In the name of sanity, save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

Cambridge Arts PicturehouseI’ve been tweeting like mad the past few days about the campaign to save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse from sale or closure. This monumentally stupid predicament has been forced upon it by the UK Competition Commission who, in a fit of extreme diligence, have decided that having two cinemas with differing aims and audiences but owned by the same business in the same city is a social evil that must be prevented at all costs.

In fact, in their provisional findings, the Commission have recommended that either the Picturehouse or the Cineworld in Cambridge must be disposed of by parent company Cineworld Plc. Given that the Picturehouse, with its more adventurous programming and smaller number of screens, is surely the less profitable, it would seem likely that it is the one in imminent danger of eviction, which would be a huge loss to Cambridge as a city, not just its loyal customer base.

A coalition of local writers and cinema-goers have urged the Commission to think again. In a press release, we have set out the reasons why their findings are fundamentally flawed:

  • The Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas have strikingly different programmes and settings, making them very different propositions with only minor audience overlap (which was the reason cited by Cineworld for purchasing the Picturehouse chain in the first place)
  • The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse is home to an array of in-house skills and screen technology (like the much-valued ability to run 70mm screenings), the likes of which are almost impossible to access outside of London
  • The Arts Picturehouse hosts renowned events like the Cambridge Film Festival, is the base for long-term community projects like the Cambridge Film Consortium, and stages other cultural events such as exhibitions, school activities and film education
  • There are many audience members who, if deprived of the quieter ambience of the Picturehouses under threat, would simply stop going to the cinema altogether – this is especially true of older audience members
  • Local independent competition still exists in the form of the VUE cinema in Cambridge’s The Grafton shopping centre
  • The social atmosphere engendered at all three Picturehouses under threat, from the welcoming and knowledgeable staff to the variety of food and drink available in the bar, is one that would irrevocably disappear under new management

Please sign the petition to indicate your support for a cinema that deserves to be protected, not sold off. And by all means write to the Competition Commission too.

Thanks for reading. You can find further coverage on TAKE ONE, the official organ (as they used to say) of the Cambridge Film Festival, which may well find itself homeless this time next year as a result, and The Movie Evangelist, who has done sterling work in breaking down the report and revealing it to be useless bilge.

We can only hope that common sense prevails. Whichever cinema it loses, Cambridge will be worse off. Consumers are the only losers here. Let’s make the Commission see that.

Published by Gavin Midgley

Freelance film journalist, blogger and geek.

Join the Conversation


  1. UTTER MADNESS to even think of closing this gem….I’ve been a regular for over 50 years…used to go to the Arts Cinema’s matinees when my boys were at the Perse…different venue back then, but still showed special films.

  2. I have read your petition (and press release, and the Competition Commission report) and am struggling to understand why a sale of the Arts Picturehouse by Cineworld is necessarily a bad thing.

    In fact, the Comp Comm report is well balanced and thoughtful. They (and Cineworld and Picturehouse) do not believe the markets the cinemas operate in is strikingly different, a new owner would – it would be logical to assume – keep the existing facilities and events programs, and competition reduction (pace the current sowing of The Way Way Back by both Cineworld and Picturehouse) will inevitably lead to higher prices for Cambridge cinema goers. Talk of closure strikes me as nonsensical scare-mongering.

  3. @Confused – The CC report acknowledged that the two cinemas operate at different ends of the market, and then ignored that view in their final recommendations. What sense does that make? And why is it logical to assume that a new owner would keep the existing facilities and events? Other multiplex chains are almost certainly waiting to swoop in and grab a piece of the market in a prime location. There’s no requirement for the cinema there to be an art-house. Or for it to be a cinema at all. Given the difficulty the Picturehouse has in selling out screenings for more offbeat films, why would an independent cinema be any more successful, when it would have considerably less financial muscle?

  4. It may be logical, Confused Arts cinema-goer, to assume that the existing screens would be kept by a purchaser.

    However, why would the purchaser logically have interest in :

    * Providing a membership scheme such as Picturehouse offers ?

    * Running such an extensive bar, along with food and other drink – it might think that the kiosk sufficed, and turn that into, say, a training venue, no longer for public use ?

