British Travels: What’s It Like to Go to the Movies in Britain? It’s Completely Different

The BFI IMAX in London - Britain's Biggest Movie Screen - I saw the Hobbit here.

The BFI IMAX in London – Britain’s Biggest Movie Screen – I saw the Hobbit here.

One our recent trip to Britain we had the opportunity to go to the cinema twice. Now, usually the first reaction when we say we went to the movies while traveling is that people say that you can do that at home.

We certainly can.

But there were two exceptions this time.

First, I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan and the new Hobbit movie opened the day after we arrived in London. As we would be in Britain for over a month, I was not going to wait that whole trip to see what will undoubtedly become a favorite movie of mine (it was a lovely film, if a little long).

Second, a film opened in the UK that will probably not open in the USA until later this year, so it was a great opportunity to see it without waiting and since we lined up a babysitter, it was a chance for Mrs. Anglotopia and I to go on a date. So, we got to see The Railway Man before everyone else – more on that film in another post (it’s an amazing film).

So, how is going to the movies different in the UK? It’s very different and here’s how.

It’s the Cinema, not the Movies

Up first is the linguistic usages. They don’t call them ‘movies’ in the UK – they call them films. They also don’t call it a movie theater, they call it a cinema. So, you go see a film at a cinema. You don’t go see a movie at a movie theater. It’s a minor difference, but a big one when searching for film tickets/directions on Google UK (searching for movie tickets will get you strange results and not what you’re looking for).

Booking Your Seat

While you don’t have to book in advance for your film, it’s advisable to get the best seat and make sure you can get into the popular shows. That said, when you book a ticket, whether it’s online or at the box office, you have to choose your seat. This is the biggest difference between going to the movies in the USA versus going to the movies in the UK. Choosing your seat just makes sense. You get to sit exactly where you want and no one else can take your seat. What’s to stop you from taking someone else’s seat? A very zealous staff that makes sure everyone is in the right seat. I doubt this is a practice they’ll ever adopt in the USA – if they sell assigned seats then they can’t overbook showings and increase their profits.

Two Tiers of Seating

While most of the modern multiplexes in Britain have stadium style seating, they also offer a ‘premium’ option when purchasing your tickets. The ticket costs a few pounds more but you get a larger and comfier seat that has a better view of the screen. It’s one size fits all here in the States.

Sweet or Salty Popcorn

This really threw me for a loop. At the concession stand, the attendant asked me if I wanted my popcorn sweet or salty. What? Sweet popcorn? What is that? No thanks, I’ll take the salty version.

No Butter

They do not put butter (or the petrochemical concoction US theaters call butter) on their popcorn. I asked and the concession attendant looked at me funny. So, while I had my salty popcorn, it was very dry. Though my arteries thanked me.

Inconsistent Ice in the Drink

When I saw the Hobbit in London at the BFI IMAX, the attendant didn’t put ice in my bucket of soda. When we saw The Railway Man at the Vue Cinema in Bristol, they put ice in the drink. So, when in the UK at the cinema perhaps ask for ice in case you might not get it.

Candy Selection is Completely Different

The Candy on offer at the concession stands is very different. While the concepts of the candy might be the same, the brands and types are all unfamiliar. I wanted gummy bears. I got something called ‘wine gums’ which were close but had interesting flavors. It was fun to try something new.

They Serve Beer

This was also a huge difference. They sold beer at the concession stand. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a multiplex in America that serves beer at the movies. I know there are some artisan theaters that serve alcohol but it’s generally unheard of here. While I don’t drink at all, Mrs. Anglotopia enjoyed beer and nachos, which was a strange and very American combination to find at a UK cinema.

Lots and Lots of Commercials

Multiplexes in the USA often show commercials nowadays, but it’s often during the pre-roll that shows before a movie actually starts. In the UK, you can expect 15-20 minutes of proper commercials before it even gets to the coming attractions trailers. While this would generally be annoying, we had not seen most of the commercials before and some of them were rather clever, so we just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Ratings System is different

The UK does not use the MPAA moving ratings systems – why would they? They have their own system that has more tiers and honestly makes a little more sense. You can see the current ratings system here. The Railway Man had a rating of 15, meaning is was suitable for 15 years and up. In the US, I’m sure the movie will get an R rating because of the violent scenes of torture.

