Interview with Jim Whittell
Interviewee Sydney Samuelson
6th September 2010
[ROLL 1 – 6th September 2010]
00:00:02 Q: We’re sitting here in Golders Green NW11, at my home, the interviewer, and we’re interviewing for the BECTU History Project, Jim WHITTELL. I hardly need to explain what his long involvement and contribution to the industry is, but we’re going to find out because of the questions that I have. And I’d like to start by saying well you come from up north don’t you, you’re a Lancastrian, is that the correct description?
00:00:48 JIM WHITTELL: I’m actually a Cheshire cat.
00:00:50 Q: You’re actually a Cheshire cat?
00:00:52 JIM WHITTELL: From Cheshire, yes.
00:00:53 Q: I see, but you went to school in Lancaster didn’t you?
00:00:58 JIM WHITTELL: Correct I did.
00:01:01 Q: And as my first question I want to ask you if, since your earliest days, since your school days, do you think it was always your aim to get into cinema? Why would it be?
00:01:21 JIM WHITTELL: No question, I am third generation cinema operator. My grandfather bought a cinema in Dinnington in West Yorkshire called The Palace, still there, chemist shop now. And ran that for several years using his family, two daughters and a son, as the projectionists and the cashiers etcetera.
00:01:50 And then he bought an even bigger cinema in Dover called the Queen’s Hall.
Q: What sort of dates would this be?
00:02:00 JIM WHITTELL: 1922 Dinnington. 1927 the Queen’s Hall, Dover. And my father who was the by that time projectionist and film booker argued with his father about sound, because his father said it was a fad and his daughter would no longer be able to play the piano to accompany the films and therefore he would never have sound installed.
00:02:37 So my father left his place of work with his family and went to many cinemas as manager, notably Whitley Bay, the beautiful Lonsdale in Carlisle, and by my birth he was the area manager for Union Cinemas based at the Ritz in Birkenhead, hence I was born in Birkenhead.
00:03:09 And the Ritz, beautiful Ritz cinema was bombed and my life then was moving with my father to be involved, who was involved in various cinemas, notably the Palace in Preston which - none of these exist now.
00:03:31 He worked for [??] for a while, he was the opening manager of the Odeon, Harrogate and the Odeon, Morecombe. He then became the regional manager for SM Associated Cinemas, Southan Morris’s, large, 270 cinema, independent outfit.
00:03:54 He was in charge of the potteries and various cinemas in the vicinity. So throughout my childhood my father always had to be in the cinema on a Saturday night to phone Southan Morris with the region’s results, and every Sunday he did a tour of many of the cinemas taking myself and my mother with him.
00:04:25 So my childhood was just filled with cinema visits of one kind or another. If the film on, at his base office which was the Rex Rio, Newcastle-under-Lyme, if the film was other than a U he would take me into the projection box so I could watch the film from the projection box, and so at a very young age I saw A’s and X’s and H’s as they were called in those days.
00:05:00 Always on a Saturday night, my mother would be sitting in the auditorium. When the show came down at half past ten he would be, we’d go to his office and he’d be collating the takes of all the cinemas in his area ready to make the phone call. So how do I get into cinema? I get into cinema because from my very easliest days I’ve been involved in cinema.
Q: Up until what age did you have this direct involvement with watching A certificate movies? Did you ever help?
00:05:59 JIM WHITTELL: No, no, I was always too young to actually work in the cinema. No by the time I was 12 my father moved to manage The Crags in Morecombe and he ran that for ten years so I did my A-levels and almost immediately became a trainee assistant manager. I went for my interview at the Odeon in Morecombe which is the very cinema he opened in 1937.
00:06:36 I went for a further interview at the Gaumont in Preston with a man called Roy Mason who was a Northern regional controller, and he gave me a job in Bradford as the trainee assistant manager at the Gaumont there. So that would have been 1962 and here I am, trainee assistant manager, in the Gaumont, Bradford.
Q: Dinner jacket in the evenings?
00:07:06 JIM WHITTELL: Absolutely, I have a splendid photograph of me in my… in those days the Gaumont was what was called a key cinema, and the key cinema general managers wore tails still and they got a laundry allowance of 15 shillings, whereas if I was an assistant manager wearing my ordinary black tie dinner jacket my laundry allowance was 10 and sixpence, which was a very useful additional payment to me in those days.
Q: And not taxable
00:07:42 JIM WHITTELL: And not taxable, no straight into your pocket from the petty cash.
00:07:46 Q: I think it’s difficult for young people today to understand what an extra payment of shillings meant when it was added onto your wages. And just, we’re not here to talk about me Jim but I remember when the doorman at a cinema I was at was called up and one of his duties was to do the big poster outside which said “All next week” and “Coming shortly”, and when he was called up there was nobody to do the poster and I volunteered to do it, not because I was being so goodhearted but because I fancied slopping the paste about on that long handled brush, and I got two and sixpence a week, two and a half shillings a week extra, so I know what you mean about extra payments like this.
00:08:49 When you’re talking about your earliest connection with cinemas through three generations of which you’re the third, were you starting with your grandfather’s involvements?
00:09:17 JIM WHITTELL: It was my grandfather who was running the Queen’s Hall in Dover and refused to put, install sound, and that’s when my father left the Queen’s Hall, that would have been 1927, and worked in many cinemas.
Q: What must have been part of the problem about converting from silent to sound was the cost for an independent cinema. As we speak today in 2010 the independent cinemas are in a frightening situation about how do they afford to put in not only electronic projection but 3D.
00:10:26 JIM WHITTELL: There’s two things to talk about in my mind, first of all 3D which was an enormously important part of the cinema industry for a very few number of years, probably 1979 to 1984 lots of films were made in 3D. The fad ran out. I’ve got a feeling today the fad will also run out.
00:10:56 What will not run out will be the transition from 35mm projection to digital projection from initially discs, DVD’s, but very, very quickly on the back of that downloadable titles from the internet which are just downloaded onto the computer and projected, no disc involved.
00:11:25 I think that it’s very much in the interests of distributors to get a large stable base of digital projection. I know that Apollo Cinemas today, which I happen to be involved with the purchase and launch, are fully digitalised, there are no 35mm projectors in any of their cinemas. Hence each cinema has no projectionist, and this will be of great concern to BECTU, the fact that if you take Apollo Cinemas, large independent chain, they have no projections at all, they simply have one – they call in a technical manager but basically he’s doing everything that the old projectionist used to do.
00:12:19 Lamping up, making sure everything… almost a handyman role.
Q: Does that include making up the programme?
00:12:28 JIM WHITTELL: No there’s no programme to make up, everything now comes on a disc. So advertising films, trailers, and the main feature are all on the disc made up centrally.
Q: It’s all made up? [Yes]
The whole programme? [Yes]
What about local advertising?
00:12:50 JIM WHITTELL: Also, also now digital, there’s no… as you and I will remember there used to be a special slide machine that put in individual slides for the local, and indeed Rank Screen Advertising in their heyday actually produced filmlets that could used, I don’t know, a glamorous lady and her husband eating in a restaurant, and then that would change to French Chinese restaurant just around the corner, you know that kind of thing.
00:13:28 No it’s all now professionally done centrally and there’s… other than pressing a button there’s nothing more to do. Gone have the days of showmanship, there’s nothing more frustrating to me, because I can remember key was the standards of presentation and showmanship.
00:13:48 For example, it was the manager’s job, I’m sure the staff thought what a lazy skiver he is but it was the manager’s job to sit through the first performance of a presentation, not just to make sure that the sound levels were correct, but also to see the whole programme go through. There used to be what they called “house tabs”, the main house curtains, and then there were screen curtains inside those, and variable masking so that as different films had different ratios then it was terribly important that the masking move in or out and up and down to ensure that the picture was picture perfect against the masking.
00:14:34 So if I was opening a presentation I would want to see house tabs opening, almost immediately the screen tabs open, and the picture hits the screen the minute the screen tabs, the screen curtains start to move, so you’ve got the picture there, then the crucial bits of trailers on a different ratio. You might have four trailers: widescreen, standard, cinema scope, every one the masking would have to change and the sound levels ster… stereophonic sound or flat sound, all that would be a masterful job by the projectionist to make the whole thing perfect.
Q: Our younger cinema “techies” need to know that in those days it was not only 35mm film but there were two projectors, and it was therefore part of the necessity of watching the first run of the new programme because the sound levels when you changed over every 20 minutes had to be adjusted.
00:16:03 JIM WHITTELL: I’m going to say because I took great pride in being able to A lace up a 35 mm projector, put the film into it, and B to do the changeovers. And the changeovers were manual and one reel of film lasted 20 minutes. So if it was an hour and 40 film there would be all those changeovers and the projectionist couldn’t leave the box, he could for 10 minutes but no more.
00:16:33 And the existing reel would be showing, the new reel 20 minutes later is all spiced, sorry [interject] laced up and ready and ready and they still appear in some copies today, if you look at the, you look at the screen and first of all there would be one dot and that was to say start the motor and get the film running. And then the second dot would be the actual changeover when you shut down one source of light from the carbon arcs [??] and open the other source, source of light, and that would be done, and of course the sound switch as well from one projector to the other.
