three instances, the experiential element of cinema-going. The Tyneside is able to do this, in line with chic venues and high-end retail outlets – both of which emphasise the social experience of consuming as much as, if not more than, the product consumed – because of five interdependent factors pertaining to the physical individuality of its venue. These factors are: history, tradition, size, location and personality. Comparing each to the cinema’s nearest competitor – the Empire multiplex situated along the road – helps demonstrate the extent to which the Tyneside’s brand relies upon the experience provided by its venue’s eccentricities and age (Tull, “Re: Placement”).

Firstly, the Tyneside’s brand repeatedly draws upon its venue’s own history, most recently by hosting a celebratory weekend of films nominated by patrons in conjunction with its 75th anniversary. It did this by firstly raising awareness of the nominations procedure in and around its venue, in its promotional literature and by persistently including a 75th anniversary badge on much of its artwork. This is in stark contrast to the Empire, which is situated on the same site as what was until May 2006 an Odeon cinema – which suggests that multiplexes and their brands are interchangeable. Crucially, The Gate complex that houses the Empire was erected in May 2002; its age cannot imply the same kind of heritage that the Tyneside’s allows.

Secondly, linked to this, is the Tyneside’s sense of tradition. As documented in a 2006 summary of its strategic aims, its renovation aspired to a “nationally unique heritage attraction … enabling people to discover the story of newsreels and the past of their community as depicted in news media” (Tyneside Cinema, Summary Information Return of Aims, Activities and Achievements 2006 5). Indeed, the Tyneside documents its origins as a newsreel cinema within its own literature (“Our History”) and through a daily programme of free newsreels and guided tours, with visitors able to engage in the venue’s heritage and tradition via interactive displays. The Empire cannot compete with this sense of tradition for obvious reasons: its own age precludes it.

Thirdly, the Tyneside has three screens compared to the Empire’s 16 – which will soon expand to 20 (Hill). Though this limits the number of films it can programme at any one time, its smaller size lends a sense of two key things that its brand can promote: intimacy and independence. On the one hand, intimacy is a crucial part of the social, communal experience of cinema-going with which the Tyneside wishes to be associated. On the other, though as we have seen it is not immune from systemic pressures, its size nevertheless helps give the impression of a certain independence. Indeed, its very name – Tyneside Cinema – evokes its one-of-a-kindness, which even before its physical size suggests a brand far removed from a corporate chain that can and does seemingly permeate any city centre it wishes to. In other words, the Tyneside’s size works back into its sense of history and tradition by evoking a more localised resistance to the homogenisation of its environment.

Linked to this, too, is the Tyneside’s location, which enhances and is enriched by its site’s history. Situated at the intersection of Pilgrim Street and High Friar Lane, the cinema is given by its double address a simultaneous sense of exclusivity and inclusivity: it is exclusive in its comparative concealment and inclusive in its ease of access, with the cinema’s box office immediately greeting visitors upon entry – which itself links in with the venue’s size. In short, the Tyneside’s brand can suggest the cinema is the site of a kind of pilgrimage in both its nature and its address(es). This is not the case for the Empire, which is situated behind the all-glass fa├žade of The Gate, an entertainment complex that also houses a casino, nightclubs and chain restaurants such as Frankie & Benny’s, Ask, Pizza Hut, Nando’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. All of these become interchangeable brand names comprising a seemingly unprincipled, monopolised corporate capitalism when compared to the Tyneside’s immediacy and its neighbouring independent coffee shop, Intermezzo.

Informed by all these other factors, finally, is the Tyneside’s sense of personality. Having retained much of its original art deco interior and the traditional decor of the Classic auditorium, the refurbishment also introduced new areas such as the Tyneside Bar on the third floor, as well as the Roxy and Electra auditoriums. This combination of old and new gives a strong sense of being able to adjust, expand and progress within an increasingly competitive market without losing its roots, which is an important impression to project for any brand that must negotiate between cultural investments and commercial returns. The Tyneside’s personality is a composite of the venue’s history, tradition, size and location.

To continue and conclude our comparison, the Empire’s personality extends that of Odeon before it, impressions of which are indicated by the same focus group held by the Tyneside to determine its target audience: “I see them as all the same”; “dirty, smelly, busy, noisy, cold, expensive and chaotic” (Tull, “Marketing Presentation”). Together, the five factors comprising the Tyneside’s physical venue are employed by its brand to sublimate any problematisation between commercial pressures and cultural interests. Indeed, City Screen’s philosophy emphasises “architecturally interesting” exhibition spaces (“About Us”), while the Independent Cinema Office, the UK’s key organisation in supporting and developing independent film exhibition, highlights the common importance for cinemas to be planned within and around listed buildings, so as to draw on and expand upon their historic interest (“Listed Buildings”). This architectural element becomes doubly important when we compare the Tyneside’s actual film programme to that of other exhibitors, be they competitors such as the Empire or three-screen comparators such as Cinema City in Norwich.

Discounting one-off screenings such as kids’ clubs and alternative programming such as operas, two one-week periods – chosen due to their proximity to the time of writing – give an indication of some programming similarities. From May 4-10, 20% of the Tyneside programme’s 10 films overlapped with 13% of the Empire programme’s 15 films; between May 11-17, the corresponding figures were 38% (of 8 films) and 18% (of 17 films). Over the same respective periods, meanwhile, the Tyneside shared 40% and 50% of its programme with that of comparator Cinema City, which screened 10 and 9 first-run titles compared to the Tyneside’s 10 and 8.