    * Giving office and screening space to Cambridge Film Festival and other festivals, and to Cambridge Film Consortium and its events ?

    * Not directly competing with Vue and Cineworld by programming just blockbusters ?

    In name even, an Arts Cinema might survive, but it would effectively have closed – it is highly likely that someone would buy the business opportunity (although nothing is certain), but nothing means that it would keep any of those things or numerous others that define what we have at the moment.

    Calling what Gavin and others say scare-mongering is just being complacent about retaining what is there at the moment, if a sale takes place.

  5. Gavin + Agent – it made business sense for the previous owners to run events/facilities/memberships. There are no guarantees that Cineworld will continue to do so in the medium term.

    However, it is a reasonable assumption that the Cineworld managers wish to preserve the value of the franchise they have spent money on, and would therefore continue on broadly the current path if they retain ownership. BUT, if it makes a better financial case for them not to (and to change the space to become a centre-of-town blockbuster venue, an office space, another bar, flats, or whatever) then I am sure they would. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of their duty to their shareholders.

    But the same alternatives – keep as an arthouse cinema or change – are equally valid for a different owner. If, for example, it makes sense for Cineworld to offer space to CFF then why would it not make sense for e.g. Curzon/Odeon/Vue?

    As far as I can see, the one thing Cineworld do bring as new/current owners is (as Gavin points out) economy of scale – but then surely Vue or Odeon would be better owners, as they are even bigger still and hence would have even more “financial muscle”?

    I am still failing to grasp what you think it is about Cineworld that makes them a better owner than any other third party for the Arts Picturehouse. Please can you explain this to me?

  6. How can it possibly be “A Good Thing” to close such a highly prized, precious and unique asset? As mentioned above, the quiet atmosphere and intelligent and well-informed, courteous staff do much to attract the “Older Cinema-Goer”. Surely profitability cannot be the sole reason for making choices such as these?

  7. Confused: you seem to be assuming that Cineworld own the Arts Cinema. Although that it ultimately the case, they actually own the Picturehouse chain of which the Arts Cinema is but one part. The idea of the Arts Cinema being separated out from the chain, and cast upon the open market, fills me with dread. How could this benefit the Cambridge film-goer?

  8. Crazy and sad. They don’t need another venue that close to the one at the Leisure Park , surely?? Love this cinema where you can still book a seat and have a wonderful experience..not like the naff chains. Will independant films be shown if they are not financially ‘viable’?

  9. The Arts Picturehouse is an integral part of the life of Cambridge and it would be a tragedy were it to close. Many, many films are shown there that it would be difficult or impossible to see anywhere else in the region. I’ve attended several Q&A sessions in the cinema and taken part in one myself – it is an educational and cultural focus for the city that unites the university and city communities. Long live the Arts Picturehouse!

  10. @Confused – You say “I am still failing to grasp what you think it is about Cineworld that makes them a better owner than any other third party for the Arts Picturehouse.” Nothing makes Cineworld a better owner. But this isn’t about Cineworld. This is about the Arts Picturehouse itself. If they sell it, it’s gone. The Picturehouse has historic ties with the Film Festival and other film projects that go on there, which mutually benefit each other; hence the arrangements with office space. A new owner would not have that shared history or sensibility. So if the Arts Picturehouse is sold, all that good work will disappear. A different cinema may take its place, but not in the same form. The programming and other community work that goes on there will no longer have that beneficial relationship. It would be extremely naive to think a new owner would just slot them in as if nothing had happened. What would be in it for them? Especially if it’s an Odeon? As far as I’m aware, the film festival isn’t a giant annual cash cow (though I admit I have no data to back that up).

    Cineworld own Picturehouse cinemas, and they have assured customers that the Picturehouse business will continue to be run as an independent unit, which is the best arrangement that can be hoped for under the present circumstances. A buyer like Odeon cannot be relied upon to continue operating the Cambridge Picturehouse as an arts cinema. That’s why the status quo is in the best interests of Cambridge’s cinema-goers.

    Anyway, great to see so many comments supporting the petition – thanks to everyone who has liked, tweeted or commented on this page. Gold stars all round.

