Team Vue: Key executives discuss digital networks, blockbusters and buildings


According to Roland Jones, “joining Vue just after its creation was a great opportunity to becoming involved in something right from the start, and develop and grow everything from scratch.” Like his equally enterprising colleagues in film booking and property development, Vue’s technical services director has been part of Vue Entertainment pretty much from the beginning. “You are working in the movie business, what’s not to like?” After spending ten years in consultancy with Accenture “working across Europe in areas of systems, technology and telecoms,” Jones left for “the more exciting realms of media and entertainment, and made my way eventually to Vue in late 2003.”

While Geoff Moore, who joined Tim Richards and Alan McNair during the SBC International Cinema days, already has a couple of industry years on Jones, Vue’s director of property has been involved with theatrical exhibition even longer. “I worked on the construction of the second U.K. multiplex that AMC Theatres opened at Metro Centre Gateshead in 1986,” he says. Building cinemas for a developer at first, Moore later joined UCI, “originally for six months only,” he deadpans. “But I stayed there for 13 years.”

Entering his 26th year in the industry, Stuart Boreman, a “huge fan of films from an early age” with a degree in film studies to boot, joined Vue Entertainment eight years ago as its film buying director. “This role is a perfect mix of my interest in business and my love of films.” While he never fails to enjoy Billy Liar and Apocalypse Now as two films he has “watched innumerable times over the years,” Boreman’s favorite Vue moments are “the opening of our two Westfield cinemas” in London and Stratford City “and their ongoing phenomenal success.”

“Vue Westfield is the best thing that we’ve done,” chief operating officer Steve Knibbs agrees. “It’s a real pleasure just to stand there in the foyer and watch what is going on. It’s never anything less than entertaining. At the same time, I am really proud of some of our other theatres like Newbury where we have seven screens in less than 20,000 square feet [1,860 sq. m.]. It’s a really efficient build and the quality of what we have done for a fairly small town is something to be very proud of. That’s kind of one extreme to the other. The quality of what people see there is just as good as it is at Westfield. That’s really important for us as a company.”

For Moore as well, “on the property construction and design side,” the Westfield sites are favorite achievements. “They were difficult and challenging,” he explains. “At the Westfield London site we developed quite a few new offers. Our VueXtreme large-format brand was started there, along with our higher-end offer, Scene. The developer wanted us to create a new design just as the other retailers were asked to do as well. All of us were stretched to produce something a little bit different and more glamorous.” How would he describe the Vue style? “We don’t theme the cinemas at all, but select an appealing color mix to appeal to all ages,” Moore responds. “It’s very much a modern and contemporary design, but it is not stark in any way.”

He continues on that thought. “A guy who knows a lot about cinema development once said to me, ‘The movie starts on the sidewalk.’ And he is dead right. Cinema includes everything from the car parking and presenting the front entrance so that it stands out… As a ‘theatre of dreams,’ it’s got to have a big entrance. In terms of getting the look and feel right, don’t make it too loud,” he opines. “Don’t make it too busy. And focus on the key element of the auditorium. Get the proportions right, make the screen as large as you possibly can for the size of auditorium. Inside, we specialize in providing the ‘black box’ look and feel. Everything is black because we think that is just the best way to present film. We want people to be able to focus on the screen… It’s a very immersive experience. We insist on having comfortable seats, big screens, fantastic sound and the best quality of image. That’s what people go to the theatre for—to watch a film in the best possible environment.”

Moore’s colleagues share that belief. For Jones, an enjoyable evening at the movies “means two hours when I can really switch off my phone and BlackBerry and escape. I think this is an enduring draw for cinema. There are too many distractions at home to really immerse yourself in a movie.” Boreman agrees that “big screen, big sound and a full auditorium make for an amazingly satisfying night at the movies.” He is absolutely sure “it will be the same in the decades to come.” In that same time frame, Jones too thinks that “movies will be just as important as they are now. Digital will make day-and-date release more commonplace,” he elaborates. “Social media will let everyone know about a great movie almost instantaneously, and the flexibility of digital copies will allow supply to meet demand. I think more people will watch the same movie on shorter runs all round the world.”

Steve Knibbs predicts “a massive revolution in the way in which exhibitors and distributors will think about how film schedules should be put together.” Historically, Vue’s chief operating officer explains, “you would tend to book a film for x-number of shows every day into a cinema screen for seven days a week and then you review the result.” In the new world, “if a film plays better on a Saturday than it does on a Monday, we should be showing it on Saturday and should replace it with something that plays better on the Monday. Maybe we will have a documentary strand on a Monday night and a sports strand on Tuesdays. I think there is a massive piece of work to be done with all the content owners around programming innovation and flexibility in what we can use cinemas for.”