Selection of Films is Different

While big budget movies like The Hobbit opened globally the same day, not all movies get this treatment. Some are delayed based on various factors relating to international rights and local tastes. So, the selection 0f movies on offer while we were in the UK was mixed between movies that opened in the US at the same time and movies that either opened in the US months ago or movies that opened in the UK first (usually UK productions) and would open in the USA later this year. There was also a healthy dose of foreign films on offer (foreign as in not British or American).

So, when you’re in the UK, I would encourage you to look at the movie listings, you may find a gem that’s not won’t be showing in the US for months and you can see it first or you may spot a movie you missed and have a chance to see.

We had a lovely time going to the cinema while we were in Britain and if you have a few hours to spare and are looking for something to do, then you can’t go wrong with taking in a film.

Have you been to the movies in the UK? How was it different for you? Let us know in the comments.

Read More at Anglotopia


    • avatar says

      This time around we found the ticket prices to be on par, if a little more, than with what they are back home. I paid £15 for the Hobbit at the BFI IMAX, which is a bit more than it is at our local IMAX. We paid £8 each I think for The Railway Man, which is about $14 – so on par with our prices back home for an evening show.

  1. avatarSusan says

    The Muvico Theater in Rosemont,IL has you choose your seat, but the staff doesn’t enforce it much anymore unless someone complains. They also have a “Premier” section where they allow alcoholic beverages (you can have to be 21+ to even sit in these seats) during the movie. Wish more American theaters did it the way the British do it though!!

  2. avatarHeather says

    I think it depends on the theater you are going to…while selecting your seat may not be the norm here, I have been to a number of theaters in the area that allow this option.

    Now I wish you has tried “sweet” popcorn. I am intrigued!

      • avatar says

        Sweet popcorn is a lot like Kettle Corn, not Caramel Corn (or Toffee Popcorn as brits would call it). Sweet popcorn is very lightly sweet usually with white sugar.

        Also, depending on your age, you might refer to going to the cinema as “going to the pictures” – as cinemas used to be called “Picture Houses”.

      • avatarLeigh Mariana says

        It’s funny as salty popcorn is not as common here and my parents have never had it. It’s always been sweet. As Jayne says, it’s not like toffee popcorn, it’s lightly sugared.

        Also I agree with Jayne, my grandparents refer to the cinema as “going to the pictures”

  3. avatarMC Chapman says

    Not sure if it is still a practice, but when I lived in London in the last century, I was always so impressed how everyone rose to their feet for the playing of God Save the Queen at every performance. Would be nice to have a little of that here!

  4. avatar says

    As a born and bred Londoner, I found this really interesting, as I didn’t realise we did i”Visiting the Cinema” so differently from the Yanks :) For example it’s news to me you can’t buy sweet popcorn, and I don’t think I’ve ever had it buttered! When I visited New York a few years ago we took our children to the cinema…I was astounded when everyone clapped at the end of the film…I think I’d get a few funny looks over here in England if we did that, but I did think it was a nice way to show your appreciation :)

    • avatarMichelle says

      My mum and I very nearly clapped at the end of The Butler. On the way out I heard a lady tell her husband she wanted to clap but thought she better not. We expressed regret together and said ‘how very British of us’ and bid each other goodnight.

  5. avatar says

    When I last went to the cinema on the Isle of Man, I was not assigned a seat. That sounds interesting. We were ushered to the seat, though, and they put us where they wanted us – so a similar concept to ticketed seats. The first time I went to the cinema, though, in Hexham (about 12 years ago), I was not shown to a seat nor was I ushered to a seat. I did just like I did in the US – paid for my ticket and found a seat. I think it might depend on where you are attending and maybe what time you are there. The Hexham was an afternoon film.

    • avatarMegan says

      I live in a small town in England, and we always just pick where we want to sit when we go to the cinema. When we went to Newcastle, we had to pick our seats though. It might be something that’s only done in larger cities.

      • avatarMinerva says

        Nope….our little town in rural Nottinghamshire has a small cinema where on paying you are allocated the best seat available…..the later you pay, the less likely you are to get a really good seat.

        We pay 6 quid & have a choice (routinely) of 6-7 films. Going to the pictures or ‘the flicks’ as they are also known, is a relatively cheap night out if you consider the price/hour.