00:17:21 So it was really quite a technical job to do a very smooth, beautiful changeover but my goodness they happen.
Q: That was the key job really, and that the audience mustn’t notice that anything happened at all. Of course if you were bored with the movie and looked up at the beam of light you would see it going,
00:17:46 JIM WHITTELL: It would flash across from one side to the other […]
Q: Before we go away from your youth, was your scoring as a whole influenced by what you wanted to do? That you wanted to be in cinema? You did management studies when you left school.
00:18:19 JIM WHITTELL: No I was going to be a chemist, I was going to be the world’s finest chemist. I did, I was quite good at chemistry, physics and maths, and that’s what I was doing, I was not going into the cinema industry. But as soon as, as soon as I realised what it was like to be a chemist I thought no, I’m going to follow my father into the cinema industry.
00:18:45 So I didn’t do any particular training and I don’t think you needed to. Once in the Rank organisation then they, not initially but in due course when they realised what a bright lad I was they used to send me on various management courses.
Q: In the relatively early days of your career you got involved in a big way in bingo, we’re diverting from cinema but it’s still a BECTU responsibility, the operatives of bingo are members of BECTU. Did you kind of feel this is not really what I want to do and bingo is bingo and I’m a cinema man?
00:19:45 JIM WHITTELL: I hated bingo. I thought these beautiful buildings, picture palaces, initially sitting there with house lights and cleaners lights to make them as bright as possible, and there was no showmanship to it at all. The worst of all was I can remember at one or two Odeon’s they used to do cine-bingo, so it would be 3 days showing films and 4 days playing bingo. And I just used to hate every moment of it.
00:20:22 Eventually they started the bingo division which I wasn’t part of, I was always part of the cinema division, but the bingo division grew once they realised how much money there was in it, and then started cherry picking which cinemas they would take and convert to full time bingo. And it was always a sad loss to me when they took a beautiful cinema that seemed to be doing okay but of course the profits would double, treble, quadruple once it was changed to bingo.
00:20:58 And that’s when they took all the seats out, put bench tables and chairs in there and equipped the stage permanently for bingo rather than as it used to be you wheel on the ball machine and use the theatre’s PA system to do it. So yes I always fought very hard to stop any cinemas going to bingo but lost every time.
Q: Was bingo a license to print money?
00:21:30 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, no question. The best example I can think of would be a provincial Odeon in Birmingham which used to make – and bear in mind this is middle 60’s money – used to make £15 to £20,000 a year profit. The first year it operated as bingo it made over £350,000 in profit. I don’t know what that would mean in today’s money, it would probably be £200,000 to a million.
00:22:11 I mean it really was unbelievable, and I can understand why Rank and every other company started looking at cinemas not as a cinema operation but whether it was well located for a bingo operation. The good thing about it all I can say is that city centres don’t work as bingo halls so it would always be the provincial cinemas, the suburban cinemas that were converted.
Q: Is that because of car parking?
00:22:43 JIM WHITTELL: Well just to be a local community. I don’t think many people came by car in those days. The ladies, predominantly ladies would all come on the bus and the bus service is what mattered, not car parking.
Q: What are the regulations about what percentage of the take has to be given in prize money in bingo?
00:23:20 JIM WHITTELL: It’s very strict, the gaming board issue a bingo licence and they have gaming board inspectors who regularly and unannounced come and check the numbers. The main… they don’t make the money from the main bingo game which is the game that attracts everybody. They make their money from one-armed bandits, machines and from a side game which is allowed to be played under law called House Games.
00:23:58 So there are three owing’s to making money. Number one is the main game where all the money paid in has to be paid out as prize money. You can charge a small participation fee but that is very, very controlled by the gaming board. So when you see £5000 as a first prize for bingo that is the £5000 that all the punters, all the customers have paid to buy a ticket and a smaller payment would be participation.
00:24:35 But between games they will have other games of bingo which are allowed to be used for promotional purposes, and there the company can decide what part, what value the prize should be, again regardless of how much money has been collected. So the side games would be £10 for a house, £5 for a line or whatever, but they might have taken £30 or £40 for that to be played.
00:25:13 So if you assume that each customer, punter as they call them, was spending in those days £5-6 per head you could assume that £3-4 of that was profit to the operator and £2 was given away in prize money.
00:25:41 Now large numbers of admissions over 12 months each contributing let’s say £3 a head in gross profit terms was enormous.
Q: Did you have financially qualified staff to work it out? Payment is instant on the night isn’t it?
00:26:11 JIM WHITTELL: Yes it is, yes it is. Well it’s no more complicated really than the cashier in a cinema being given a £10 note for two 4 and 6 pence tickets. I mean the fact is the money is paid in, it’s counted, the participation fee to a formula is removed and what’s left is going out in prizes.
00:26:38 Don’t forget one-armed bandits, they are set to pay out between 60 and 70% and they’re used constantly, non-stop throughout the period of the club being open. I think I might have described it as being complicated, it reminds me [coughs], when I was at the [inaudible] Bradford we did a lot of live shows, for example the Beatles, and many, many pop names in the 60’s.
00:27:16 And we sold what they called hard tickets, now I don’t know whether you know what hard tickets are, but hard tickets is a great thick book of tickets, usually ten or twelve books for each part of the theatre. And there are five parts to this hard ticket. A straightforward ticket sale means that you tear off three of the five leaving two in the book.
00:27:46 And when they get to the theatre to go in the stumps come off, as they call them, stumps. And it’s fairly complicated because after the show you have to count how many tickets are left to subtract them from the total tickets that were for sale to work out the sale. The great difficulty was that if you tore an extra stub off it became a complimentary, and as a complimentary if there was to be a ticket fiddle and ticket fiddles have gone on throughout the industry forever, if you tore the extra stub out it became a complimentary.
00:28:28 And of course you could sell this ticket in the same way as you could sell the others, and you will never really know until the end of the show and you came to count, how many complimentaries you’d given out, if they’re above a certain level you were in trouble. I once had to go to court to prosecute a cashier who had done this particular ticket fiddle, and I had to describe the five stub half ticket system.
00:29:05 Halfway through the magistrate said “this is so complicated I can’t understand what you’re saying, case dismissed”, because the hard tickets were there. And exactly the same, I don’t think it was complicated to operate bingo but from an outsider it certainly looked it.
Q: How important are the sales of popcorn, Mars Bars, ginormous Coca Cola’s in plastic mugs to the overall cinema profitability?
00:30:19 JIM WHITTELL: If you are a distributor you believe that all the profit that the cinema makes is from ancillary sales as they call it. If you are a cinema exhibitor you absolutely know without question, without ancillary sales, the cinema would probably be closed.
00:30:40 The bottom line hurt for a cinema are film hire terms which over the years have become more and more onerous. And as multi-screen cinemas as dominate the country, and the distributors are now very happy to give as many film copies out as they like, then ancillary sales are probably at most only 20 or 30% of the profits. But those 20 or 30% - you make more money from showing advertising films than you do from selling ancillary sales.
Q: And on gross takings would you have an idea of what the percentage of the gross take is for ancillaries compared to cinema admissions?
00:31:47 JIM WHITTELL: 20 or 30%. For every pound that a cinema takes the distributor will take 50 pence.
Q: Doesn’t that vary from film to film?
00:32:01 JIM WHITTELL: Well yes I can talk for hours about film hire which is the most political and secret activity in the world. [stop to answer phone]
00:32:19 Q: We’re continuing with our interview of this man of cinema, and many other attached aspects of the cinema business. And I see from my notes here that I’ve reached what you just mentioned which was when you ran for about five years was it, 1981 to 83, 2 years, an operation Rank Tushinski [??], The Hare [??] BV in Holland. When that job came up it seems to me that it may have been because they were not doing too well over there, was that true? Were you asked to be a kind of a white knight?
00:33:06 JIM WHITTELL: I think more fundamentally as so often happens Rank had taken over the largest cinema distribution and production company in Holland, and having taken it over left it with the original owner to run it. Very, very naïve. And within a few months I was asked to go over mainly to sort out the exhibition, the whole thing was a disaster, it was losing money everywhere.
00:33:45 And the ex-owner, a man called Ronnie Gestanovich [??] who would be known to some people in this country, was spending money like water, it was like Christmas. Rank had arrived, the bank was full of money – not his money, Ranks money – and he was spending it like water.
00:34:11 And to cut a long story short, within 6 months of my arrival Ronnie was fired and I was made as they call it the [??] director which is the managing director of the whole thing. So I knew everything about cinema then, I knew a fair bit about distribution but not from a distributor’s point of view, and I knew nothing about film production. And this company was an exhibitor, a distributor and a film producer.
00:34:46 So it was probably one of the happiest two and a half years of my life doing all those things, and surprise surprise making it very profitable to the point where after two and a half years I was told that they’d sold it.
Q: Lock stock and barrel?
00:35:10 JIM WHITTELL: Lock, stock and barrel. They’d sold it to Golman and Globus [??}, I don’t know if you knew the go-go boys […]
00:35:22 JIM WHITTELL: My relationship was also… they came along, and this is what hurts, they bought the business for 15 million gilders, and within four weeks they had refinanced it on a mortgage for 22 million gilders. So within four weeks they had received an extra 7 million gilders into their pocket.
