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Retail Wednesday 22nd April 2015

Seeing the light

Seeing the light

The Light provides an alternative experience to multiplexes at one extreme and ‘art house’ cinemas at the other. Now armed with new funding, it’s on course for a roll-out across the UK. We spoke to Keith Pullinger about the chain’s plans.

The co-founders of The Light – Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan – are veterans of the cinema business. Between them their CVs encompass stints at UGC, Virgin, Cineworld and Warner Village plus extensive consultancy work in the sector.

So they’ve seen the multiplex concept up close but when they created The Light they were looking to provide the more intimate experience that is most associated with art house cinemas and combine that with mainstream movie product.

When asked to name the best film he’s seen recently, Pullinger names The Theory of Everything. In many respects, it’s exactly the type of movie that is emblematic of what is at the core of The Light’s offer: a thoughtful movie but accessible to a mass audience.

Pullinger observes: “A lot of people are quite comfortable seeing a blockbuster one week and an art house movie the next. They are looking at a broad range of films depending on their mood or the type of experience they want to have. One day they might go with their partner, another day with their family and again look at different things.

“We were very aware that multiplexes were locked into Hollywood blockbusters and hadn’t really come out of that market”.

The Light offers a unique independent approach to the traditional commercial multiplex concept – with a focus on customer comfort, including excellent customer service, superior sound & vision quality and value for money. Each cinema has a separate identity and a mixed programme of films that aims to respond to the community in which it sits.

Its approach was first validated by its debut UK outlet in New Brighton on The Wirral. This was an opportunity which had been passed up by the major operators and eyebrows were raised when The Light took it on. The eight-screen, all-digital cinema with a cafe bar opened in December 2011 and has been a huge success.

Pullinger explains: “On The Wirral there was already a Vue and an Odeon, but we believed in the developer and the location, and what they were putting together in terms of the mix with restaurants and a casino etc. The second major factor was the catchment: there are 330,000 people on The Wirral so that’s a good number of people to aim for.

“Also going into that crowded market I think we did stand out as the operator that was willing to try that bit harder, experiment with film, think about engaging on social media: ask the audience about what they might want to see and what they wanted from The Light. We wanted it to be a two-way process.”

 The Light offers a unique independent approach to the traditional commercial multiplex concept

Since the New Brighton cinema opened, expansion of The Light has not been dramatic but that is now set to change following new investment into the business. A £5.2m commitment from Connection Capital has been supplemented by £4.5m of funding from the Santander Breakthrough programme which provides growth capital to businesses in the UK.

The investment has already been used to acquire a nine-screen multiplex cinema in the centre of Cambridge from Cineworld. It will also be used to support the roll-out of further sites across the UK – Bolton, Sheffield, Thetford, Dundee, Stockport and Walsall – all of which are secured under a signed agreement for lease.

And it’s unlikely that expansion will stop there. Pullinger says they are tracking another 25 locations and would hope to convert at least five of those into new sites. The Light typically looks for sites that can accommodate eight screens with a total of 1,500 seats.

“If we need a lot of seats for a particular movie we can double up auditoria and play it in three, four or five screens. Digital screening gives you that flexibility. So we find that having more smaller screens is actually a better model for us.”

He is straightforward about the deal that The Light offers landlords.

“If you’re solely driven by getting the best covenant on your lease you’re not going to start with us, you’re going to start with a bigger company. But increasingly we’re finding that developers and landlords are thinking about the right mix in their centres as much as how much is the rent and what your covenant is.

“And that’s been a real change, particularly with the shopping centre owners. More and more we find that shopping centre owners are talking about the same things that we are – it’s all about the experience. That’s because film and retailing are very similar. There are lots of ways now of accessing film and there are lots of retailing channels. But in both sectors, what it comes down to is the experience and what that adds.”

The basis for The Light taking an outlet will be a 25-year institutional lease but Pullinger says the commercial deal and rents will vary depending on the location and its perceived trading strength.

He reports: “We’re quite flexible. We don’t have a fixed way of going into any deal. So we always take a lease but in terms of how that’s structured we’ve got a mix of ones that are on standard rents and some that are on step rents and some that are on rents plus turnover. In shopping centres we like the idea of the turnover rent because we are quite dependent on the strength of the whole development.

“We’re really encouraging shopping centre owners to think more about combining their marketing activity with ours. Because when we’ve got a release like The Avengers, which is coming out shortly, there’s a massive global campaign behind these movies and centres can look to tie into that and have some fun with it. It’s just another way of drawing people to a centre.”

Choosing which films to show is an integral part of a cinema business and Pullinger admits that sometimes you get it wrong.

“We made a classic mistake a while back of not showing Grown Ups 2 because we thought it was dreadful. It ended up taking £20m across the UK in its first week so we soon corrected that mistake in week two!

“You have got to be careful of not trying to put your personal opinion onto what you programme because I think you can differentiate between what the critics might like and what’s box office success.

Local authorities are increasingly keen to get cinemas back in the towns to help build the right sort of evening economy

“For example, we’ll show Fast and Furious 7. Am I expecting it to get good reviews? No. Am I expecting it to take a lot of money? Yes. So I think really the customers decide what’s going to work, but we do try to have as much dialogue as possible and because we are listening to our customers they’re offering more opinions on what they’d like to see.”

As the debate over the revitalisation of town centres and High Streets across the UK continues, Pullinger believes that cinemas have an important role to play.

“In Bolton and Stockport we worked very closely with the local authorities. They were keen to see leisure in the town centres. A lot of leisure amenities in town centres in the evening have become almost exclusively drinking-led which is not what anyone really wants to see.

“We believe the natural place for cinemas should be in towns, not on a retail park on the outskirts. Local authorities are increasingly keen to get cinemas back in the towns to help build the right sort of evening economy. Cinemas should be in the heart of the community.”