  6. avatarMelissa says

    I live in Omaha, Nebraska and we have theaters where you pick your seats when you purchase your tickets. Specifically, the Majestic cinema. They have recliners and it’s really nice. They also serve alcohol, which is quickly becoming common practice in theaters in my area. We currently have five that I know of that have bars in them and you can take your drinks with you into the movie. One of our theaters has a dining option where you actually have a waiter that refills your drink and brings your food to you during the feature. I enjoyed your post, but it doesn’t seem too different from what I’m used to in my area with the exception of the types of candy sold and the linguistics.

  7. avatarPhilip Coppell says

    Next time try a Community Cinema, we have two in Liverpool the Woolton Picturehouse, opened in 1927, check out the website. An American friend Rose could not believe that there was an Intermission in the middle of Sherlock Holmes and at the end of the evening, the National Anthem was played. It is also the cinema that John Lennon went to, which really impressed Rose. The other cinema is The Plaza Crosby. Both cinemas cost less that £5 to see a film and occasionally have half price evening. They are both state of the art with excellent seating.

  8. avatar says

    I spent five months is England last year and once my significant other’s divorce is final, I will be going back! We would attend the “Cinemas” almost weekly and purchase our tickets online ahead of time choosing our seats! Being senior citizens provided us a very handsome discount as well! The absolute amazing thing that hit me was that you could bring in your own refreshments, something that is definitely not allowed in the USA!

  9. avatarnita jones says

    Do they still play God Save the Queen at the end of the show …. I’ve been away for 60 years … and while I visited a few times during those years, I didn’t go to the cinema. Also remember ‘queueing up’ to get in and taking our knitting :-)))

  10. avatarmarie says

    This was very interesting , thank you so much for writing it, did you get to the North of the country by any chance , if not, you must visit again and come to the North ,you will find even more differences lol

  11. avatarCathy says

    I went in both Ireland (years and years ago) and in Wales about 5 years ago. Yes, it was called the cinema and we saw a film in both countries. But there were no assigned seats. In Wales, (Cardiff, specifically) the cineplex was much like in America as far as food was concerned. Since I don’t much care for popcorn, I don’t know whether or not they had butter on it, but the soft drinks and other food (including nachos) were similar to the American variety. I guess I didn’t much notice because I’ve been to the UK several times (and would live there if I could) and am familiar with their sweets. But at least in IReland, it was an entire evening out. You got there early, saw a multitude of commercials (which they do in the US now, only US commercials aren’t anywhere near as clever), coming attractions and the main film.

  12. avatar says

    They overbook showings in the US and don’t sell assigned seats? That’s so weird, there are only a few “artsy” type cinemas here in Germany where you don’t get to select your seat before the showing, the big multiplexes all do that. And a few years ago you would have been hard-pressed to even find salty popcorn in cinemas (or anywhere really) here, it’s still a fairly new thing for Germans and most of my friends don’t like the salty version, though I prefer it nowadays (I’d never get butter, though, even if they offered that here, sounds quite yucky to my German taste buds ;-)). Whenever I go to the cinema in the UK I find it a bit strange, too, even though it’s not THAT different to the way things are done in German cinemas.

  13. avatarBeth says

    I got to see Pride & Prejudice at the cinema in Bath, and we didn’t have the option to reserve seats. Perhaps that was because it’s a smaller cinema? I really thought the ads were as much fun as the film since there weren’t too many, and they were very clever. In particular, I remember a series of Mini-Cooper ads where different forms of transportation were decked out a la Mini Coopers, and they got wilder and more exotic. Like elephants! I also enjoyed being able to order perfectly petite servings of Green & Black’s ice cream to nibble on during the movie.

  14. avatarWinnie says

    I love the fact you love the UK! I really like the States! The IMAX is rather different form most cinemas. For example, you don’t usually get to choose your seat. When I was little (during the 80’s) they would show a short film or cartoon before the main film. Halfway through the main film there would be an interval and ushers would stand at the front of the cinema theatre selling ice cream and snacks! I heard that in. Ireland they used to sing the National Anthem at the end of each film…I can’t vouch for this personally but a few people have said this to me!