00:36:00 The fact is that under that pressure of financing the company could never ever make a profit again. Every bit of gross profit went into paying interest fees, mortgages. And the two came along and offered me king’s ransoms to stay, but carpet baggers and cowboys, I can’t stand them, they were total carpet baggers and cowboys.
00:36:31 And eventually it was sold at a very cheap price to Pate which is the large French film company.
Q: Who lost the money? Rank?
00:36:45 JIM WHITTELL: No, they were very happy.
Q: They were paid out?
00:36:47 JIM WHITTELL: I mean they had a loss making business which took two and a half years to make fairly profitable, and they sold it the minute it was profitable. So they were very happy, they got their 15 million gilders and walked off and I walked off with them.
Q: Could you have stayed?
00:37:08 JIM WHITTELL: Oh, I was offered, believe this or not, a trebling of my salary, a house in Los Angeles, and the certainty of taking over all their cinema operations.
00:37:30 JIM WHITTELL: UK, Canada, everywhere, everywhere.
Q: Why did you turn that down?
00:37:37 JIM WHITTELL: Because I knew it couldn’t be true what they were offering, there was no commercial sense in what they were offering and I was certain that their offer was entirely sort of tissue, it was fictitious and nothing would have happened. My finance director in Holland was given my job when I came back to the UK.
00:38:07 He too was offered the world. The reality, because I kept in touch with him, was his salary didn’t change, his terms and conditions didn’t change, nothing changed despite being offered the world. But each Christmas Yoram would come along with a brown plastic bag, and in the brown plastic bag lots and lots of dollars. And that’s the only difference between working for me and working for them but doing my job.
00:38:42 And he didn’t last long either, I think, as I say carpet baggers and cowboys sums them up.
Q: When you returned to the UK your finance manager took over but nothing changed, did he still get his salary?
00:39:02 JIM WHITTELL: He got the salary as finance director.
Q: All this tripling gone?
00:39:06 JIM WHITTELL: Gone, nothing.
Q: Did you move your family over there?
00:39:19 JIM WHITTELL: Oh yes.
Q: What did they think about that?
00:39:22 JIM WHITTELL: Well the first six months I was commuting in that it was six months before they said will you take the job. So in taking the job, it was a great adventure, my children went to Dutch schools, we all set about learning Dutch because I naively believed we were there for a long haul. I suppose I should have been more strategically astute knowing that they wished they hadn’t bought it, Rank, and they got rid of it at the earliest possible opportunity after my being there.
Q: Did they consult you about selling it?
00:40:09 JIM WHITTELL: No not at all, no. They just left me working long term to make it as profitable as possible. And a Rank director flew across one day, said would he meet me at the airport, I met him at Schiphol, drove him into the office and in the car he said “I’ve got some good news for you”, yeah, “we’ve sold the company”.
00:40:39 And of course I…
Q: They’d actually sold it?
00:40:41 JIM WHITTELL: That wasn’t good news to be, that was not good news to me. However, greater things came of it because I eventually got back as the manager director of Odeon Cinemas in this country which was very pleasing indeed. Great regret of course my father never knew I became managing director of Odeon Cinemas.
Q: Did you have any involvement with Xerox at all?
00:41:33 JIM WHITTELL: No, Xerox was an entirely independent company which the Rank organisation owned 55%. The Rank organisation chose not to run it at all, this goes all the way back to John Davis who in the late 50’s became aware of this American company that was suffering and had no capital to continue, and he did a wonderful deal or in Xerox terms a harsh deal, where he gave them a quarter of a million pounds for 55% of the company.
00:42:23 Now a quarter of a million pounds was a large sum of money to tiny Xerox, and he always had a director on their board but took no involvement whatsoever. And of course by the time it was sold some 30 years later it was contributing in excess of £5 million a year in dividends to the Rank organisation.
Q: How much of your life in controlling and managing cinemas had to be devoted to what you mentioned, pilferage? And as you said the scams are legendary. [Tells story about cinema ticket arrangement at Russell Square cinema] Big stores have a department to deal with shoplifting, is it the same in cinema?
00:45:16 JIM WHITTELL: Well I would say to you that I bet there isn’t a cinema in this country which hasn’t experienced a ticket fiddle, that’s statement number 1. The distributors which are currently called the Film Distributors Association but were previously called the Kinematograph Renters Society, the KRS employed, I won’t say hundreds but tens of inspectors whose sole job was to go and buy a ticket and make sure it was issued properly through the Automa ticket machine, they call it the clink-click, clink-click, because if it wasn’t coming out of the machine where had the ticket come from.
00:46:04 And then to go round and make sure it was torn properly, and then finally to take the ticket string in the manager’s office and go through every ticket to make sure that every number was consecutive because each number was on the ticket. The ticket fiddles I know of are legendary as you say.
00:46:25 The Gaumont Preston, it was thought over 6000 tickets were fiddled.
Q: In how long a period?
00:46:39 JIM WHITTELL: Over six or nine months. And the KRS and the company auditors went into the Gaumont Preston and said, you know caught him red handed. And he went out and purposely stole a tin of baked beans or something from the supermarket and got caught, and he went to court for stealing a tin of baked beans and 6700 similar offences to be taken into account.
00:47:14 And of course because it was a tin of baked beans with 6700 cinema offences they didn’t even know it was a ticket fiddle.
Q: What position did this person hold?
00:47:28 JIM WHITTELL: Manager. And all he used to do, personally and privately, was go to the ticket, and say to the ticket point, and say to the girl “I’ll relieve you for half an hour”, and he never tore tickets at all. He just “thank you”, straightforward, “thank you”, and kept taking, just had all the tickets. Then he went into the cash desk and said “I’ll relieve you for half an hour” and he just sold the tickets knowing that every bit of money that he sold went into his pocket.
00:48:03 Ticket fiddles still go on today, I don’t know how they go on today with computers but I do know of one that simply gave refunds, nobody checked how many refunds were given in a day and it amounted to 20 or 30 per day refunds, i.e. customers had complained and they wanted their money back. And nobody picked that up for months.
[Talk about Woolworths check out girls]
Q: How old were your children when you came home from Holland?
00:49:32 JIM WHITTELL: 10 and 11.
Q: Had they picked up Dutch?
00:49:37 JIM WHITTELL: Yes we all, we all spoke rudimentary Dutch. My wife treated it most seriously because she likes learning languages, but I took lessons and my children just by living there and being in a Dutch school.
Q: And being children
00:49:58 JIM WHITTELL: That’s right, that’s right. So we all [speaks Dutch].
Q: What does that mean?
00:50:04 JIM WHITTELL: We all speak very good Dutch.
00:50:08 JIM WHITTELL: No, I mean it’s a long time ago. Still when I hear Dutch people speaking I love to just drop a word in.
Q: How much did you get involved in production? Was it all Dutch?
00:50:31 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, I made two notable films, probably made about five films in total under the heading of Tushinsky Productions. One of them which I was… let me say, for me the secret was privately sitting in my office scoring, one I thought of the script, one I thought of the actors, one I thought of the costs against producing all of that, and I used to mark those out of ten, and if I got more than 25 out of 30 well then I did it.
00:51:20 And one film that marked 25 out of 30 was a film called The Lift. I can’t think of the Dutch guy’s name. Anyway phenomenal success in Holland because I released it, but I was so honoured that Warner Brothers picked it up and of course Warner Brothers paid us a lot of money for world rights outside Holland.
Q: Did they remake it in English?
00:51:48 JIM WHITTELL: No, no, it was, it never got a theatrical distribution but it did get a DVD distribution. And so you know there’s my film there. But production is a terrible business.
Q: It’s miraculous that you could get a film made almost entirely for the Dutch market?
00:52:16 JIM WHITTELL: Yes it is, it was entirely reasonable. And don’t forget the costs of making a film are in today’s terms – we made, we never spent more than £800,000 on a film. The Lift cost about £650,000, bearing in mind that as the producer it was our money that was going into it and the distributor was so honoured to be able to make the film, the stars were so honoured to be starring in the film, and The Lift more than paid for itself.
00:52:57 And we also used to pick up – I can always remember the famous film The Butter… not the Butterfly, two famous actors who are on a convicts island.
00:53:14 JIM WHITTELL: Papillon. Now Papillon we had the television rights to and the licence was just about to run out so I went to see the owner who happened to live in Paris with a view to rebuying - I went for the whole rights, I went for worldwide rights, so I wasn’t just buying for Holland, I was buying for the world and I’d got a budget of about 3 or 4 million dollars.
00:53:46 And the owner, a very ancient French lady in a beautiful apartment in Paris simply would not sell it. And if you notice it’s one of the films that you rarely ever see.
Q: You mean the Steve McQueen / Dustin Hoffman?
00:54:05 JIM WHITTELL: Correct, correct. I think it might have been on television in this country once in the last five years.
Q: We showed it at the NFT in the Steve McQueen season a couple of weeks ago.
