Analysing half a million reviews of British cinemas

As I write this, we’re in turbulent times due to the outbreak of COVID-19.  It’s far from clear what the outcome will be on the overall film economy, but already we can see one area which is being hit hard – cinemas.

A mix of fear of infection and government mandates mean that projector lights are going out all over Europe and beyond.

In the short-term, the situation looks pretty bleak for many high street cinema chains.  They hold masses of perishable concessions, have rent owing and a workforce to pay or let go (both in the sites and back-offices).

However, once the current crisis is over it seems reasonable to assume that cinema-going will pick back up, fuelled by a desire to be social again and accelerated by a glut of hotly-anticipated delayed movies.  The joy of being in a darkened space with others, sharing the same exciting big-screen journey will remain.

In this optimistic spirit, I wanted to share something I wasn’t planning to. It’s a project which took in a lot of data and ended up proving something everyone already knew.  I didn’t publish it as I had nothing new to add to the conversation and so I chalked it up as a dead-end.

But as cinemas struggle, I thought it would be timely to share the results to remind us what the public wants from the cinema-going experience.

What the UK public likes most about going to the cinema

About a year ago, I conducted a big research project with Liora Michlin, looking at cinema reviews.  We collected over half a million reviews left by members of the UK public for cinemas across Foursquare, Google, Trip Advisor and a number of other review sites between 2013 and 2018.

By looking at the rating and the text of each review, we were able to draw out some strong correlations.  For example, the average rating for reviews which used the word “friendly” was a whopping 4.6 out of 5.

Other words which were connected to highly-positive reviews were “comfortable”, “leg room”, “clean” and “cheap”.

What the UK public likes least about going to the cinema

At the other end of the spectrum, the word most associated with bad reviews was “rude”, with an average review score of just 1.8 out of 5.

In fact, rudeness was rated as worse than even seeing a rodent or sitting in a dirty cinema.

It’s interesting that cinema employees are mentioned at either end of the charts.  The main difference was that people tended to commend “staff” and complain about “managers”. It’s tough at the top.

I didn’t initially publish these findings for two reasons;

  • No new insights.  Cinema owners and managers already know this information.
  • The British problem. It’s impossible to know how universal these findings are.  Politeness is a key part of British culture and so although these are technically reviews for cinemas, it could be argued that what we’re really measuring is what Brits like to commend or decry when given a public forum.

Funny cinema reviews

Whilst the project did not provide a wealth of actionable new insights, it did produce a bunch of funny tidbits.  Below are real reviews left by the public when reviewing a cinema.

Sometimes the language used by reviewers was a bit loose, resulting in odd recommendations, including:

  • “Small but friendly staff”
  • “Getting a little old but friendly staff”
  • “Large free car park with comfortable seating and a good selection of the latest films”
  • “Good toilets comfortable seating”

Other reviews were fun for the incongruity of their text and rating.  For example, below are some of the one-star reviews:

  • “Excellent and really good comfy seats. Very friendly staff and nice atmosphere and temperature”
  • “Fantastic acoustics. Pleasant staff”
  • “Full of snotty middle-class wankers”
  • “A bit poncy. Would rather go to Odeon”
  • “Cinematic experience means nothing to these star-wars-episode-one-praising idiots”
  • “I’ve not been there it might be good but I doubt it”

Finally, here are six reviews – see if you can guess the star rating they received:

  1. “It made my bum twitch”
  2. “Little disappointed that our screening was cancelled”
  3. “Cool comfy but I found a rotting dirty sock with a hotdog inside”
  4. “Very pleasant and helpful staff, cosy bar, great coffee but needs a few savoury snacks.”
  5. “Staff very friendly & welcoming. With the free parking the whole experience is most enjoyable. Thank you”
  6. “Just walked out of the theatre this afternoon during a showing of the film Manchester by the Sea. What an obscene film, the language was appalling and the sound was so loud it made our ears ring”

Answers below…

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The answers are:

  1. FIve stars – “It made my bum twitch”
  2. Four stars – “Little disappointed that our screening was cancelled”
  3. FIve stars – “Cool comfy but I found a rotting dirty sock with a hotdog inside”
  4. One star – “Very pleasant and helpful staff, cosy bar, great coffee but needs a few savoury snacks.”
  5. Two stars – “Staff very friendly & welcoming. With the free parking the whole experience is most enjoyable. Thank you”
  6. Four stars – “Just walked out of the theatre this afternoon during a showing of the film Manchester by the Sea. What an obscene film, the language was appalling and the sound was so loud it made our ears ring”

Read more

If you want to read more research into UK cinemas, here are some past pieces:

Epilogue

In the film business (as we currently understand it), studios need cinemas.  The theatrical window is a huge platform for their products and, crucially, a major barrier to entry against incumbent threats.  Disney’s global marketing and distribution machinery ensures that its movies sit in a category of their own.  Without the unique nature of a theatrical release, it would be harder to tell them apart from other streaming content.

Despite this interdependence, it’s an uneasy relationship.  Studios get far more control and profit from digital distribution (purchase, rent and streaming).  This may explain why we’re already seeing studios moving quickly to take advantage of the pandemic, with Disney breaking the distribution window for Frozen 2.  This is a battle they’ve long had with cinemas and thus far the cinemas have managed to prevent large-scale changes to release patterns.  However, with the cinemas facing a threat, the studios are circling and looking to take advantage.

Who knows what will happen. But already one thing is being made clear – the old business detente is over.