This overlap between independent exhibitors and multiplexes is due partly to the former having to strategise mainstream films into their programming, but it is also a result of the BFI’s continuing definition of specialised film being so broad (Hanson 375) that multiplexes inevitably exhibit far more “films that do not sit easily within a mainstream and highly commercial genre” (“Definition of Specialised Film”) than might first be expected. The extent of such overlaps in programming is only a recent development, but precisely due to their occurrence we may reason that such a development will continue, so that exhibitors such as the Tyneside are drawn more and more into a policy whose concerns for profitability firstly fall beyond its control and secondly problematise, more and more, its educational aims.

Because the material pressures informing this dynamic are systemic, individual exhibitors like the Tyneside must adjust in a reconciliatory fashion. In order for such pressures to subside, the fundamental laws of capitalism itself would have to be challenged. Of course, as is clear from the increasing number of people engaging with its venue and history every year, the Tyneside’s brand is at present successful in negotiating within such a reconciliatory framework. Its success is a result of the cinema itself targeting an audience of a particularly defined class and lifestyle in the assumption that, for this audience, the cinema-going experience depends on much more than the product(s) being consumed.

As a result, the Tyneside’s venue is a major asset, lending as it does a comfort of experience distinct from that of its nearest competing multiplex, even when the same films are often exhibited at both sites. Of course, in conclusion, if the economic climate within which the Tyneside must keep adjusting continues, the extent to which defining itself in association with “high-end retail outlets” and “chic venues” removes the cinema further and further from its educational aims is unclear. One thing that does seem more certain, however, is that the experiential element given by its venue looks in the more immediate sense to become of even more importance to the Tyneside, with another competitor in Gateshead's nine-screen Vue multiplex, recently finished just south of the River Tyne.


[1] (Return to top) This despite claims made nearly thirty years ago that the cinema views its educational role as politically and socially active (Packer 142). Changes in capitalism itself have no doubt problematised the cinema’s strategies for resisting them.
[2] (Return to top) It is unclear what is meant by “cultural film”, but I would suggest, in line with Trotsky’s assertion that culture “is all that has been created, built, assimilated and achieved by man throughout the course of his entire history” (para 2), that all films are cultural regardless of their funding procedures, production processes or indeed exhibition contexts. For a discussion of cultural perceptions of film in the UK, see Aylett.
[3] (Return to top) The BFI’s definition of specialised film is designed to help decide which films are eligible to screen within the programming quotas of cinemas – including the Tyneside – participating in its Digital Screen Network. For the BFI’s explanation of the Digital Screen Network, see “Digital Screen Network”. For a discussion of some of its potential problems, see Hanson.
[4] (Return to top) This includes the use of Newman Online.
[5] (Return to top) Having not been asked, the focus group stated no preference as to projection format. Consequently, the Tyneside can screen films digitally, with absolutely no commitment to 35mm, without challenge from its target audience. For a brief but commonly cited argument in favour of 35mm projection, see Cox. For an excellent collection of essays on the technological changes affecting film exhibition, meanwhile, see Bordwell.

Works Cited

“About Us.” City Screen Limited. City Screen, n.d. Web. 14 May 2012.

Aylett, Holly. "Reflections On The Cultural Value Of Film." Journal Of British Cinema & Television 2.2 (2005): 343-51. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 16 May 2012.

Bordwell, David. Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. 2012. PDF file.

“Construction starts on Cramlington cinema.” Insider News North East. Insider Media, 2 May 2012. Web. 15 May 2012.

Cox, Alex. “Why we should join in an attack on the digital clones.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2002. Web. 15 May 2012.

“Digital Screen Network.” UK Film Council. British Film Institute, n.d. Web. 14 May 2012.

“Definition of Specialised Film – full version.” British Film Institute. British Film Institute, n.d. Web. 14 May 2012.

Hanson, Stuart. “‘Celluloid Or Silicon?’ Digital Cinema And The Future Of Specialised Film Exhibition.” Journal Of British Cinema & Television 4.2 (2007): 370-83. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 14 May 2012.

Hill, John. “Expansion will see extra-large screen at Newcastle’s Empire Cinema.” NE Business. Journal and Evening Gazette, 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 May 2011.

James, Nick. Editorial. “The Specialist.” Sight & Sound Jul. 2008: 5. Print.

“Listed Buildings.” Independent Cinema Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012.

“Our History.” Tyneside Cinema. Tyneside Cinema, n.d. Web. 15 May 2012.

Packer, Peter. “…At Tyneside Cinema.” Screen 25.4/5 (1984): 142-7. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 21 May 2012.

“Plan for new cinema in Gateshead.” Capital FM. Global Radio UK, 7 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012.

Trotsky, Leon. “Culture and Socialism.” 1927. Trans. Brian Pearce. World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International, Oct. 2008. Web. 14 May 2012.

Tull, Jonny. “Re: Placement.” Message to the author. 4 May 2012. E-mail.

---. “Marketing Presentation.” 4 Apr. 2012. Microsoft PowerPoint file.

---. “Tyneside Cinema Programming Process.” 4 Apr. 2012. Microsoft PowerPoint file.

Tyneside Cinema. Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2009. Tyneside Film Theatre Limited, 2009. 15 May 2012. PDF file.

---. Summary Information Return of Aims, Activities and Achievements 2006. Tyneside Film Theatre Limited, 2006. 15 May 2012. PDF file.