00:54:18 JIM WHITTELL: Very hard to get the rights to that, but you know that was a great shame because our library did have Papillon in television rights but it then ran out. I mean that’s an excellent activity for distributors. I always remember Fred Turner who was dismayed when they sold his entire library for peanuts, and that included all the Carry On films, everything.
00:54:46 He used to say “if I never made a picture again my company would make £3 to 4 million a year profit simply on television rights. And he used to sort of do the licence for a maximum three years, and he said it is the family silver. They can show and do what they like for three years and then it comes back to me again.
Q: Who was it within the Rank organisation who would take a decision, we can raise money on selling the library?
00:55:32 JIM WHITTELL: It would be the main board yes, main board decision. But bearing in mind by then the main board had not an ounce of cinema knowledge in their head. All they knew is we’ve got all these film titles and somebody’s offering 60 million quid for them, let’s take them. The fact that they were probably worth in, I don’t know, ten times earnings they would have been worth 600 million, didn’t cross anybody’s head.
00:55:57 No and Rank went from being very cinema orientated, through Sir John Davis, Kenneth Winckles, and they lived for cinema and that’s how they ended up with studios, distribution, exhibition, advertising films, film processing. I mean it was a truly integrated cinema company.
Q: Even camera equipment
00:56:24 JIM WHITTELL: ?? lighting, great competitor to you, or to your brother.
Q: They distributed the Arriflex range of cameras
00:56:39 JIM WHITTELL: That’s right, they bought the rights, as they bought the rights for Cinemeccanica projection.
[Talks about buying Arriflex cameras from Rank]
Q: You had a stint with UB Restaurants for 3 years?
00:00:16 JIM WHITTELL: I came to know a guy from the industry who had ventured into catering, and was at that time the managing director of UB Restaurants, United Biscuits, and because I couldn’t get a guarantee from Rank in Holland that I would be transported home and found a job I was told I could come home but I wasn’t guaranteed a job having made it clear I wasn’t working for Goman and Glomus.
00:00:55 This guy who I knew said “well come and work for me”, and he made me the operations director of Pizza Land Restaurants. This was all based on the fact that as a young student I worked in Littlewoods café in Morecombe serving the customers there. I think he was just a good friend but he believed I had catering experience, I didn’t.
00:01:28 And so for, I thought it was less than three years, for two and a half years I ran Pizza Land Restaurants in the main, there are others around – New York, New York, and I haven’t mentioned them all, there were several restaurant brands. And I’d hardly sort of got going, because I thought I was out of cinema now, I thought I would be running restaurants for the rest of my life.
00:01:56 But low and behold I’ve got a telephone call from a man called Michael Gifford who said in effect “what are you doing in the restaurant business, I thought you were a cinema lover”. I, and of course I said “well I am a cinema lover but I think I’ve burnt my boats in not being prepared to come home and trust you to give me a proper job”.
00:02:21 And he said “well I’ll give you a proper job if you want to come and talk to me”. And he said Odeon Cinemas is yours if you want it, so I grabbed his hand off and came back as the MD of Odeon Cinemas. Actually now they were called Rank Theatres Ltd. And one of the first things I had a terrible battle over was changing the name of the company from Rank Theatres Ltd to Odeon Cinemas Ltd.
00:02:55 And more importantly bringing back the Odeon logo which is that originally 1930’s “O”. And I can always remember the board meeting, Mike Gifford was a great supporter of mine, he says “call it what you like as long as you make money”. And the PR director said to him “well couldn’t we at least keep the word Odeon green and not let it go to red?”
00:03:23 And you know for me, how could you have Odeon other than in red, so, so its name was changed to Odeon Cinemas Ltd. And…
Q: In effect it went back to being Odeon Cinemas Ltd?
00:03:37 JIM WHITTELL: It had never been Odeon Cinemas since it was taken over in I think the late 30’s when Gaumont and Odeon were first acquired by Rank.
Q: Was that when Oscar Deutsch died?
00:03:53 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, yes, I think it was 1938 or 9 that Lord Rank bought it. Anyway I was so proud and pleased the finest bit of my career was running Odeon Cinemas, I loved every minute of it. And I always say when I took over it was making £600,000 a year profit, when I left it was making £15 million pounds, which was in the space of 5 years.
00:04:31 I think I was also the longest serving managing director of Odeon they’d ever had.
Q: Where were you based at that time?
00:04:40 JIM WHITTELL: I had two offices, on in the West End.
Q: In the Leicester Square theatre?
00:04:44 JIM WHITTELL: In the Odeon West End, it was called the Leicester Square Theatre until I changed it to Odeon West End. Jack Buchanan’s famous own theatre. So I had an office in the massive dressing rooms there at the Odeon West End, nee Leicester Square Theatre. And another, the main administrative office was in Whiteleaf which is south of Croydon.
00:05:19 So it was a large office block which they’d bought some years before and so I spent my… I actually visited every single Odeon three times a year which is something no other MD had ever done.
Q: How many Odeon’s were there?
00:05:37 JIM WHITTELL: In those days there were 107.
Q: What do you mean by bringing “style” to the party?
00:06:23 JIM WHITTELL: Internally it’s about pride in the brand and ownership of the brand. Odeon Cinemas is such a strong brand that there had to be pride in making sure it – in fact I introduced the slogan “First Choice”, First Choice Odeon, and we spent a lot of money refurbishing them but the bottom line for me was making sure that all those managers felt they personally own the brand, and it was their own reputation that was going to be on the line in terms of customer satisfaction and visit experience.
00:07:13 I always used to say to them “it doesn’t matter how old the toilets are, but they’ve got to be well lit, they’ve got to be very clean, and they’ve got to smell fresh”. And if you make sure that your toilets – because cinema toilets had a terrible reputation – if you make sure that they’re very clean, well-lit and smell fresh it doesn’t matter how worn out they are, it’ll be a nice visit experience.
00:07:45 And that applied to everything – quality of presentation, stage presentation, cleanliness of foyer smell. I always used to call it the hear, see, feel smell experience, so when you walk into a… well the first thing is you see the Odeon in front of you, 200 yards away or 100 yards away, it should look immaculate, it should look as though you’re heading for a wonderful visit.
00:08:16 And the minute you touch those doors they’ve got to feel clean and nice, and then walk in and you look around, all clean, bright, sparkling. You breathe in, are there no nasty smells, nothing to put you off. See, hear, feel, touch experience.
Q: In order to do that, supposing the manager of the Odeon Sutton Coldfield – I’m only mentioning it because I was joint third there during the war.
00:08:49 JIM WHITTELL: Well the Odeon Sutton Coldfield is built identically to the Odeon Harrogate which my father opened. The two cinemas are the only two cinemas in the Rank chain that are copies of each other, they’re identical.
Q: I can remember there was a particular make of disinfectant that was used, I sometimes still smell that smell in a cinema and it takes me back to cinemas I was involved with 60 years ago.
00:09:44 JIM WHITTELL: Well you are thinking of a product called California Roses. California Roses was offered to every cinema in a great big brass, pump the pressure up and then walk around and spray it. That was well before my day because I believe the smell was much more than just that but in those days California Roses was the…
Q: I think it was used to an extent to hide the smell… I bet you didn’t think we’d be talking about disinfectants!
00:10:34 JIM WHITTELL: Toilets are terribly important, the make or break of the customer visit experience.
Q: [Talks about double seats] Odeon was always a cut above the rest, did you bring the feeling amongst the staff that they were with the best in the business?
00:12:28 JIM WHITTELL: Absolutely, the projectionists were badly downtrodden in my view in 1984-5. The simple thing of offering every projectionist a white coat with free laundry, and the word First Choice Odeon. So instead of walking around in his own clothes, I don’t mean this rudely when I say looking scruffy but be in his own work clothes, if you ask him to wear the white coat he’s even put that on with pride, and he would then walk round in his white coat.
00:13:06 And A it was good for the customers to see a sort of technical guy in there and I think it did them a world of good. Projectionists have always been, and sadly now as their demise comes, the most underrated guys I know. It’s always the projectionist that knows more about cinemas, more about the technical aspect, more about the biggest and the smallest and the best looking and the worst looking, it’s always the projectionist that will talk to you for hours about this.
00:13:44 I know two or three real old timers. The ex-chief of the Odeon Leicester Square, and his two mates, one is the chief at Odeon Brighton – I won’t go into their names but they are the most dedicated caring people about cinema, it’s just a pleasure to be with them.
[ROLL 3 – 15th November 2010]
00:00:12 Q: the date today is 15th November and rather surprisingly, Jim will tell himself, we are required to have a part 2 because we couldn’t get this long and varied technical life all into one afternoon, so here we are. And I’m going to start actually because this very week there was an announcement that surprised, disappointed and saddened I suppose many people of all walks of life in this country, when it was announced that Pontian’s Holiday Camps are in liquidation.
00:01:18 And Jim you were involved were you not with Butlin’s Holiday Camps? It’s nothing to do with the film industry but still BECTU I think has influence over holiday camp staff or some of them, so would you like to just take us through what it was like running a chain of holiday camps?
