Leeds is still making cinema history

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IF I’m really honest, as I sit before the latest in cinema experiences - the ‘floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall’ XPlus screen at Birstall’s Showcase cinema, I’m not sure I can tell the difference between it and a standard screen.

In fact, it is only as I leave the much-hyped screen and duck into a standard movie theatre that I see what they’re talking about. The XPlus really is wall-to-wall (although not floor to ceiling) and on top of that it has a concave screen, which apparently makes for a more immersive viewing experience.

Coupled with the latest in sound and high-def 3D and it really is a million miles away from that old 14 inch TV with the wiggly aerial you used to have in your bedroom (anyone under about 20 won’t even be able to conceive of such a thing).

In terms of the overall experience, it’s not IMAX but it is the next best thing and, if reports are to be believed, the future of movie theatres everywhere. Time will tell. Certainly, during the opening credits of the film - X-Men: Days of Future Past - there were points when I had to turn away, not because of the subject matter but because it was like being on a rollercoaster - it was one of those CGI sequences in which the director feels the necessity to take you on a ride through the atomic structure of the human body and I have to say the unrelenting camera panning at sub-atomic level made me slightly nauseous. It was a bit like watching a Paul Greengrass film. Still, in a way, that testament to how real it actually looks.

We sat about half way back in the middle of the auditorium but I presume that if you were to sit right at the front, you would experience something a little closer to the fist-clenching fear of the IMAX Grand Canyon film, when there are occasions you actually believe you will fall into the picture.

Cinema’s come a long way, even since the birth of the multiplex. It came as a shock to me to learn that Birstall’s Showcase is 20 years old. But cinema and evolution are best friends. Compare the XPlus screen to something like Hyde Park Picturehouse, which marks its centenary this year or Headingley’s Cottage Road cinema, which is 102 and proud of it. It’s not that they’re chalk and cheese, they’re just different kinds of cheese.

Ollie Jenkins, administrator at Hyde Park Picture House, which marks its centenary later this year, said: “I don’t think there’s been a year when cinema hasn’t dealt with some kind of threat, from things like television, video, DVD and home entertainment, the internet and the latest of those being on-demand. Some films today will often have simultaneous release, meaning they are released on TV, DVD and at the cinema around the same time.

“In terms of why people come here, some of a certain generation remember this is what cinema used to be like and the multiplexes are still very much alien to them but we get younger people who come because it’s quirky and novel.

“Overall, people come for the shared experience. That’s the definition of cinema: a collective experience of film and the atmosphere of watching a film with a load of strangers.”

Hyde Park has, like most cinemas today, gone digital but it still has a 35mm projector and an even older 16mm projector, which is occasionally uses.

I paid Cottage Road a visit recently with childhood recollections of rigid crimson-clad movie seats with limited leg room playing through my head. But I was pleasantly surprised - we took the kids to see Rio 2 and enjoyed the indulgence in nostalgia.

Another difference is the confectionary stand, which when you order popcorn it doesn’t come in a bucket big enough to start your own construction firm. And the unforgiving seats from my childhood were nowhere to be found.

Charles Morris is a former engineer who now owns an string of traditional cinemas across the country - he bought his first, The Rex, in Elland 25 years ago and has seven to his name, including four in Yorkshire. Headingley’s Cottage Road cinema is among them and while it sports the latest in digital projectors and Dolby 7.1 surround sound, much of the rest of the experience is as it would have been before the rise of the multiplex.

“We offer a different experience, it’s not a cattle market where you shuffle in and out as soon as the performance is over. It’s cinema-going as it used to be, rather than sitting there and being deafened out of your wits. We have installed digital projectors and we have the most up to date Dolby 7.1 sound but in terms of doing anything different, I don’t think it would work. I could carve up Cottage Road and put three screens in but you would lose the whole experience.”

So what does he think of 3D films, which was for some time held up as the future of cinema?

“The film that launched 3D was Avatar and that was good, as was Gravity but apart from that, I don’t think people are bothered. I ran an experiment at my cinema in Bowness where I put Tangled, on in 3D and 2D and most people went for the 2D.

“There’s something more personal about traditional cinemas, from buying your ticket to often knowing customers by name.”

We put a series of questions to the people behind the new Showcase XPlus screen...

So, the XPlus screen is bigger and curved, do you think this is the future of movie theatres? Without question, large format screens such as Showcase XPlus are very much in demand for the blockbuster ‘event’ movies. But the size of the screen is only one element of the whole experience. The sound is another major element, and in the case of XPlus, we have the Dolby Atmos sound system installed, which includes more speakers, including in the ceiling, which creates the illusion of an infinite field of sound all the way around the viewer. So the sound and screen, coupled with the advanced digital projection, creates the overall immersive cinema experience that is definitely here to stay.

A few years ago there were fears cinema was a dying business - please comment... During the 1980s it is fair to say that in many cases, a trip to the cinema was not always a pleasant experience.

Cinema seems so diverse these days with Everyman/retro cinemas/pop-up cinemas - does Showcase have anything in the wings which will make us go ‘ooohh’? We are always looking at ways to be at the forefront of new technologies or offerings to the customer. There is plenty to come for Showcase in terms of what we offer our customers in an innovative manner, but at our heart we are a multiplex cinema chain, offering as wide a choice of film and indeed non-film content to our guests. The growth in ‘event cinema’ – live broadcasts of the likes of opera, ballet, music and sport means that we can engage with guests who may not have been to the cinema to see a film in a number of years.

Why do you think people still come to the cinema when most have a decent HD theatre in their pockets (their phones)? The screen in their pockets is 3 inches across. The XPlus screen at Leeds is 60ft across, so that’s 240 times bigger, with advanced digital projection and the latesst in sound.

The experience of going to the cinema and being amazed at what you see and hear can never be replicated on a hand held device, or indeed on the very best home cinema set-up.

Louis Le Prince (1841-1890) is credited with shooting the world’s first moving images on paper film in 1888 while standing on Leeds Bridge. His achievement is commemorated with a blue plaque installed by Leeds Civic Trust.

The first ‘vaudeville’ (or vatiety) films began to appear in the 1890s, some were only around a minute long and usually presented a simple story in an everyday scene.

In the days before sound, slapstick became popular.

The first film studio was built in 1897 in America.

The first actors received screen credits in 1910, paving the way for the creation of the modern-day movie star.

By 1909 there were 9,000 movie theatres in America.

The first movie with sound was the 1927 Warner Bros film The Jazz Singer.

Among the first colour movies were Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz (1939) but the first ever colour film was the 1918 art picture Cupid Angling.

Betamax video cassettes were introduced in 1979 by Sony. Hyde Park Picture House still has working VHS and Betamax players.

Hyde Park Picture House recently screened a film which is only now available on Betamax - BBC docu-drama called ‘Leeds United’, which charted a strike by tens of thousands of female workers in the city in the 1970s - they were calling for a shilling an hour rise and equal rights.

Cinema hasn’t merely evolved along a single branch, it has spawned what you might call a sub-species, in the form of the Everyman cinema, a half-way house between movie theatre and restaurant, where you can enjoy a pizza and a bottle of wine while sitting on a sofa to watch your movie - they even offer customers the option of a ‘hangover club’ for the day after the night before, in addition to several other themed viewings and one-off events.

In the near future, multiplexes will be equipped with even higher definition screens with film running at 72 frames per second and showing laser generated 3D images (3D but without glasses).