The Hard Night Out
By IAN CAMERON
Q.89: Taking it all round, did you think your last visit to the cinema was: Very good value for money 'Good value Not particularly good value/Poor value?
This and similar questions badly needed to be asked, for the gravest threat of all to the cinema is the disappointed consumer.
The FBFM was governed by a feeling that although some causes of the cinema's decline (like the existence of cars and television) are beyond the film industry's control, there might be within reach ways of stopping the rot. The context of the report, which it analyses from past evidence, is a 75 per cent drop in ticket sales since 1946. One striking indication of change can be found in the sixteen-to-twenty-four age group, of whom over 70 per cent went to the cinema more than once a week in 1951. The figure is now down almost to 40 per cent, although that age group has increased in importance to con- tribute nearly half of all adult cinema admissions.
The report's first aim was to establish patterns of cinema-going. Attendances build to a peak on Saturdays for everyone except the young, who have better things to do on Saturday night. For them Sunday is peak day, yet 49 per cent of all cinema-goers never go on Sundays; in the sixteen- to-twenty-four age group, 35 per cent go some- times and 39 per cent go often. (This is perhaps the reason why the older people stay away—Sun- day is the day for gang visits.) This should indi- cate the need for a different Sunday programme, a practice that is dying out. Not all areas offer the choice of. London, to which the survey was restricted, where most people reckon they have three local cinemas.
Outside the West End, three-quarters of the customers spent less than 6s. per head on their visit to the cinema. Seventy-two per cent of cinema-goers thought that a .visit to the cinema was quite cheap. Among those who didn't, a prime and justified cause of complaint was the cost of cinema refreshments. Anyone who has parted with his four shillings to get in will be indignant at being rooked silly inside. The sixpenny drink has been replaced by the shilling job in a special explosive container, and anyone who wants to spend a tanner on an ice-lolly is likely to end up forced to buy a baroque double ripple dairy super choc with nut pimples, all for one and something.
But before our consumer falls victim to the lolly conspiracy, he has made a decision, which the report investigates in detail: where and when to go. Of the sample cinema-goers, 83 per cent chose their cinema on the basis of the film show- ing, although 17 per cent of the sixteen-to-twenty- four more than weekly contingent just went to their usual cinema. In spite of the importance of the film in determining the choice, 48 per cent of cinema-goers couldn't name a single film
currently on at their (average) three locals. This suggests that local advertising is inadequate (as are second chances to catch up with films: 59 per cent had missed films they wanted to see and 41 per cent could remember names).
Among those outside the 13 per cent who had not heard of the film when they went in, and the 4 per cent who had seen it before, the sources of information about a film divided significantly. Word of mouth (31 per cent) was more than twice as important as the next sources, television (15 per cent) and local papers (13 per cent). Also important were posters and papers, but when a third have been told about the film by someone else, the satisfaction of the teller becomes an important factor.
Another line of questioning investigated was what provoked interest : stars 32 per cent, story 30 per cent, 'heard it was good' 13 per cent. From interviews it became obvious that the importance of stars was not just for themselves, but for the clue their presence gave to the type of film (Mrs. S: 'What I found horrible was James Cagney . . . after years of being a good gangster, then he did dancing parts. I walked out.') Presumably for the 44 per cent who thought that it was very important to have the stars' names on the posters as an aid to decision- making (against 20 per cent for producer and director) type-casting is a key factor. Witness the bafflement of a group of adolescents over the arty Saul Bass poster for Advise and Consent. They were also baffled by the title—one boy thought it must be a sex film.
An advance indication of the type of film may play an essential part in arousing expecta- tion, but it also relates to audience satisfac- tion: more people are satisfied if they get what they expect. Eighty-four per cent of those who saw the type of film they expected thought it was at least as good as they expected. For those who didn't see the expected type, the corresponding figure was only 51 per cent. When this is mag- nified by feedback through word of mouth in- formation to others, it can have a crucial effect. Perhaps advertising The Courtship of Eddie's Father as a carefree, hilarious comedy, which it wasn't, helped it to do less well than it deserved.
There were other factors beside the film which could act against audience satisfaction : a quarter of cinema-goers complained about the seating (of these: 47 per cent too close, 28 per cent un- comfortable, 14 per cent broken), a quarter com- plained about ventilation and a quarter about the audience. It's easy to observe that there are two sorts of cinema : family houses and yob houses. When the reasons given by the groups thinking cinemas were getting better or worse were com- pared, there was a significant similarity : 48 per cent of each group commented on the look of the cinemas.
The report also investigates programmes and planning. The role of the second feature was placed in doubt: 27 per cent of cinema-goers failed to see the programme through, and 82 per cent of those who arrived during the second feature felt they hadn't missed anything in not seeing the rest of it. Only 20 per cent thought second features in general were worth seeing.
An obvious case for market research was the idea of fixed performances and booking. Twenty- nine per cent said they would book seats if some were bookable, and these were well rep- resented -in all ages, frequency groups and social classes. Eighty per cent tried to get in on time, and could presumably make the same effort if the programme were non-continuous.
The fixed performances would encourage formal cinema-going, i.e. the visit to the cinema as an occasion, a night out. At present 41 per cent are formal cinema-goers in this sense, and not unexpectedly they are found particularly among the older and less frequent attenders. If fixed performances might be thought to alienate the younger and more frequent customers who buy such a high proportion of tickets, the report advises their gradual introduction at least into some of the larger, smarter halls, as this would encourage formal visits, which could form a hard core of receipts. Competition will have little difficulty in eroding the casual audience and the night out will increasingly become the cinema's great virtue.
Although 59 per cent of cinemagoers agreed that television was at present no substitute for the cinema, a minority of them thought that colour would make it the equal of the cinema (36 per cent to 55 per cent), and a majority (51 per cent to 43 per cent) thought that up-to- date films would do so. In this light, Pay-TV could become a particular threat. The one area where TV was thought to be superior was in providing programmes more suitable for child- ren. Other research revealed an unfulfilled need for children's programmes in the cinema.
In the night-out stakes, the most serious com- petitor was seen to be the motor-car, which 'fits in with the social situations also associated with the cinema and similarly gives an illusion of involvement in action.' This is likely to re- sult in a transfer from casual cinema-going to car outings among the young as cars become increasingly available to them.
The report, then, is not optimistic. There are few clear, certain conclusions to be drawn, and those are mainly unrevolutionary. There is only one real shock : that 35 per cent of the audience actually liked the commercials, against 32 per cent who didn't and 33 per cent who were in- different. But unspectacular though the results are, the report can be invaluable to the film in- dustry (if it will take heed) in presenting a comprehensive picture of the London cinema audience as a basis for future policy.
Finally, let me quote an incidental joy, a piece of social observation quoted from a lady who had never seen an `X' film : `Actually, I have a secret longing to see an "X" film—I've never told anyone about it before—but I feel that I • might be a bit embarrassed if anyone saw me watching it. I know that my neighbour goes a lot to see "X" films and sometimes the next day she'll tell me who she saw there and say, "Trust them to go and see a picture like that."'