00:01:47 JIM WHITTELL: Yes sure, I must tell you it was with great regret that Mike Gifford asked me to move from Odeon to Butlin’s. I was very, very happy running Odeon Cinemas and was proud of the achievements and one day he simply said “you’re needed more with Butlin’s than you are with Odeon Cinemas”.
00:02:14 And so never one to turn down an opportunity I went and became the managing director of Butlin’s Holidays Ltd. Probably the worst decision of my life, I missed the cinema industry so much. My only real achievement in my view was to bring Odeon Cinemas into all the Butlin’s holiday camps. All the camps had a, I should call them centres today not camps, but all the centres had cinemas.
00:02:48 Badly run, worse kind of flea pit operations imaginable, and it was free of charge to all the guests. So because of my connections as previous MD of Odeon no one actually stood in my way when I said I want to introduce the brand Odeon to Butlin’s Holidays. And indeed with a certain amount of capital investment we built an Odeon cinema in every single holiday centre.
00:03:21 And to cover the cost we made a miniscule charge for admissions, but as an Odeon cinema we were booked by the cinema circuit, the films showing were the current release films at that time, and I was very proud of that. And when Odeon acquired ABC I was interested to note that all the Odeon cinemas on the holiday centres were changed to ABC’s, not Odeon’s. And to this day ABC Cinemas still operate on their holiday centres.
Q: Why would anybody change from Odeon to ABC?
00:04:42 JIM WHITTELL: I believe, and I kind of absolutely agree what they did, the Butlin’s brand and its marketplace is not the best example of socioeconomic groups. They’re all working class lads and lasses that go there with their entire family, the broader family, for a good cheap holiday. And in terms of protecting the Odeon brand I could well imagine that it’s not a place where they would want their Odeon brand to be displayed.
00:05:14 And as soon as they could they changed it to ABC, which today sadly is a secondary brand to Odeon.
Q: Was it programming of a special kind because of the fact that it was lads, lasses and families? Did you ever show an 18 certificate in a centre cinema?
00:05:55 JIM WHITTELL: No, the one constraint on the booking department of Odeon cinemas when booking the Odeon cinemas in the holiday centres was that 12A was as high – we never showed a 15 or an 18, it was 12A or below, thus ensuring families and children could always go.
Q: How small a charge was it?
00:06:44 JIM WHITTELL: I think when… the mentality of the Butlin’s holiday maker is you pay one price at the beginning and then everything is free, it’s really quite controversial to put a small additional charge in. I think the additional charge was based round the fact it was a modern, current film, whereas previously it was anything – very old, never up to date. And I don’t think they had a problem with that because they knew the film they were going to see was the very film that was on at their local Odeon wherever they may live.
Q: Was that a success? Did visitors like the fact it was an Odeon?
00:07:41 JIM WHITTELL: Well it led the way to product differentiation across the whole centre. What I mean by that is you could play snooker free of charge in a snooker hall, not very nice, not very outstanding. But next to it was a premium snooker hall with all sorts of – a bar, snacks, quality environment and décor, much better tables.
00:08:11 That was one example but across bars, there was premium bars and ordinary bars where across the centre people liked to differentiate. I mean as a, as a statement everybody wants to decide what price bracket they’re in. When you go shopping you will decide whether you want the cheapest or the most expensive because you only buy the most expensive, or the middle of the road.
00:08:45 And that concept works really well on a holiday centre where we offered the cheapest, the middle of the road, and the most expensive and exclusive. Exactly the same as I introduced to cinemas with the concept of premium seats, so the very best location in a cinema auditorium which is usually two thirds of the way back, three or four rows I introduced leather quality seating for a premium. And indeed film buffs particularly would go for those seats above all others and happily pay what was a £2 premium.
00:09:30 That concept applies across all auditorium today, I don’t know any cinemas that don’t offer premium seating. So the concept is there.
Q: The chief engineer of the Westrex company said there can only be one perfect seat in any cinema, in the stalls, in the middle of the row, almost always immediately under the front of the dress circle above. Discuss…
00:10:19 JIM WHITTELL: I couldn’t agree more. Whenever I go to the cinema and from the earliest days I found the best position would be somewhere between half way and three quarters of the way back in the centre of a row, he’s absolutely right. And if we talk about today’s much smaller auditorium they would be with a circle and maybe a balcony above –
Q: Say a thousand seater?
00:10:44 JIM WHITTELL: Yes easily, maybe more than a thousand.
Q: A thousand seater would be sort of medium sized…
00:10:49 JIM WHITTELL: Yes that’s right. Well today I think the largest you will find is a five or six hundred seater. Most of them are 300ish, and in a 300 seater almost just beyond half way in the very centre is the perfect viewing position, absolutely correct.
Q: Were Pontin’s serious opposition to Butlin’s which was Rank in your time?
00:11:31 JIM WHITTELL: It was indeed yes. No, Sir Fred Pontin whom I knew…
Q: Did you know him through Variety Club?
00:11:41 JIM WHITTELL: I did yes, in exactly the same way as Sir Billy Butlin, both of them were true entrepreneurs and fiercely proud of their brand. So when I was running Butlin’s I went to some function, I went to Eric Morley’s house actually, and there was Sir Fred and he berated me that no wonder we were winning - winning in the sense of taking more customers than Pontin’s – no wonder we were winning because his beloved Pontin chain of holiday centres was absolutely lacking in any kind of capital commitment, capital improvements, and he said they’re just going to go down the drain.
00:12:31 Mind that must have been ten years ago so he was ten years out when he said they’re going to go down the drain.
Q: Were Pontin’s a cheaper brand?
00:12:43 JIM WHITTELL: No, Pontin’s and Butlin’s initially were true competitors, blue coats, red coats. Facilities times twenty, facilities times twenty. In their heyday they were pure competitors, equal competitors and each trying to add something better.
Q: Were they equal in size?
00:13:03 JIM WHITTELL: Yes they were in terms of beds, everything was the same. We are talking those days of 15,000, 20,000 beds. But as time went on Rank did offer substantial capital improvements all the time, Pontin’s being a totally independent company, at one time owned by Scottish and Newcastle breweries who were not terribly interested in them, went down and down and down and down to the point where I don’t think any capital has been spent on them for years and they are probably pretty disgusting visits.
00:13:41 Although I hear an Arab and a Far Eastern financier are both now trying to buy it.
Q: What caused there to be loyalty to Pontin’s at all?
00:14:06 JIM WHITTELL: I’m sure more and more did but there is a hard core of Butlin’s supporters and a hard core of Pontin’s supporters who for their entire life have been going to the same place at the same time of year and they are special, they just carry on thick and thin, it’s their holiday.
Q: So it relates to the same lads and lasses who in the old days the whole mill would close down and they’d all go on holiday to the seaside and stay in the same boarding house, probably the same bedroom, have the same meals and have to get out of the boarding house during the day. That was the holiday they wanted and that they looked forward to.
00:15:30 JIM WHITTELL: They’re called “wait weeks” where the whole town goes on holiday together, and all the cinemas in the holiday towns, most notably Blackpool – a very large Odeon cinema in Blackpool – used to move from a semi key in the winter to a prime key in the summer because the sheer volume of custom and therefore turnover was enormous.
Q: And it rains a lot in Blackpool
00:16:00 JIM WHITTELL: I was going to say particularly if it was a rainy day.
Q: How much did the licensing side of holiday camps enter your life? Is it a difficult part of the business of holiday centres, licensing laws and behaviour?
00:17:23 JIM WHITTELL: There are two aspects Sidney, one is first of all my decision to stop large groups of young people booking their Butlin’s holiday. Previously anyone could book in as large a number as possible, and if you imagine 10, 15, 20, 30 young people, young means 16 to 20, booking a holiday, then going to Butlin’s for two simple reasons, one is drinking and I’ll leave your imagination for the other.
00:17:57 I stopped that, I said any group of young people under the age of 20 must be maximised at 7, so we stopped any more than 7 people going at a time.
Q: Seven people who knew each other?
00:18:15 JIM WHITTELL: Seven people on a single booking. Now that wouldn’t… and we worked very hard to make sure that the other seven – because we looked at the address and the dates they were booking and if the number of young people booked into any particular week was too high we used to offer a change date or no booking at all. That concept did an enormous lot to improve the ambience for families and children.
00:18:44 But then the reverse of that was that I was able to achieve licences, unique at that time, for the whole area. Previously it would be this room or that room or this area that was licenced. And I was able to achieve a single licence for the entire site so we’re talking about 12 or 15 acres that is licenced entirely.
00:19:17 So suddenly the ability to drink in different places at different times – and it was a 24 hour licence which meant that there was no further licencing conditions applying to that particular holiday centre. And that led in itself to, as I think the government had hoped here generally in the country, less drinking in confined times. More drinking overall but spread across the day and spread across the locations meant that there was a perceived less of a problem than there used to be.
Q: Does the 24 hour licence mean at a holiday centre visitors could buy pints of beer in the middle of the night?
00:20:16 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, 24 hours.
Q: So you had bars that were open?
00:20:22 JIM WHITTELL: I kept the bars open until there were less than 6 people buying. And on certain occasions – the Young Farmers annual reunion in Minehead, a bar stayed open for the whole 60 hours of the weekend, it was always full of young farmers drinking.
