Cinematopia: UK picture palaces
A brief history of UK cinema circuits

There are half a dozen major circuits in the UK today, yet their respective histories are a fascinating tangled web of massive expansion and sudden decline. By contrast, in the 1940s-50s, there were in excess of 200 circuits of sizes varying from three sites to the many hundreds of the majors.

Until relatively recently, the major chains controlled exhibition in the UK. Each chain selectively showed films released by particular studios, with little or no overlap. Unfortunately, this made it hard for independent producers to get their movies shown. It was this fact that was the catalyst for Cannon's aggressive expansion - and subsequent collapse - in the 1980s, which brought together most of the biggest names in UK exhibition history (Classic, ABC, Star, Granada, MGM and Gallery amongst them) in one great big chain which, for a while at least, was even bigger than the almighty Odeon circuit.

Here is an example of the complexity of the inter-circuit relationships. The UK's current largest circuit, Odeon, is owned by United Cinemas International (UCI), which itself was founded as a joint venture between US film studios Paramount, Universal and MGM but is now owned by Terra Firma. Paramount and MGM both had their own circuits in the past. Today, Showcase Cinemas is owned by National Amusements, Paramount's parent company. Meanwhile, the Cannon chain became MGM when Pathé became the parent company of both and was later sold to Virgin and split up; part became UGC, which is now Cineworld, while the rest reverted to ABC and eventually merged with Odeon, thus bringing together the biggest rivals of cinema exhibition's golden age. All this happened in the last twenty years or so.

Such is the complexity of this area that it is rather better summarised in Cinematopia's UK cinema circuit history wall chart [PDF; Adobe Acrobat required]. Please note that this is a work in progress compiled from disparate and sometimes conflicting sources; please do not rely upon this information as a full and accurate statement of fact.

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This page last updated 24th November 2006.