  15. avatarMary Ann says

    In 2002, we stayed in Notting Hill and we took our kids (16 & 20) up to the cinema there and let them off to enjoy an early evening movie, we had dinner and came back to pick them up, it was very nice and they really enjoyed the movie. Can’t remember what the title was, probably Transformers or something, but it was a beautifully ornate theater.

  16. avatar says

    My first time in a UK cinema was way back in 1984, when they still had smoking in half the theatre. That sort of arrangement that assumes cigarette smoke is contained within imaginary barriers! Being somewhat allergic to cigarette smoke, it was a tough thing, but it was to see a Tom Conti film called Reuben, Reuben, and since I was already a confirmed Conti fan, I couldn’t miss it!

    Yeah, the sweet popcorn thing is weird, I first encountered it at a tiny family circus in Cambridge, when a sweet little girl offered me some of hers and I took a bite, and was somewhat underwhelmed.

    The last time I was in the cinema was to see Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, very depressing film, though brilliant as his films usually are.

  17. avatarJennifer Leiker says

    In 2005, my first time in London I went to the cinema and saw Pride and prejudice with Matthew and Kiera. It was odd picking my choice seat but nice knowing that seat would be mine. The price was £11.50 for the film. (The exchange rate wasn’t good, about $1.89 per £1, that was an expensive film!!) I will never complain about movie prices in America again.

  18. avatarLeslie G says

    In the big cinemas in Leicester Square, we’ve had reserved seating, but out in the suburbs in Pinner and Ruislip, people sat wherever they chose.

  19. avatar says

    I’m going way back here – to the mid-1960s – when my family and I lived in Harrogate, Yorkshire. One of the things I remember about going to the cinema back then was that there were four different ticket prices. The highest prices were for the front section on the ground floor; the cheapest were for the rear of the upper level (balcony). I once tried to see a Hayley Mills film by myself and they wouldn’t sell me a ticket. I thought that price level was sold out and asked for the next cheapest, and was rebuffed again. Only then did I realize it was an “adult” Hayley Mills film and I wasn’t old enough at 14 yrs. old to see it. Talk about being mortified!

  20. avatarLaura says

    Just wanted to tell you that I particularly enjoyed this article. I am looking forward to more pieces like this. It’s fun to hear about the differences you encountered on your recent visit to Britain!

  21. avatarCynthia says

    Sweet popcorn is the norm in most of Europe, I think. Zoos, fun festivals, most anywhere a family is likely to wander, if you see a popcorn stand, it will be sweet. Only the first time is a shock.

  22. avatarMary says

    I went while I was in York (England, not New York) because the friend I was visiting had to see The Two Towers when it opened. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember many of the differences because at the time I had not read the books or seen the first film so I spent the whole time asking “Who’s that? Why are they doing that? Where are they going?…” As poor college students we didn’t even think about spending money on snacks, but you’ll be happy to know that since then my LOTR fan husband has got me interested the books and movies.

  23. avatarGill Mitchell says

    I was born in England and remember that we called the cinema “The Pictures” or “The Picture House”.

  24. avatar says

    I love going to see a good film at the cinema in Cambridge or any part of the UK for that matter. It is a bit different than the US and I had the same reaction with the sweet pop corn. I don’t know why but some places in the UK will not give ice unless you ask and then they put very little in the cup. We often received strange looks when we asked for ice and was even asked why would you want ice mate it is 20 degrees out. We had to explain to the gentleman that we are from Texas and we use ice in tea, coffee, and just about every thing we drink. Fall, Winter, Spring, or summer we use ice. After more than 10 years in the UK we acclimated to the British way of life even the accent only to find when we visit Texas we have this weird hybrid British-Texas drawl.

  25. avatarCarrie from Wisconsin says

    When we traveled to the UK in 2004 we wanted to try everything we could and live as a Brit. We went to the cinema in Worcestershire to see the incredibles. The biggest difference was that the popcorn wasn’t freshly popped!! It was waiting in a plastic bag and no butter to be found. Being my favorite treat at the US movies I was super disappointed. The theatre seemed the same in every other way though. Loved the experience all the same.

  26. avatar says

    I’m from Argentina (so I apologize in advance for my poor english) and reading your post i realized that the cinemas you may find in Buenos Aires are not really different from the one you were talking about!

    I’ve been in London only once and I really love that city! I keep so good memories from there.

    While i stayed in London, I’ve never been in a cinema, but thank to your tips, I’ll probably go back there to enjoy such a wonderful experience.