Q: Who were Apollo? There must have been a lot of money behind them to make such a quick foothold in the industry.
00:21:46 JIM WHITTELL: No, Apollo was a theatre company, nothing to do with cinema, it was a live theatre company that was started Paul Greg who bought the Apollo Cinema in Oxford, that was its name before Paul got involved. And from the Apollo Cinema in Oxford he then slowly but surely acquired live show theatres across the country – London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, everywhere.
00:22:21 And in the course of – not quickly – in the course of probably ten or twelve years Paul Greg became the largest theatre, and I emphasise theatre, live theatre owner, in the country. As an aside Paul Greg and I were assistant managers in Sheffield in 1961 or 2, he was at the ABC in Sheffield and as you know I was in the Odeon in Sheffield.
00:22:53 And we struck up a relationship there, mainly because our two managers were showbiz rivals, showmanship, they hated each other really, and so Paul and I agreed that our staff could go to the ABC or the Odeon free of charge showing their staff pass, unknown to the two managers, so we struck up a relationship there and over the years Paul and I have been friends.
00:23:24 In probably the late 90’s Fred Hutchinson who was an independent cinema operator fell on hard times and Paul being the benevolent guy that he is said “well don’t worry I’ll buy them off you”. So out of the blue he bought a small group of cinemas which he immediately called Apollo, and those small cinemas were not really grown, they were just kept operating because Paul has a soft spot for cinema like me, not live, cinema.
Q: Why is the name Paul Greg relatively little known?
00:24:24 JIM WHITTELL: Well I don’t think you’ll find the name is little known in the theatre industry, and I want to keep emphasising the fact that the cinema industry tends to call themselves theatres. I always differentiate a cinema and a theatre. So the theatre world all know Paul Greg extremely well. The cinema world know little of him at all because of his small chain of cinemas which he didn’t really get actively involved in.
00:24:57 He sold the entire company including the cinemas and theatres, I can’t remember the year but it would have been about 1999 or 2000, and he eventually came away from the business completely. In 2001 we met up as we met regularly and he said “I fancy buying back the Apollo Cinemas”.
00:25:27 And the Apollo cinemas were definitely available because the whole company was owned by a live theatre organisation, not a cinema organisation. And I think because he had a contractual reason that he couldn’t buy back anything from the company he’d sold I became involved with him and indeed successfully acquired the original Apollo Cinema chain which would have been in 2002 I guess.
Q: How many halls was that?
00:26:05 JIM WHITTELL: There were 13, no more than 13. And our main activity was to modernise them and to make them more attractive which we duly did. I still think there’s only 13 or 14 today, but I ran them from takeover through to finding a successor for me to run them and I don’t think they’ve ever really looked back.
00:26:33 They are today the most digitally organised group of cinemas in the country. I think all their screens are digital, all of them.
Q: Why did you want to find a successor for you?
00:26:59 JIM WHITTELL: I’m trying to imagine why, I think A there was a tax implication. The tax implication being that because I was a freelance consultant to Apollo Cinemas, and having done it for almost three years the tax authorities pointed out to me that there was a master servant relationship and I had better go on the payroll of Apollo Cinemas.
00:27:25 My pride wouldn’t let me go on the payroll of Apollo Cinemas, that was number one. Number two, I believe that I’d done it, I was by then 63 or 64, I really do believe you should give young bright people the chance to make progress. And it was great delight I found a successor and I still am, I think, warmly remembered, but you know I’m very happy to get involved in things that I believe and the principal believes are not easy to find a way forward, and I’m doing that all the time.
Q: How much did the wild, enthusiastic process of doubling and tripling and quadrupling screens in existing cinemas come into your field of activity?
00:28:31 JIM WHITTELL: Totally. In 1985 Odeon Cinemas had one custom built twin at Nottingham, and they’d looked at mechanisms to twin or triple or quadruple cinemas and could never find a satisfactory payback situation. In other words the cost of doing it would never have given an adequate return and in those days the hurdle rate as it was called that Michael Gifford was looking for was 15%.
00:29:10 In other words unless you could look at least a 15% return on the capital he wouldn’t do it.
Q: That 15% being extra turnover?
00:29:20 JIM WHITTELL: Incremental, so if it cost 100 to do the job then the profit had to increase by at least 15 to justify having done it in the first place. And so through good friends at Rank Leisure Services technical department, previously led by Lou Small [??] who I’m sure you know, we found a way of doing it much more cheaply than had been considered before.
00:29:53 Mainly to do with the technology of wall insulation, because the last thing you want is sound penetration between screens. And a wonderful guy came up with a new insulation from Italy of all places, and that suddenly allowed us to do it and in the course of 85 to 89 I probably converted 70 cinemas and added at least 200 screens by twins, triples and quads.
00:30:32 And by the end of 88 we were looking at cinemas and going back. I always remember the Odeon Birmingham was originally a 2600 seater cinema.
Q: The Paramount?
00:30:48 JIM WHITTELL: The Paramount, yes the Paramount Bullring.
Q: New Street?
00:30:53 JIM WHITTELL: That’s right yes. And over the years, over those five years it had gone from a single screen, and the death decision there was to say no more to live shows because it was a live show theatre. But if, we knew if we converted it it could no longer do live shows. So over the four years it went from one screen to three screens to seven screens to nine screens, so that today the Odeon New Street has got nine screens in it, in what was the original shall of that 2600 seater Paramount, beautiful Paramount.
Q: Did you have contractors who did the whole thing for you?
00:32:05 JIM WHITTELL: It was entirely in house. The technical services department were the project managers. The technical services department would tell me how many screens they could get in and at what price. They would then use a myriad of different contractors to do the different jobs required but it was technical services who delivered the finished article. And very innovative they were.
Q: The Odeon Leicester Square has been through a number of reincarnations. Do you have a team who go around working out which cinemas need work doing? How do you make sure they’ll be kept up to the reputation that Odeon has for style and quality?
00:34:07 JIM WHITTELL: Well under the philosophy of one person one boss, in a way the man that knows most is the cinema manager that’s running it. He has a boss called a regional operations director and he would make a case to him who in turn would ultimately make a case for me and I would end up with on the one hand a capital investment sum of money available, and on the other hand a group of requests that started with the cinema manager and came through the levels, a group of requests for expenditure.
00:34:44 I and a technical services person would then go out and prioritise these. So if you like there wasn’t an outsider deciding which cinema needed money and which cinema didn’t, it was the cinema management themselves making a plea if you like for their own cinema, which would then get prioritised by the regional guy for whom that region he was responsible.
00:35:14 And then it’s come to the annual capital expenditure meetings when myself and technical services, and sometimes the finance guy, and maybe we’d make a whole sort of week of it, with finance there, booking and marketing there, technical services there, and we would tour maybe 20 cinemas that had come to the top of the list to prioritise which of those cinemas were most in need.
00:35:46 And that’s how it went in year in year out, so not necessarily the worst always because some were so bad that we would need the entire budget – they were usually candidates for closure, to understand why we really should keep them open because the returns were poor, it wasn’t a nice visit experience, and indeed exceptional as they were, they existed.
00:36:13 Now the most important thing about the Odeon Leicester Square, the Odeon Leicester Square had a reincarnation from me and my main claim was to open up the front completely to its original glory, and more importantly from a finance point of view. There was an alley, I called it the most expensive alley in the West End, it used to lead from Leicester Square through to Tottenham Court Road, and that was basically the projectionists and the manager’s car park.
00:36:55 And I thought how can we possibly allow this fresh air in prime West End to be left as it was. And again technical services, and it was a very narrow alley, and it was very sort of high to the fresh air, fitted in five 60-seater screens into that very narrow space which we duly did.
00:37:27 Five 60-seaters called the Odeon Mezzanine, and hard to believe that those five cinemas made more profit than the Odeon Leicester Square in a normal year. The Odeon Leicester Square could take millions if it was a big film, but if it was a not very successful film then you’ve got this enormous overhead for very few people visiting. But the five screens used to be full all the time, afternoons, evenings.
00:38:12 And that was purely move-over as they used to call it, they used to call them a move-over house. One thing that’s missing in the West End is the booking arrangements for many, all the West End cinemas are based on relationships with distributors who want a date to open their picture, and that takes no regard to how well the film that’s in the cinema prior to that date is doing.
00:38:42 And so move-over houses were critical, and the fact that this was the Odeon Mezzanine, Leicester Square, the finest move-over possible was to move from anywhere in the West End into the Odeon Leicester Square Mezzanine. And that meant it was always supplied with product that could easily fill 60 seats five, six times a day. And hence in my time the Mezzanine became more profitable than the Odeon Leicester Square over a year.
Q: How centralised is the projection for those five screens?
00:39:23 JIM WHITTELL: There are two boxes for five screens, because of the constraints of that alley. So, the Odeon Leicester Square quite enjoyed having two boxes plus their main box to operate but we were never mean with projectionists in the Odeon Leicester Square. The Odeon Leicester Square was the true flagship and the chiefs always had whatever they wanted for perfect projection.
