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The London American: Going to the Cinema in London – Many Differences from the US

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Going to the movies (or cinema, as I now say) is one of my favorite activities. When I moved to London, I was alone for about a month before I met my classmates, so I saw quite a few films and got to explore a number of cinemas. Although one would expect seeing a film to be similar in most places (at the very least, in Britain and America), I found some differences worthy of note.

In central London, cinemas are quite small due to their being installed in older theatre buildings or built anew on very small lots. Thus most central London cinemas have 3-5 screens — although the multiplexes in Leicester Square have up to 10, but often show more movies than that by alternating times. There are about five cinemas around Leicester Square and a couple more in nearby Soho on Shaftesbury, so between them you can just keep seeing movies all day. In fact, if you want to wile away a rainy day, you can just move from cinema to cinema.

However, I don’t recommend this as it’ll cost a fortune. Cinema pricing can run up to £12.50 for a single ticket, and some cinemas and times don’t have student pricing. As a general rule, matinees are cheaper. After noticing a £6-increase in my ticket price, I inquired as to the difference; I was then informed that the pricing is not only based on time of day but on the location of the cinema.

Now, I understand that seeing a movie is more expensive in Manhattan than in Brooklyn, and both of these are more expensive than Atlanta. However, this price difference was between two theatres only a five minutes’ walk apart! Apparently it’s based on the individual rent that cinema pays, so one on Leicester Square can charge more than one on Shaftesbury. This should imply that cinemas out in the suburbs (or at least not in the center of town) should charge less, but this is untrue. The cheapest I’ve found is near Covent Garden (it’s an Odeon in a delightful art deco building).

There are also cinema loyalty programs – I have a card for Odeon’s Premiere Club, which gives you points-per-pound when you buy tickets or snacks, redeemable for the same value. It cost me £1.99 and came with 100 points (£1, or a third of a medium popcorn). I’m sure other cinemas (like Cineworld and Empire) have similar programs.

One of the odder things about buying tickets is that you buy a specific seat. Certain seats, as one would expect, cost more: specifically, the good seats right in the middle. They make it seem like a big deal, but if there’s nobody else watching the movie with you, you can move around. If you’re sitting in someone’s seat, though, you’ll get into a very polite altercation and have to move back to your assigned seat. Sort of like an airplane.

Now that you know where to go, here are some fun cinema experiences.

  • Odeon Covent Garden: With a £6.50 student matinee price, it’s my favorite. The Odeon theatres each have a Ben & Jerry’s in the lobby, and purchasing tickets online is really easy. It may be the chain with the most locations in London.
  • Curzon cinemas: At least two central locations, one in Bloomsbury and one in Soho; others are further afield. These art cinemas have snazzy bar-cafes always populated by people dressed in hip suits and leggings (see last weeks’ column). Average prices. They show quite a lot of foreign films; in addition to the usual French and Italian, they often have Eastern European and Spanish films.
  • The Apollo West End: Unfortunately, this was the most expensive cinema I’ve been to, as I shelled out a ridiculous £13 to see “Tangled” in 3D. It did have amazing stadium seating, though, and great interior design for a movie theatre. The toilets (restrooms) were particularly well done, with a wall-to-wall sink and blue accent lighting.
  • BFI Southbank: The home of the IMAX. They do amazing things, including showing a live broadcast of Danny Boyle’s immensely popular stage play Frankenstein. The BFI regularly screens old classic films from their archives as well as recent documentaries, and they often host film festivals.

Happy viewing!

Author: Stacy

Stacy is a graduate student in archaeology currently living in London. She enjoys visiting museums, riding the tube, splashing through puddles, and giving directions to lost tourists. She also writes a blog about pies.

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  1. This article came at a perfect time, as I’m planning my family’s upcoming trip to London. We’ll be there when the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie opens, and my son doesn’t want to wait to see it. The Apollo West End sounds like it will work its way onto our itinerary!

  2. Nice article and I’d also add the Prince Charles cinema just off Leicester Square.

    They show old classic films eg Gone With the Wind, this Saturday and many of the main films a few weeks after the general release. For example if you missed The Fighter you’ll be able to see it there next week.

  3. Hi There!

    Quick tip for your cinema going! Cineworld has a card that for £14.99 a month or £16.99 a month west end you can see as many movies as you like at any Cineworld location.

    I use mine at West India Quay and The O2 all the time!

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