Seeing The Light: John Sullivan and Keith Pullinger interview

Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan readily admit they are not film anoraks.

They probably couldn’t tell you how many Oscar nominations The Godfather garnered or who was best actor at the 1980 Academy Awards.

It is a surprising admission from the joint founders of the UK’s fastest-growing cinema chain The Light, but then their expertise doesn’t lie in what’s shown on the big screen - they are specialists in cinema property.

If you asked the pair how many visitors per year the Didsbury Cineworld attracts or which is the best-performing cinema in Glasgow, they could fire off the answers instantly.

That’s because during their combined careers of 50 years-plus working for the large cinema chains, they did the deals on a healthy percentage of the UK’s operational cinemas. Now they intend to grow The Light from its current seven-strong estate to 25 sites by the early 2020s, which would see their market share grow from 1% to just over 5%.

So how do they plan to deliver on this ambitious plan and what sort of locations and opportunities are they on the lookout for?

Celluloid heroes

Prior to founding The Light in 2007, Pullinger and Sullivan spent most of their careers as rivals. Pullinger held board positions running the property development side of Virgin, UGC and Cineworld Cinemas and Sullivan did the same for Warner Village and Vue. But despite being rivals they always got on well together.

They were also both of the view that the cinema offer had become homogenised and that operators were no longer thinking about what their customers wanted.

“Cinemas were becoming more about people processing and less about the event of going to the cinema and the film,” says Sullivan.

There was a certain irony in this realisation as, of course, this was partly due to the rapid rise of the multiplex cinemas that Pullinger and Sullivan had been responsible for introducing to the UK.

The multiplexes brought a lot of good things, but along the way they lost a bit of the magic of cinema-going - Keith Pullinger

“The multiplexes brought a lot of good things, but along the way they lost a bit of the magic of cinema-going,” says Pullinger. “It was very much about ‘get them in, get them out and sell them some expensive cola along the way’. At The Light we wanted to keep the essence of what was good about the cinema of the past and what’s good about independent cinema in terms of spirit, but we wanted to do that in a modern complex.”

So in 2007, they decided to leave the corporate world behind and set up The Light. Like many entrepreneurs trying to get a new company out of the blocks around that time, they found the early years hard. Although they had lined up 10 sites when the recession hit, the majority of these fell by the wayside and it wasn’t until 2011 that the company managed to open its first cinema at New Brighton on the Wirral.

Urban accelerator

The opening put down a marker for the company and the location of that first cinema - in an area in dire need of regeneration - was a perfect example of what Pullinger and Sullivan wanted to address head on.

“That sort of town centre regeneration was one of the biggest drivers for us,” says Sullivan. “A lot of the towns around the UK were evolving in the heyday of cinema and most of them had four or five old screens, but those old screens really cranked up admissions. Everyone says that it was retail that killed the town centre, but I’m of the belief that before the big retail boxes came in, television had a lot to do with killing those town centres.”

Another factor that blighted towns in the 1980s and 1990s was local authority keenness to site cinemas out of town, which damaged the night-time economies of many town centres.

So a large part of The Light’s modus operandi is finding town centre sites, because they believe cinemas should be at the heart of communities. A good example of this ethos is Stockport, where a Light cinema is due to open later this year. The local authority had worked with a few cinema operators on drawing up plans to open a cinema in the North West town, but each time those plans came to nothing.

“We went from zero to exchange in two-and-a-half months where the other cinema operators were still flirting three years later and had wasted three years of the council’s time,” says Sullivan.

Tripping the light fantastic

This ability to work swiftly, coupled with the £5.2m investment The Light secured from private equity house Connection Capital in 2015, are two of the company’s biggest strengths, according to Pullinger.

“We are very clear about what we can do,” says Pullinger. “We have a very forward-thinking board and we can get internal decisions made within a week if necessary. The hard bit for us is getting the right sites and the right partnerships with developers or local authorities. That’s the bit that John and I work really hard at. The delivery side is our bread and butter.”

He estimates that the company has the capacity to cope with up to five openings a year. The most recent addition to the portfolio is a nine-screen cinema at The Moor in Sheffield. Next up is the aforementioned Stockport, and Bradford, which is due to open early next year. In total, the company is poised to deliver 14 new sites between now and 2021, with other deals also in the pipeline.

“We are personally tracking 275 sites in the UK,” adds Sullivan. “We know where they are, we know the local authorities, we know the potential developers and we know if they’re going through planning. We know the towns and cities around the UK intimately.”

Big screen strategy

When it comes to those future opportunities, The Light is not fixated on factors such as demographics or the existing offer. The pair look at sites ranging in size from 10,000 sq ft to 50,000 sq ft in locations ranging from small towns to big cities and want to take a 25-year lease on each project.

The duo have an idea of the potential number of opportunities out there and they haven’t put a ceiling on how many cinemas they might ultimately operate. “It’s very much an opportunity-driven strategy and if people come to us with good ideas we will always look at them,” says Pullinger.

Sullivan acknowledges that they are not the only ones on the lookout for sites. “We see 50 opportunities at least for us, but we see another 50 or 100 opportunities for others as well,” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if another 150 multiplexes are built in the UK over the next 10 years.”

Moreover, some of that competition is not so different looking. Recognising the threat that The Light poses, some of the larger multiplex chains have launched cinema concepts with a similar look and feel to Sullivan and Pullinger’s challenger brand in the past few years. But the duo claim they are not afraid of the competition.

It’s anathema to us to just plonk a box in a town centre - John Sullivan

Indeed, says Pullinger: “We enjoy it and thrive on it. I think it’s a good thing overall that the cinema market ups its game. We’re part of the cinema community and we want people to think positively about the cinema experience.”

That’s why they are so intent on the quality of the development itself. “It’s anathema to us to just plonk a box in a town centre,” says Sullivan. “We work very, very closely with architects, the local authorities and planners and we are wholly committed to our chain, our circuit and any cinema that we develop.”

Building momentum

Now that they have really started to build some momentum, Pullinger and Sullivan say they have no intention of slowing down - and that they can certainly envisage passing the symbolic 50-cinema mark.

“We are not as young as we used to be and people often ask us about exit, but we’re not interested in that,” says Pullinger. “We’re enjoying the ride here. It’s very exciting. We feel we’ve done the really hard bit and now this is the enjoyable bit.”

Thanks to their ambitious expansion plans, soon many more cinema-goers will also be able to see The Light.

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