Within the film industry, there’s an anxiety that Netflix and other online streaming platforms are stealing away young audiences. But this assumption pushes blame onto these platforms and onto young people themselves, instead of encouraging the self-reflection amongst exhibitors that tackling the issue requires. Independent cinemas across the UK and Europe have employed near endless youth engagement initiatives to attract young audiences – from young programmer schemes to full blown youth festivals, the active pull for young people aged 15-24 has never been more of a focus.
So what more can be done to effectively entice young people back into brick and mortar cinemas? One of the biggest – and most obvious – factors at play within the youth audience vs art house vs Netflix stramash is money, says Megan Mitchell, Freelance Programmer, Events Coordinator at Grosvenor Cinema and Co-Founder of CAGE-A-RAMA.
Young audiences aren’t just skint, they’re poor. In 2016, the same year that the BFI reported 7-14 year-olds and 15-24-year-olds making up the largest proportion of the UK cinema audience (at over 42% combined), government data revealed around 30% of children in these age brackets live in poverty. This alone makes any cultural trip a heavily considered indulgence.
I actively distrust anyone who uses the words ‘only’ or ‘just’ in front of monetary values when discussing ticket pricing – even if tickets are arguably cheap. To say that a cinema ticket is ‘only’ so much is to ignore the reality that young people face. Only £7.50 , even before adding transport and other costings to the equation, is a hefty price. To say that young people would rather engage with film on their laptop is to ignore the clear issue that many young people simply cannot afford to go to the cinema.
There are various issues involved in getting young people over the threshold of arts venues, not least trust and sincerity, but value could be the catalyst for real change. A basic Netflix subscription costs £5.99 a month: meaning you can binge-watch a variety of films and TV series all day and night for less than the price of a standard cinema ticket. Is it any wonder young people have largely opted out of handing over their limited funds to organisations who still view access as a gracious favour? There needs to be a radical rethinking of cinema ticket pricing structures if the industry is serious about improving access for the young.
Cinema pricing structures from 1910 right up until the ’40s allowed for prices to be set in accordance with the ‘quality’ of the film, based on length, stars and popularity, with more and less expensive seats available in each screen. And although I’m not advocating a return to this, I think the industry as whole needs to consider a pricing structure rethink, and to reflect on just who the current pricing structures serve. Rigid pricing of off- and on-peak standard and concession tickets are not working to increase accessibility of cinemas, and they’re certainly not enticing young audiences in.
It would be wonderful if we could kick open the doors of cinemas and let everyone in for nowt, but the reality is some audience members can afford to pay a bit more and some can’t. The industry has shied away from sliding scale pricing as a standard operating model, despite its proven effectiveness in the film organisations who have pioneered the structure. A notable few queer film festivals across Britain have been using the ‘Green Bottle’ sliding scale system with great success, and not just in regards to access but in box office. Festivals, including Leeds Queer Film Festival, TransFormations – Trans Film Festival Berlin and the Scottish Queer International Film Festival have all implemented this system, employing neat illustrative guides to help people decide what they can honestly afford to pay. Audiences simply give what their economic means allows them to – from nothing to roughly no more than £8 – with no proof or explanation required. SQIFF have since reported a 69% increase in box office takings, but until we see a radical shift towards this model across the board, the true benefits are yet to be seen.
If the film industry across the UK and Europe wants to get serious about access for young people and other marginalised audiences, pricing for these demographics has to be reduced. The cost reductions must be significant and sustainable – time-limited schemes and reduced pricing incentives do not go far enough; and a discount of £2 off a standard ticket price isn’t going to cut it either. If a sliding scale pricing structure, with suggested pricing based on economic means, doesn’t seem plausible for your organisation, then either offer £3 tickets to under 25s or accept that your audience may meet their natural end come the next cold snap. Film audiences for non-mainstream chain cinemas aren’t getting any younger. It’s time to take decisive action.
Reducing ticket pricing alone won’t cure the ills of the industry when it comes to engaging young people, but it’s a strong start. Independent cinemas and film festivals love the concept of ‘adding value’ to events, but often lack the sincerity to seek real insight into what young audiences consider value. Young people don’t want GIFs, they want relevancy. And just how do we decipher exactly what is it that young people think is relevant to them when it comes to film events, you cry?! You ask them!
Accepting that young people should be able to have a direct say in arts organisations’ attempts to reach young audiences is vital. Regardless of all of the young programmer initiatives, youth film festivals, young engagement roundtables and panels there is still a shocking lack of young voices being properly heard. Let young people programme, create marketing materials, host Q&As. The Barbican, Edinburgh International Film Festival and even the Berlinale Generation strand awards are influenced by their young programmers – it makes perfect sense to let young people speak to the audience they know better than you. This is only beneficial, of course, if you encourage the voices of young people who couldn’t otherwise access cinemas regularly to be heard. Otherwise you’re simply replenishing the middle class audiences who are financially and culturally comfortable already.
These are but a few suggestions of how we can better serve young people and extend the life of our own work – make it cheaper and make it worthwhile – or as a whole we could continue to grumble on as an industry, a community of film lovers placing ourselves at odds with a tool that allows people to affordably access thousands of films.
 Children are defined as individuals aged under 16; or aged 16 to 19 in full time non-advanced education. Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2015/16, Department of Work & Pensions. 2016
 The average UK cinema ticket price in 2016 was £7.40 according to the UK Cinema Association