Belfast Telegraph

To the max as Omniplex raises the curtain

Omniplex Holdings is raising the curtain on the cinema experience with its giant new screens, the Omnimax — and as its CEO Paul Anderson informs Amanda Poole, they will be coming to a multiplex near you very soon

Cinema is in Paul Anderson's blood. Having followed in his father Kevin’s footsteps, there isn't much the chief executive of Omniplex Holdings doesn't know about this area of the film industry. “I've been involved in the cinema business for more than 40 years and the business is controlled by me,” he said. “I love what I do. My father is 96 now and he has only recently retired.”

Mr Anderson (62) told Business Month that Omniplex Holdings is very much a family business and that he travels from his home in Dublin to his Northern Ireland base in the Lisburn Omniplex at least once a week.

“My two sons and a daughter are involved in the business — Mark, Paul Jnr and Lindsey,” he said. “All Andersons. The first Omniplex we opened was a 14-screen complex in Lisburn in 1997. That was pretty adventurous for the time.

“The second was a nine-screen complex in Newry in 1998 and it went on from there. We opened in Carrickfergus, Bangor, Derry, Enniskillen and [then] we put one in Armagh, Kennedy Centre, Larne and Antrim.”

Omniplex Holdings employs more than 200 staff. It operates 27 cinema complexes throughout Ireland, with 91 screens in 11 complexes across Northern Ireland.

“Antrim is the most recent,” Mr Anderson said. “It is a 10-screen complex but the main screen is the Omnimax, which is a giant-screen format — more than 20-metres wide. It's the only giant screen in Ireland. It's a new brand — Omnimax.

“We've designed the auditorium around the screen. Normally, a cinema is designed and they put screens in it. We did the opposite. The cinema scope picture has a ratio 2.4 to 1 — it's 2.4 times the width to the height. This screen is 23 metres by nine metres high. It fills the end wall of the auditorium.”

The businessman said the new Omnimax screen is great to watch any movie on but particularly big-effect action films. “It will be more impressive for action movies, because you are in the movie,” he said. “The ceiling goes into the top of the screen, the floor goes into the bottom of the screen and the two side walls are at the edge.

“We project from the centre of the auditorium and what we are trying to achieve is that you are sitting in the auditorium looking out into space; that there is no end wall and whatever is thrown up there brings you into the action.

“Cinemas prior to this were always ‘build a box and put the screen on the end wall of the box’. We did the opposite and it's well worth a visit.”

Omniplex Holdings is keen to expand its business in Northern Ireland and ensure no member of the public is ever more than 20 miles from one of its box offices. “Eventually, we are hoping to put three Omnimax screens in the north of Ireland. A regional facility, a regional attraction and something that's worth going to see Harry Potter on.

“You want to see a movie like that on the big screen and in the best circumstances, and you will travel the extra mile.”

Mr Anderson said no final decision had been taken about where the new giant Omnimax screens will be, but he wants them spread across Northern Ireland to ensure everyone can access them easily enough.

“We are looking at the other side of the province,” he said. “Enniskillen would probably be the opposite side to Antrim. Antrim has been covering all the north Belfast and eastern side of the province. We may look at putting one in Lisburn in the fullness of time.

“It's an expensive auditorium to build. It cost £3m to build the Antrim auditorium. It was a £6m investment in Antrim. It has luxury seating in it, wider space between the seats, so the whole thing is five-star luxury.”

In fact, he said the whole Omniplex brand reflects five-star quality. “When you walk into an Omniplex, like walking into a McDonald’s, you'll recognise it. We design them the same and improve on our design as we go.

“We are trying to create a brand, we are trying to create awareness, we are trying to create quality. If it's an Omniplex you are going to, you know you are getting the quality and the right presentation of it.”

Mr Anderson said Northern Ireland is ahead in the digital race. “Five of the 11 Omniplexes are 100% digital. Northern Ireland is the most advanced part of the UK from the digital perspective. The last five we opened are digital projection. There are only four in the south of Ireland that are fully digitised and we are hoping to convert the rest of the Omniplexes to digital during the next 12 months.

“It's a higher quality of presentation; the picture on the screen is dead steady. There's no rock or motion and the quality of the image is so much better on screen.”

The cinema boss is just back from the CineEurope conference in Amsterdam. “I've agreed terms with studios to convert to digital projection on the whole 11 sites,” he said. “That's due to start rolling out in September and we would hope to complete that by the end of next year.

“The cost of converting a cinema to digital is around £100,000 per cinema, so it's quite a large investment required in converting our existing stock. Of the 91 screens, there are 33 of them already digital projection.”

Omniplex Holdings is investing money while other businesses struggle. “I always say you have to be mad to be in our business. We just get on. The recession hasn't helped but it hasn't stopped us. We've opened four complexes in the last 18 months and we are still looking at one or two more complexes in the north, where there are no facilities.”

Mr Anderson said people are foolish to write off the cinema. “As Mark Twain said, the report of our demise has been greatly exaggerated. When television came out in the 1960s, they said that would be the end of cinema and we are here 50 years later and will still be here in 50 years’ time.”

The key to success in the cinema business lies with quality, value for money and accessibility. “We are on the cheap end of the entertainment spectrum,” said Mr Anderson. “It's not expensive to go to the cinema and yet it's a night out.

“In a recession situation, we get a lot of people being more economic. Rather than going to a restaurant or on a night’s drinking, they are going to |the cinema. It gives hours of entertainment and you'll go home without having a head on you.

“We do have some falling out on the bottom end of our spectrum — a certain amount of teenagers, where maybe parents have been made redundant and money is a bit tighter; and when a teenager comes along for £10 to go to the movies, they can't have it.

“The recession does hurt us from those who don't have that much discretionary cash.”

He added: “[But] people still want to go to the cinema. It's the culture of young people now. They like movies and want to go to them and get out. Where else can they go? The 14 to 17-year-old isn't into the pub culture, so where is it safe to send your kids with friends?

“Cinema is a big attraction. They can make friends, have a good time, it won't cost the earth and they are safe. It's wonderful value, and what we are trying to do is let the public know of the Omnimax. Biggest screen in the country, close to you. Great to see Harry Potter or whatever is on.”

Mr Anderson loves films, none more so than the 1939 American classic Gone With the Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

“For the time it was made, the quality of what they have on screen is very watchable and good value,” he said. “It's amazing that they could make something like that 70 years ago.

“To think that technology was around and the ability to do that was around. I don't think it could be done again. The cost of remaking that would be phenomenal. Doctor Zhivago, a David Lean masterpiece, is a movie that would be hard to remake. The production, cast, acting and story is superb.

“ET was a great movie and The Matrix’s visual affects were phenomenal. The best black-and-white movie for me would be Casablanca.”

Here's looking at you, Paul Anderson and Omniplex.

Belfast Telegraph

Weekly Business Digest Newsletter

This week's business news headlines, directly to your inbox every Tuesday.