As the Vue team has pointed out before, digital technologies are the driving force behind it all. For Moore, “Without doubt, digital projection—and all the options that it brings to you from satellite to anything you want, really—has brought about the biggest change that cinema will ever see.” He notes that Vue has already been deploying “platforms that drop down to allow access to the projector” when adding screens to existing portfolio sites as part of an initial 25-screen add-on plan. “Boothless design works absolutely fine,” Moore has observed, although he doesn’t see mezzanine levels disappearing completely. “With stadium seating in the U.K., you still have to provide wheelchair and disabled access at the rear of the auditorium. We won’t be able to ever do away with mezzanine floors, but we may well get rid of projection booths… Overall, I think it will make the footprint of the buildings become more efficient and we’ll get more seats into the space as if you had a projection room.”

On the IT side as well, Jones says Vue’s completion of the digitization of projection in 2012 was the most exciting moment for him. “This is possibly the most profound change in the industry’s entire history. I believe that the effect of this change will continue to be felt in ways we cannot yet imagine in the future.” Today already, Vue deploys a network infrastructure between “always connected sites” and the head office. “This centralization using the Vista system has allowed us to grow and maintain consistency across all our sites. We can push new promotions, price cards and offers from the center and know they will reach everywhere and activate at the correct times. Everything is connected across the estate and all key components are monitored in real time,” he adds. “I have replaced around 95% of the systems and technologies which were in place at the beginning of my time at Vue in 2003. So we have been building and improving for a decade now. We are at the point where we are going back and replacing our initial deployments with improved solutions. I am sure there has been at least a tenfold increase in processing capacity.”

That includes powering the former Apollo cinemas, which according to Jones “are now fully integrated into the Vue operating model and infrastructure so that we run a consistent platform across the board in the circuit.” In terms of integrating more recent Vue newcomers CinemaxX and Multikino, he is certain about “synergies that we can make use of on both sides to improve our overall support offering.” At the base of that technology view lies a noteworthy realization. “We recognized that projection management is now very similar in nature to IT, so in 2012 we created a technical-services department that encompasses both,” he notes. “Digital projection is now fully integrated into the IT infrastructure and monitored in the same way. We watch projector performance along with Sony remotely to proactively manage the machines, and minimize any problems. It is critical to Vue that we remain in touch with the mechanics of projection. This is now a fundamental part of our business, and we must continue to understand it so we can develop it in the future.” Jones foresees “still many opportunities to take advantage of, such as integrating film booking and projection scheduling.”

Already, “web and mobile ticketing is a growth area,” and he thinks that will be the case for a while. “For ‘must-see’ movies, people are really keen to ensure they confirm exactly the seats they want to sit in to maximize their experience. For certain movies in certain sites, remote booking can account for up to 50% of the total.” Nonetheless, Vue is not giving up on the tried-and-true, he assures. “We still offer voice-response services by phone. Sometimes it is still not convenient or possible to make bookings or enquiries via a PC or other connected device. Usage has certainly diminished with the explosion of smart-phones, but who knows what will happen if Google Glass becomes popular? Perhaps people will start ordering tickets with their voice again. The path of technology is not always predictable!”

And neither are the movies that are trying to reach their audience, Stuart Boreman knows only too well. Variety of content is key to his Vue and has been instrumental in assuring success. “We have a 23% share [of box office], which is increasing, and ranks us third in the U.K. market. However, it varies from film to film; for instance, we were ranked number one on the recent opening of The Great Gatsby.” Speaking in general about those all-important opening weekends, Boreman trusts in quality. “Fan-based movies are particularly front-loaded, which has always been thus. Great films that generate really positive word of mouth will have a very different shape.” Besides the blockbusters, “we have been involved in Bollywood from our inception, with on average ten locations trading successfully with Bollywood titles.” Vue has also enjoyed “a great deal of success with films from Poland, Greece and Turkey amongst numerous other counties.”

The specialized segment is “very much film-dependent,” he continues, “but such cinemas as Vue Islington, Finchley Road, Leeds Light and the Westfields trade exceptionally well with art-house product.” Virtually everywhere, “opera, the National Theatre and live concerts are playing to packed auditoriums. The alternative-content side of our business has grown every year since its inception. We believe this will continue to be the case for years to come.”

Beginning this past April, Vue launched “back in vue,” an eight-week repertory series providing “the opportunity to revisit or discover some timeless cult classics on the big screen, now digitally restored.” Boreman says, “We’re trialing in an effort to give our audiences more choice in content. It’s another one of the great opportunities digital projection gives you.”

Looking ahead, he keeps on the positive track as well. “In fact, theatrical exhibition’s continued worldwide growth, particularly in China and Russia in recent years, has reinforced exhibition’s importance to the studios,” Boreman provides words of reassurance. “I believe a really beneficial change the industry needs to make is to challenge what and where distribution currently spend on marketing. There must be, in this digital age, more cost-effective ways to reach the audience. As long as compelling films continue to be produced and we provide first-class cinemas in which to show them, then the industry will continue to thrive.”