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Thomas Love; on Seaway, and Southend’s Cinema History

Following the news that Southend Council has approved the controversial Seaway developments, our Candidate for Leigh Ward, Thomas Love gives us his thoughts on the development and its potential impact on the existing ODEON cinema. 

Cinemas have been a part of Southend’s colourful local history for almost a century.

The Rivoli, Southend’s first dedicated cinema, opened its doors during the silent movie era (it would eventually become the New Empire Theatre) and as a town, we have been in love with the movies ever since. Over the years several more cinemas popped up in Southend but one by one they failed to stay profitable and were forced to screen their last films – even the historic building on Alexandra Street that first introduced Southend to the magic of cinema was demolished in 2017. Cinemas in Southend simply couldn’t survive the increasing costs and decreasing attendance… except one. 

The Odeon at Victoria Plaza opened in 1997 and quickly established itself as one of Southend’s social and cultural landmarks. Until the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the Odeon Southend had served audiences uninterrupted 364 days a year for 22 years.

It seems surprising then that for the last eight years there have been talks of a second cinema at Seaway only a few minutes walk from Victoria Plaza. Although cinema attendance has been slowly growing since its record low in the mid-80s, the number of people attending appears to have mostly levelled out over the last 10 years. To introduce another multiplex just walking distance from Southend High Street seems nonsensical. If they were forced to compete it’s certain that neither could thrive simultaneously.

Why are developers so intent on adding another building to Southend’s cinema graveyard?

As a former employee of the Odeon in Southend, I know how important it is to so many of us.

I believe the building serves a purpose beyond just a cinema; I honestly see it as the heart of the High Street. Even if you disregard all the time spent watching films there, it’s a landmark when asking for directions, a warm place to duck into while waiting to meet friends and yes… it seems to be the High Street’s most popular loo!

In fact, due to its late opening hours, the Odeon has even been used by vulnerable people seeking help at night on rare occasions.

I include myself in the countless number of people whose first ‘no-grownups’ outing was to the Odeon. For so many parents to trust the Odeon with their children’s independence is a testament to the safe environment the staff are able to maintain. It helps that the Odeon at Southend couldn’t be better positioned for public transport, being a minute’s walk from a train station, several bus stops, and a taxi rank. 

So what reasons do developers use to justify another cinema?

Some may argue that an additional cinema in Southend would bring a wider variety of film screenings, but this argument holds little weight when the smallest amount of scrutiny is applied to it.

As an 8 screen multiplex with over 1500 seats, Odeon Southend can and does regularly screen indie films, foreign cinema, and documentaries at a time when massive Hollywood blockbusters dominate smaller cinemas. In fact, Odeon screens more than just films; live streams from theatre and opera performances in London always draw in big crowds, and once every four years you can watch England matches from the world cup live with hundreds of other fans on the big screen. In addition, Southend is lucky enough to be host to a lively local Film Festival and several smaller venues that screen even more obscure titles. Any investment by the council should surely be aimed at the local film societies and small businesses that are already contributing to our town’s community of culture.

Another claim is that the Odeon in Southend is not up to standard, and a brand new luxury cinema would draw in audiences.

Again, I find this hard to understand. Personally I think our Odeon’s inviting entrance, a wide-open lobby that lets you see up to several floors, is more architecturally interesting than most cinema foyers. Personal opinion aside, Odeon have invested considerable money and time into keeping the front of house space modern and relevant, recently leading to a complete redesign of the front of house area and swapping out the box office for digital ticket booths. Behind the scenes, I know that the projectors and screens are under constant review and are regularly updated with the latest technology, meaning that even a brand new cinema could not exceed the image and sound quality that Odeon already provides. In fact, most people’s biggest criticism of our current cinema is the cost of tickets. However, with the EMPIRE Seaway cinema claiming to be ‘state of the art’, it’s hard to imagine they will provide a more affordable option than the cinemas we already have.

In fact, the only compelling argument in favour of the unpopular Seaway proposals is that the council has already committed £3million of tax-payers money into planning it, and would have to refund the government if it were to cancel the project. Although it would be a shame to waste this money, it’s just a fraction of the proposed cost, especially when you take into account what we stand to lose; our existing cinema, hundreds of car parking spaces on the seafront, and if local business owners are to be believed – dozens more shops and cafes from an already suffering High Street. 

I can, however, see why the council is tempted by this project.

They are worried that Southend High Street can’t compete with big shopping centres and cinemas elsewhere in Essex or even London. Developers have taken advantage of this fear before.

In 2008 the Victoria Plaza was given a complete refurbishment and renamed the Victoria Shopping Centre in a bid to save our High Street. This project cost £25million and, 12 years later, half the shops inside are still empty. It has all the things that the Seaway project is proposing – a variety of shops and restaurants right in the heart of Southend with a cinema next door.

I wonder if in another 12 years’ time the Seaway complex will be half empty and the council will be proposing another massive investment to ‘save the High Street’.

The Victoria Shopping Centre not only serves as a warning against the Seaway project, but I think it may also be the solution to the problem that Seaway claims it will resolve; We have the empty shops and there’s already a great cinema right there – all the council needs to do is find a way to populate the Victoria Centre with businesses.

Do that, and our beach can keep its car park and Southend can keep its cinema.

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