  11. @Gavin – “If they sell it, it’s gone.” Except that it has been sold very recently, and is – apparently – still there. As far as one can tell, the Film Festival is still happening, Why is it “extremely naive to think a new owner would slot them in as if nothing had happened” – when that is precisely what has just happened (temporarily at least!)? Why could/would it not happen again?

    On the other hand, I think it is “extremely naive” to believe any large corporation who give indications that a newly acquired subsidiary will not be told precisely what to do by head office in the medium/long term. If you and others were pushing to keep the Picturehouse chain from being bought by Cineworld then I could understand (and support) the campaign. But the deal is done, and – once the competition clearance is out of the way – we will in time see what Cineworld really want to do with their new toy. And I am sure it will be whatever they think maximises their future profits, regardless of any assurances given.

    You say “A buyer like Odeon cannot be relied upon to continue operating the Cambridge Picturehouse as an arts cinema. ” – but why trust Odeon with the future of the Arts less than Cineworld? To ask the same question again, what is magic about Cineworld? No-one has even given a hint of a coherent answer to this basic question. I can see and understand the real reasons (articulated in the Comp Comm report) why Cineworld are a bad owner of the Arts for we Cambridge-dwellers.

    On reflection, in the current circumstances my opinion is that we should all be pushing *for* the Picturehouse to be sold – to Curzon. To my mind this would serve the arts-loving cinema audience in Cambridge far better than the status quo, and give us a reasonable chance of maintaining the glory that is the current Arts Picturehouse.

    To avoid an accusation of “trolling” (and because there seems to be a lack of rational debate here), I will now bow out of this discussion. To misquote @Simon above:
    “Long live the Arts cinema – whoever owns it!”

    STILL Confused Arts Cinema-goer.

  12. @Confused I think we’re going round in circles here. Oh well, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I quite understand your point about Cineworld’s original purchase of Picturehouses, but we are where we are. It’s good to know there’s so much support for the arts cinema in whatever shape or form it takes.

  13. I think that the argument that the Arts Picturehouse remains strong as part of the Picturehouse brand is true: but there are other options.

    Could local/co-operative ownership work?

    The Curzon/City Screen used to run a programming service, I assume that if local programming was difficult (without the connections and clout) this might still be a possibility.

  14. We need this independent cinema – this is one of the very few cinemas in the east of England which consistently shows alternatives to the mainstream chains.

    John Burrow

  15. U’r fightin’ a lost cause chum,it’s a done deal.Just as sure as eggs iz eggs The ‘brown envelopes’ exchanged hands on this’un l o n g ago.
    Get over it.

  16. Who gives a flip about the Arts? It’s dirty, expensive, snobbish and has 45 minutes of ads and trailers for old movies (don’t try and tell me it doesn’t, I timed it last time I was there!).

    Save the Cambridge Cineworld cinema. It’s cheaper, cleaner and shows more good films!

  17. The Cambridge Arts has been slipping for a long time, from the moment they put in a giant popcorn ‘attraction’ and turned itself into a junk food emporium which shows the odd good film on digital (and a wonderful 80s film on 70mm blow-up once in while). I don’t like having people drinking pints of beer or glasses of wine sitting next to me, which always seems to be the case when I go to the Arts. I wanted to see all the films in the Cinema of Childhood series they ran recently, and went to the first for the Q&A with the Iran director. It was wonderful. It cost £10.50 which is a lot. The rest of the films, all digital copies also cost £10.50 each and were only showed once early in the afternoon in Screen 3, the screen of which is smaller than the one I have at home. I couldn’t afford the £10.50s and so stayed at home. If the films screened for £7 I would have seen three of them. If the price was £5, I would have seen ten of them. I doubt they sold more than 10 tickets for each screening. Special films at special prices should play the main screen and not the side room. I also don’t like the fact you can’t choose your seat when you go into the auditorium, so you can avoid the drunks and the chompers.

  18. It seems to me that as the Picurehouse has such strong support, the local community could run it as a independent cinema ?

    I am a semi-regular cinema visitor, but have not visited the Picturehouse, as I can only afford to visit as regularly as I do, because of the Cineworld Unlimited card. Without that I would just stop going to see films.

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