Q: You had the marvellous guy Nigel Wolland there
00:39:59 JIM WHITTELL: Know him so well, he recently got the MBE, Nigel, I mean he was chief in my day, he was wonderful.
Q: He gives a lot back to the industry
00:40:12 JIM WHITTELL: And continues to do so, yes I know, he’s a great, great man.
Q: How important is the Odeon West End to the circuit?
00:41:51 JIM WHITTELL: Let’s first of all say that the Odeon Leicester Square in the days of barring, barred every cinema in the UK, and therefore the Odeon Leicester Square could open first run solo and regularly did so. As far as the Leicester Square Theatre as it was called, built for and owned by Jack Buchanan, and did his own shows from the Leicester Square Theatre.
00:42:25 In my heyday of wanting to change the name from Rank Theatres to Odeon Cinemas – Rank Theatres Ltd to Odeon Cinemas Ltd, I was driving forward the brand. And I know I’ve already mentioned the fact that it was a fight with the Rank board to change it to Odeon Cinemas, they wanted Rank Theatres, we’re not theatres, we are cinemas, the original name of the company was Odeon Cinema Ltd, and they agreed we could change it.
00:42:57 I then looked at how many Gaumont’s, Plaza’s, unknown name cinemas that we were operating at that time, and of course high on the top of the list was the Leicester Square Theatre which wasn’t an Odeon, and it should be an Odeon because we were running Odeon Cinemas.
00:43:19 And so we came up with the name, Stan Fishman, marketing guy, came up with the name, call it the Odeon West End which we duly did. In my day the need for five stroke six West End outlets was critical to the distributors to get that ongoing premiere opening and run that either ran out of time because another one was booked in, or should stop anyway.
00:43:57 But we had the Odeon Haymarket, two in the Odeon West End and the Odeon Leicester Square, plus on rare occasions the Odeon Marble Arch. They counted themselves as West End opening cinemas. In order of priority the Odeon Leicester Square was number one, the Odeon West End was number two and there were two screens in there, and the Haymarket were number three.
00:44:30 The Odeon Haymarket was an arthouse cinema I our view. We only played very successful – for example all the Woody Allen films bar one opened in the Odeon Haymarket.
Q: Where was Odeon Marble Arch?
00:44:49 JIM WHITTELL: Bottom, last resort.
00:44:53 JIM WHITTELL: Because it wasn’t… it was too far from the West End.
Q: And you’ve got to go up an escalator
00:44:58 JIM WHITTELL: Yes you have.
Q: Does that have any effect on how you think about it?
00:45:02 JIM WHITTELL: None whatsoever, no. No we used to do premieres there of shall we say less successful pictures where the producer or the director definitely wanted a West End premiere, we could always at last resort accommodate in there.
Q: Enlighten me why the Odeon in Canterbury was not called the Odeon?
00:45:51 JIM WHITTELL: The Odeon Canterbury was built as a cinema built in the Tudor style so it was in keeping with the entire town of Canterbury. And I can’t remember the name at the moment, I want to call it the Tudor Canterbury but that’s an example, there were several around of Odeon operated cinemas that were usually not Odeon built.
00:46:24 I always identify the difference between an Odeon built Odeon and an Odeon acquired Odeon. Every Odeon-built Odeon was an Odeon, there was no funny names there. But over the years as the chain acquired different cinemas all sorts of different names were there. Another one similar to Canterbury was Salisbury which was also a resplendent Tudor building.
00:46:56 Lots of Gaumont’s and much to the chagrin of certain people I just cut through the whole lot and said everyone will be renamed Odeon with effect from a certain date, and that made sign makers quite happy. But that’s how it was so that by I suppose 1987 no cinema operated by Odeon was called by any other name than Odeon, not matter where it was.
Q: As managing director did you have to report to anybody if you wanted to introduce something as controversial as that?
00:47:53 JIM WHITTELL: We had a Odeon Cinemas board meeting, I won’t say every single month but probably ten times a year, and I always used to write the board report so that for example the companies decided all non-named Odeon’s will be called Odeon with effect from whenever. And that would go to the board and on the board were Mike Gifford and a man called Angus Crichton-Miller.
00:48:24 Mike Gifford and Angus Crichton-Miller were on the board and if they had a problem they would tell me. If they as my paymasters didn’t have a problem then I didn’t have a problem.
Q: You were a power in your own right at Rank, your boss must have been Sir John Davis?
00:49:30 JIM WHITTELL: No Sir John Davis by then had moved in to become president so the overall boss was Michael Gifford.
Q: Did Sir John Davis come into your life at all?
00:49:48 JIM WHITTELL: Er many occasions.
Q: If anyone has a severe reputation in this business it would be Sir John David. I feel he was misunderstood unfairly. Discuss.
00:52:42 JIM WHITTELL: His reputation went before him. I never reported directly to him when he was actively an executive in the company. I worked for people who did report to him and they probably called him all the names you could call him for meanness, aggression, unfairness, lack of thought, and all of them, all of them could tell a story of somebody he had made cry because of his unruthless approach.
00:53:23 The first time I came into contact with him was when he was the then president of the Rank organisation which was an honorary position manufactured purely for him. And I was running Odeon Cinemas and the Rank organisation had for several years operated a 25 year club which resulted in a very nice certificate, signed by John Davis, and a very nice present of some kind.
00:54:01 And I was very proud as the MD of Odeon Cinemas to be the responsible person to organise the 25 year club lunches for head office. There were regional 25 year club lunches around the regions but the Central London one was for head office in South Street as well as Connaught Place.
00:54:32 I didn’t give much thought to it because I was lucky enough to have a man who would book a nice private room in one of the Rank hotels, usually the Athenaeum, and we would have our 25 year club lunch. On my first year I got a note from Sir John’s office telling me that he would expect to arrive at whatever time, and who would be sitting on his table.
00:55:08 So that’s the first time I suddenly realised the great might of Sir John David is not only coming to this lunch but he’s enthusiastically coming to lunch. So I thought well I’m going to sit next to him, I’ve never met him in this kind of social setting, so I’m going to sit next to him and I’ll sit people round the table for 8 that I doubt have ever met him as well.
00:55:38 Hence he won’t be able to spend too much time sort of either hating who he’s sat next to or not hating. So I sent him the table, seating place for the table, heard nothing more. He arrived on time, utterly charming, very interested in the cinema business, and as the lunch progressed he was a joy to speak with.
00:56:11 I hadn’t realised how enthusiastic he was in terms of the 25 year club lunch, and I always remember him saying to me that I was the 9th person who had hosted this lunch for him and given that I survived a year would I please make sure that he was invited next time. And I was very happy to comply.
00:56:42 He was a great supporter of the CTPF at those lunches. He I think at that time remained chairman of the investment committee and always as a gentleman inferred that he would do his best to maximise the revenues from the CTPF come what may.
00:57:11 After the lunch he sent me a charming note saying he’d enjoyed it very much, “hope to see you next time” was his quote, and indeed those were the only times when I met him. At each lunch I asked him who he would like, is there anyone he would like to sit next to, he said “no, I leave it to you”. But it was a great joy to meet him and I must tell you it must have been a different Sir John when he was in an executive role to the role he was in in this social semi-retired environment.
00:57:54 He was charming, I never ever thought that he could be quite as bad as people inferred.
Q: Were the others in the room those who had completed 25 years? Even those who worked in the box office at the Odeon Huddersfield?
00:58:28 JIM WHITTELL: Any member of staff who was a member of the 25 year club could expect to be invited to their 25 year club lunch. I did say they were regional, and maybe the lunch I hosted was somewhat elitist in that it only included head office and senior people. However the Odeon Leicester Square came, there weren’t that many people in the 25 year club.
00:59:03 I mean on the one hand there were a lot so the lunch would be 30 or 40 people, but in comparison to the sheer number of employees in the Rank organisation that is relatively small. But he was a very keen advocate of it and attended every time he was invited.
Q: How much scope was there for old fashioned entrepreneurial stunts that managers would get up to to publicise their movies?
01:01:10 JIM WHITTELL: Entirely up to the manager. There were two, there were three main accolades to be won, the most important one was the cinematograph weekly showman certificate of which I’m happy to say I’ve got one on my wall to this day. A big beautiful looking certificate that would name a film that had been promoted in such a way as to win this.
01:01:39 Then within the ABC there was an AB Circle showmanship manager, and within Rank there was a showmanship star. Managers were – something that doesn’t apply to this day at all – managers were totally given every opportunity to promote films, to which end they put a requisition in for cash, usually paid for by the distributor not by the exhibitor.
01:02:13 So they would put a requisition in for – I mean we’re talking £10, £15, £20. So they would put a requisition in for say £15 listing what they were going to do with that £15, there would always be a stunt [end of roll]
[ROLL 4 – 15th November 2010]
Q: You have written a paper of how you think cinemas will operate in the future, what have you written?
00:01:00 JIM WHITTELL: Let me first of all give you the background in the sense that this was for a particular large cinema group who wanted an impartial view as to how the future might develop, particularly as the cost of digitalisation still remains a lot of money. It is worth pointing out to you that the benefits for the distributor and the producer are massive.
00:01:31 In a simple description, one film copy in one cinema will probably cost the distributor producer £5-6000 which he has to recoup before anything else, the cost of that 35mm copy.
