On Monday, July 10th, the Vue West End cinema in London’s Leicester Square reopened after having been closed for four months to complete extensive refurbishing. “We want to set a new standard for what is possible in the West End,” declared Kevin Styles, UK & Ireland Managing Director, Vue Entertainment, in his opening remarks. Indeed no expense was spared to make the complex Vue’s flagship cinema, nor was there any skimping on the gala launch that effectively set the bar for the AMC-owned Odeon and Cineworld-acquired Empire cinemas, both also located on Leicester Square.
Every aspect of the cinema has been redone, starting with the electronic billboard-size marquee and doing away with the box office that previously sat in the centre of the ground floor front entrance. Instead of the box office there are now ticket kiosks off to the right, creating a large open space for the entrance, flanked by extensive food and beverage offerings. The impression is airy and welcoming, even when stuffed full with an assortment of vendors, distributors and the odd celebrity (specifically Gemma Arterton), drinking champagne and trying out a selection of the revamped food menu.
The broader selection of vendors with an expanded food and beverage (F&B) offerings at the new Vue West End, reflects the offerings found in larger out-of-town multiplexes. The obligatory Coke and popcorn has now been augmented with a selection of hot food and drink options, including Square Pie (verdict: tasty but messy), Malletti Pizza, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and Starbucks coffee, as well as a fully licensed bar for beer, wine, spirits and cocktails.
Upstairs in the multiplex is an expanded bar and lounge area where guests at the opening were ushered before that start of the screening of 20th Century Fox’s “War of the Planets of the Apes”. A live jazz band played, more drinks were served, but the cinema food was replaced with more traditional hors d’oeuvres. It was a somewhat strange gala evening where the cinema was the star attraction and even an excellent film like the third of Fox’s “Apes” films (opening across the UK the following day) came second. But the revamp was impressive, all the more so considering that Vue could shut down its cinema to complete the renovations, but not Leicester Square. Nor could the company bring in heavy trucks and machinery, but instead had to carry much of the demolished interiors out by hand and do the same with the material being brought in to replace it.
With the lobby and F&B aspects appreciated, it was time for those of us at the gala to turn our collective attention to the actual cinema aspect. Seating had been replaced in all auditoriums. Rather than going for full leather recliners and sacrificing seating capacity, Vue opted for generous and comfortable “slider” seats. Dolby Atmos had been installed and the twin-stacked Sony projectors in screens 5 and 7 created an image as good as any RGB laser for all intents and purposes.
Welcoming the audience before the start of the film, Styles stated that “We are on a mission to create the best big screen experience on the planet.” Remarking how children, including his own, are increasingly consuming media through the small screen, he lamented that “iPad and computer screen viewing is slowly killing us.” But this apparently has only spurred on Vue’s determination to make the big screen experience more relevant and enjoyable. “We have made transformational strides in the last years, because we feel this really matters,” he concluded before the lights dimmed and the movie began.
Having lost out (allegedly) on bidding for Odeon & UCI as well as Nordic Cinema Group, Vue needed to show off that it is not an also-ran exhibitor but one that can set the agenda for the best cinema has to offer in the UK. The re-opening of the Vue West End is a major step in that direction, though it is likely to spur on the promised AMC-inspired re-vamp of Odeon Leicester Square, and prompt Cineworld not to rest on the Imax laurels of its Empire Leicester Square acquisition. Ultimately the audience and cinema itself will be the winners of this three-way competition, because while there is intense rivalry between Vue, Odeon and Cineworld, they all realise that the true “enemy” is the one streaming films to your children’s iPad at this very minute.