  27. avatar says

    The older people in my (American) family used to call it the “picture show.” :-)

    Here in California, there are many theaters where you reserve your seats in advance and there are some that serve alcohol. We also have seats that are quite large and plush and also rock. The arms of the seats push up so if you want to cuddle with your movie mate you can. Or I suppose you could push up a few arms and stretch out if you were so inclined. You can usually get kettle corn (sweet popcorn) here as well. I don’t think they build theaters here anymore that don’t have stadium seating.

    I haven’t yet been to the cinema in England, but I was surprised both times we went to the theatre to see a play that young ladies came into the seating areas at intermission to sell ice cream and other treats. They had wooden boxes with straps around the neck just like the old-fashioned cigarette girls of yore. You don’t have to go to the lobby and stand in line. That sounds very American to me, but I’ve never seen it done here in the states.

    I grew up as an Army brat and wherever we were – overseas or in the states – the national anthem was always played before the movie. It’s lovely to see everyone stand and put their hand on their heart. I think civilians would complain if that happened.

  28. avatarCynthia says

    Carrie from Wisconsin, movie popcorn in the U.S. is not freshly popped either. It is purchased in very, very large plastic bags and the theater employees re-fresh and warm it in those big machines that make noise like it is being popped, but I promise you, it is only being warmed.

  29. avatarDiane Clement says

    I was in London in early February, 2006, and saw that Notes on a Scandal was showing at a cinema. I got very excited because it had not yet opened in my area of California and like many others I just love Judi Dench. I’d just briefly met her at the RSC Theatre stage door in Stratford-upon-Avon the day before. Even though it was already 10 p.m., we decided to see the movie anyway. The multistoried cinema was in Leicester Square. We were surprised to go up two or three levels via escalator. Each floor had a bar or restaurant. The decor was very plush and well polished and super clean. When we got into the beautiful cinema, we found it was just the two of us and a young couple from Australia who were visiting English family members they’d never seen before. After the very satisfying movie and brief visit with the Aussies, we went back outside and talked to a Bobbie who told us we would be quite safe walking all the way back to Cartwright Gardens in Camden. We had a lovely walk after midnight via Long Acre, Great Queen Street, Kingsway, etc., and past the deserted Russell Square, stopping in a little shop for a warm snack. It was definitely cold but it felt so good. There was some drizzle which just reminded us more that we were not on the Central Coast of California. Since then I have not been satisfied with our local big cinemas–not plush, no restaurants or bars, and not very clean by comparison. I go up to San Francisco to the Sundance Kabuki which is multistoried (two, I think) and has a bar where you can order a drink in real glass to take into the cinema. Still……not London. I’ve been back twice more and am looking forward to going again soon. Now I usually go solo so I can do exactly what I want without consulting a travel companion. I would love to spend six months or a year in England. That would be a dream come true.

  30. avatarLeigh Ann Nicholson says

    Here in Tampa, it is becoming quite common to have to choose your seat and have the option of drinking a beer. What i find funny with regards to your story about the ice in the drinks is that I went to England at 10 and 11 years old, and I was NOT happy that getting ice in your beverage wasn’t common; we had to find an Americanized fast food place to get some ice in my coke. so apparently things haven’t changed that much! LOL

  31. avatarCharlotte Ellis says

    I went to a film in a small town in Devon and they had an intermission and brought in an ice cream man and people ran down and bought Ice cream down by the screen.

  32. avatar says

    I was last in London in 1983 (I know; too long ago) and remember seeing Return of the Jedi at the cinema. I don’t recall what it cost, if I had popcorn, or being assigned a seat. As with last time, I probably won’t go unless it’s something I’m dying to see. My list of things to do and places to visit is too long.

  33. avatarShannon P says

    The very first trip the hubby and I took to London together was when ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ debuted back in 2001. We went to the Odeon Marble Arch just at the corner of Hyde Park. We were so excited! We bought beer (Had not heard of beer at theaters in the states back then) and settled into our seats to eavesdrop on the folks around us. EVERYONE seated near us was American. We were so disappointed. Since it was our first trip, we didn’t realize that Bayswater was a popular area for American visitors. In our 15 trips since, we’ve learned the areas to avoid if we want an immersion experience.

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