Q: We’re talking about the 35mm film copy?
00:01:56 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, £6000 per copy per screen. If you imagine that this is a, I don’t know, a 60 chain cinema with one copy in each cinema then we’re talking about £360,000 for one film. If that film is, if films are then shown I don’t know perhaps 200 a year we’re talking then about £7 million in film copy and transportation for that distributor producer.
00:02:36 If you compare that with a digital copy, even if the digital copy is on a DVD the likely cost is to be three or four thousand pounds, so the saving is absolutely enormous for the distributor. The saving for the exhibitor apart from film transport is virtually nil but it’s the exhibitor who has to pay out two or three hundred thousand pounds per screen to go digital.
00:03:15 And the only stand off today is this inability for the distributor and the exhibitor to share the potential saving that’s available.
Q: Clarify the two or three hundred thousand pounds per cinema, what are we referring to there? The equipment?
00:03:41 JIM WHITTELL: Yes to go digital. So you have say £300,000 per screen to go digital as an exhibitor, and you have a cost saving for the distributor per screen to make it easy, 5, £6000 a copy, 200 films a year, is 1.2 million. So you have £1.2 million of saving available to the distributor producer, and £300,000 of expenditure required by the exhibitor.
00:04:27 And all that stops instant, instant digitalisation is this standoff position between the two. How much would the distributor producer offer to offset his saving. [cut / phone]
00:04:47 So just to emphasise I give those two ends of the spectrum as an indication as to why digitalisation has not gone at the pace one would expect it to be. There is impasse in the industry between how much the distributor’s prepared to offer the exhibitor to convert, and the exhibitor’s reluctance not to convert until they’ve got something off the distributor.
00:05:15 And that is the reason why you were shocked when I said only 20% of cinema screens in this country are digital, because of this impasse which seems to go on and go on. The paper I did was for a large chain to indicate exactly what the scenario could be if cost never came into it. So everything is free, this is what you can achieve. How you might go about achieving it is the difficult bit, the financial bit.
00:05:55 But within a ten screen multiplex cinema there are no projectionists. So you’re saving mr [??] exhibitor is entirely the projectionist’s payroll. If you are a member of a chain of cinemas and you have perhaps 50 cinemas with 10 screens none of them have a projectionist. They are all connected by the equivalent of a broadband connection to a central location.
Q: We’re talking about what it will be in the future?
00:06:38 JIM WHITTELL: I’m talking about how it will be, could be tomorrow if one could overcome the cost differentiation.
Q: I think there is another reason. Another problem is you can’t get the equipment even if you had the money for it.
00:06:58 JIM WHITTELL: I’m not sure that’s true. What you have is the same that happened 25 years ago with digital tape recorders, where there are two separate, or three separate platforms and nobody quite knows which platform is the one that will succeed. I mean VHS tape was the winner and I think that is there.
Q: Easycam was the loser
00:07:28 JIM WHITTELL: Yes, so there is a conflict about platforms but having said that each is multi-convertible with another little box. I just want to describe this concept of ten cinemas with ten screens, no projectionist whatsoever, all connected via a broadband link to a central location. In the central location are three servers, three computers that will carry enormous amounts of data.
00:08:05 One server is connected to the distributors. One server is connected to advertising films, and the third server is connected to theatres, sporting events, live shows, who knows. These three servers hold all the data possibly required to show on a cinema screen, and they are connected to a master console which allows you to look at every screen in every cinema.
00:08:46 So in this example of ten screens in ten cinemas we’re talking about a hundred screens. It allows you to programme all the data you want from the servers, so we’ll programme screen 1 in location A with a feature film, the trailers that match the certificate for that film, all the advertising films whether they be from Pearl and Dean [??] or it doesn’t matter, and we’ll build in a late night live show of a famous pop group.
00:09:28 So that is then programmed into the screen, and bear in mind it’s nowhere near the location of the cinema. That is all then programmed in, timed, set up, house lights, screen tabs if you want them - nobody uses screen tabs anymore, great shame but –masking, nobody uses masking but this could bring it back in the sense that within that one programme for that one screen would be house lights up and down, masking, house tabs, trailers, feature film, advertising films, and at the end a live show. And it’s just press.
Q: Does a screen never go out of focus, volume going up or down a notch? How is that controlled?
00:10:42 JIM WHITTELL: No, because it’s digital, and digital reproduction – I don’t know whether you’ve got a digital radio? It never fades, it’s always spot on the signal, same for the screen. Now volume, it may well be part of the programming to say that between noon and five it’ll be at a volume of 6, between 5 and 7 a volume of 7, and after 7 a volume of 8, might well programme that in in terms of the emptiness of the auditorium.
00:11:19 But there’s no what you and I would call projector watching, just not required. Does your television ever go out of focus? If it’s digital it doesn’t, and the only variance is your decision on the volume.
Q: What about the avoidance of piracy?
00:11:55 JIM WHITTELL: I’m satisfied that in my view, you’ve heard of FACT, the association paid for by the industry, it’s the Federation Against Copyright Theft. They mainly concentrate on what I call local piracy which is someone going into a cinema, switching on the video recorder and recording it straight off the screen.
00:12:28 I have an ongoing dialogue with them at the moment because that is not the prime source of piracy. I’m sad to say the prime source of piracy is from the studios in terms of digital copies of films that are stolen from the studios and then put out onto the internet. And that piracy is impossible to stop, and that’s the piracy that FACT should be concentrating on, that is finding out those engines, those websites that hold all this piracy.
00:13:13 I believe that today for example you could download on your computer every release film between now and Christmas in a digitalised form, immaculate, no sign of it being a copy. And the one thing I think the industry hates to admit is that that is where the prime difficulty comes in piracy, not Fred Blogs going to a cinema and videoing a film on the screen.
00:13:47 It is these perfect copies that are sitting out there, and some studio employee will have been paid half a million pounds, half a million dollars for the honour of just taking a digital copy. So in terms of piracy in the future for digital it will be encrypted and saved from the studio to the server, it will be encrypted and saved to the cinema screen, and so there’s no chance of getting at anything there.
00:14:23 You could end up with a video recorder in the cinema screen but that is by far the least important source of pirated copies. I just wanted to emphasise to this cinema chain that film booking departments, gone. Projectionists, gone. The equivalent of the wonderful, beautiful ?? engineer who we all know and love, gone.
00:14:54 And that is only as far away as the method of funding that facility. There are three or four firms sitting out there now with their room no bigger than this, all ready to take on 150 cinemas, 1000 screens, all down the broadband link, and to programme and operate the cinemas, include the heating, include the light, it can all be done digitally now.
00:15:34 And sadly the glorious cinema manager and his team are nothing more than shopkeepers and supervisors. They won’t have any say in the presentation, in the timing, in whatever else goes on which for me as a keen cinema operator I think it’s vital that the man in Bury knows that the last bus is 10.35 so he’s got to come down at 10.20 or nobody will come for the last performance.
00:16:09 I hope this room somewhere in Central London knows little secrets like that.
Q: What about the staff who will lose their jobs?
00:16:58 JIM WHITTELL: Most of the chains are already negotiating with BECTU to organise redundancy in effect, redundancy. And it is genuine redundancy in the sense that the job ceases to exist. Because it’s only 20% at the moment there will always be a need for a projectionist as we know them, but more and more cinemas are going onto full digital operation.
00:17:33 Those cinemas do not have any projectionists. The projectionists that were there are already redundant. And so yes I’m sad to say that a profession called projection will cease to exist. I don’t know under any circumstances where a projectionist will be required. I mean they used to be required in the television studios, it’s all digital now.
00:18:05 I can see them in the smallest tiniest independent who simply cannot afford for whatever reason to convert to digital, and indeed mobile cinemas, no they’re digital. No I’m sorry to say I predict that the profession as a whole in the UK will cease to exist.
Q: What do you mean about mobile cinemas?
00:18:39 JIM WHITTELL: Well there are quite a few, I will call them large vans, who carry their equipment to church halls and local villages and still show the current film and make quite a lot of money out of it, it’s quite successful. Because if you look at the map of England and plot every cinema there are some areas where there isn’t a cinema for 25 miles.
Q: What technical facilities do these vans have?
00:19:17 JIM WHITTELL: Well it used to be 35mm portables which are very rare, not 16mm, 35mm, but now it’s digital. And they just put the equivalent of a DVD in the back, perfect projection.
Q: Were you involved in cinema when everybody was talking about it can all be done on 16mm now?
00:19:52 JIM WHITTELL: No I wasn’t, and I would have abhorred that.
00:20:12 JIM WHITTELL: No the whole 16mm market has gone, I mean it used to be a large operation, a subsidiary of Rank who had a large library of 16mm film for village halls, for local showings of all different kinds, everything’s on a disc now, it’s all digital.
[Round up and thank you’s]
00:21:04 JIM WHITTELL: So Sidney may I just say thank you very much for inviting me, I’ve really enjoyed being able to go through my thoughts on the industry, it’s an industry I love, I know it’s an industry you love and I congratulate you on your life in the industry, thank you so much for inviting me.