IMAX Entertainment boss says films offer escapism to Britons despite hard times

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The boss of IMAX Entertainment has said softening consumer confidence is unlikely to hit the UK box office, as long as cinemas set their sights on "premium" experiences that draw viewers away from streaming services such as Netflix.

IMAX Entertainment chief executive Greg Foster said the business is not worried about a drop-off in movie goers, saying that cinemas have the added benefit of helping people get away from it all - even if only for a few hours.

"So when you looked in the past at difficult economic times, the movie business was always something that worked past that - because it was escapism. People could get lost in a movie, they could get lost in those characters," he told the Press Association.

Greg Foster is the chief executive of IMAX's Entertainment division
Greg Foster is the chief executive of IMAX's Entertainment division (IMAX/PA)

Businesses across the country have been keeping a close eye on consumer confidence as the 3.1% spike in inflation sparked by the Brexit-hit pound continues to outstrip wage growth and weigh on household spending.

But that has not stopped the North American entertainment technology firm - which has 44 screens across the country in partnership with the likes of the British Film Institute, Cineworld, Empire, Vue and Odeon - from making a concerted bet on "premium" experiences for UK viewers.

"You have to stay current and the currency in the consumer marketplace right now is premium," the IMAX Entertainment chief said.

Successful cinemas will be making a concerted effort to offer the best and most comfortable seats - rockers and recliners alike - as well as modern food options, good transport links and "club-like" areas that allow people to meet up and spend time with friends.

He added: "Premium is driving people to get out of the house and go somewhere, again not just to a movie theatre - to go to a store, to go to a restaurant, to go to a movie theatre."

But if amenities or film quality fall short, streaming services like Netflix could win out, Mr Foster warned.

"Anything that's not compelling, anything's that's 'get-around-to' ends up falling through the cracks.

"So if there's a mall that's kind of a little run down, maybe doesn't have the best food and beverage, maybe the movie theatres haven't been upgraded, that can be a trickier sell these days, particularly with some of the other stuff going on, like the Netflix, etc."

Looking at weekly box office figures, Mr Foster stressed that it is very clear that premium is working but "non-premium is not, or not as well".

"But Dunkirk or Thor: Ragnarok, or Star Wars, those big event tent pole films - especially if they're available in premium multiplexes, that happen to be located in premium malls, it just makes a difference."

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is set to be the blockbuster of the season (IMAX/PA)

Heading into Christmas, he said Star Wars is "primed to be the movie"- of the season, though others such as Paddington 2, Pitch Perfect 3, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and The Greatest Showman will also be on UK viewers' radars.

He said: "There's a bunch of movies that I think are going to be successful but in terms of the truest of blockbusters... but I don't think anything is really in the same ballpark personally as Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

Given IMAX's success so far in the UK, Mr Foster said that there is no doubt that there will be further expansion across the country in the coming years - with the company still dealing with a backlog of 12 screens yet to be opened across the country.

IMAX has screens in cinemas across the UK
IMAX has screens in cinemas across the UK (IMAX/PA)

That is on top of experimental programmes that could bring in a whole new stream of revenue for the firm, having recently unveiled the first IMAX VR Centre in Europe at the Odeon cinema in Manchester's Trafford Centre.

Mr Foster added: "It's in a pilot phase. We are experimenting with a lot of new business opportunities, none of which we've committed to in terms of saying this is a new core business, but all of which we're excited about seeing where it goes.

"VR is at the top of the list."