Cinema Layout

Once the initial cinema design has been sketched out, including the placement of the black box auditoria, the layout aspect begins and continues to work symbiotically with the design process.

Customer Journey

The most significant consideration for the layout process is the customer journey. It’s essential to understand how all aspects of this journey fit together and a specialist cinema architect will have a comprehensive overview (and, critically, a thorough understanding) of this. One main purpose of the layout process is to mock up or simulate the customer route through the building, from start to finish, to ensure the flow is smooth and there are no obstacles. And just as importantly as the physical journey is the communication / messaging aimed at customers. What messages need to be sent to visitors and how? Physical signage is a crucial part of this journey and there are three categories this falls into where clarity is of utmost importance:

1) Informational > services & sales e.g. film listings, concessions marketing

2) Directional > how to get around the building, where services / amenities can be found

3) Legal > any necessary legal notices or disclaimers

See “Signage Requirements” for more detail on signage.

A commonly overlooked fact is that the customer journey begins when a potential movie-goer sits down at home and accesses a cinema website or app to buy tickets or check listings. Or, if not a tech-savvy customer, the first thing they’ll see will be signs for the venue, or the outside of the building itself. This first impression, of either the website or the building, has to be positive. Once a customer is turned off for any reason there’s often no winning them back.

Start with a (Simple) Website

Your website is the tone-setter for your business and what you do on there will influence how the brand, and cinema experience itself, will be perceived. It’s our view that a website (for a cinema in this case but incidentally any other business as well) should only do two things: inform and sell. Any more than these two functions unnecessarily clutters what a customer experiences online, both visually and psychologically.

If a potential movie-goer can’t navigate or follow the website, it’s more than likely that you’ll lose their attention and custom. But don’t be afraid to be creative and engaging with the website - if done well, potential guests will appreciate this and highly anticipate their visit. The more customers that buy tickets through a website, the less pressure - and cost - there is on the physical design and layout of the cinema.

A proven truth, and something important to note here, is that customers who buy their tickets in advance are more likely to spend more on food and beverage (F&B) on arrival. The term “temporal distancing” is applicable: meaning the gap, or time, that expires between the act of buying the tickets and the actual visiting of the cinema to watch the film. The longer the temporal distance is, the happier the customer is, psychologically, to spend more on site on F&B because the main purchase (the ticket) has already been completed. This is similar to the concept of “holiday money”, where the more significant costs of hotel and travel have already been paid for, so the holiday-goer’s spending money is for their own indulgence.

Don’t be tempted to take advertising revenue for banners or pop-up adverts, unless absolutely necessary. These ads will make a website look cheaper and messier, making it harder to use. You’re far more likely to get repeat custom from having clear information and a simple booking process, with a customer being able to book what they're looking for in three clicks (as a general rule of thumb).

A Matching App - A Future Consideration

An app to work in tandem with a website is something that would be considered for the next stage of development. Many customers (mainly teenagers) still gather together before having chosen the film they end up viewing or frequently use social media to discuss this decision prior to attending. Because of behaviours like these they are the demographic most likely to book via an app (if available). Cinema apps can now also accommodate group bookings,with seating configurations reserved accordingly.

This valuable data can also help to answer the question of “who” the cinema and its audience is. In these circumstances an app can increase consumer engagement and make the overall experience easier and oftentimes more fun, but a functioning, effective website is perfectly adequate in a cinema’s infancy. Apps are a positive - but significant - investment.

The Customer’s Physical Journey

After experiencing the cinema online, the next stage of the customer journey is how to get to the location. This means that they will plan transport to the venue and the ease of their journey - be it via car, public transport or on foot - will set the tone for their visit. Obviously, there are many possible travel factors completely outside the control of the cinema operating team.But some, such as digital signage and visibility, are paramount to implement and, done effectively, will start the visit off on the right foot.

Signage Requirements

A signage package needs to cover all external and internal signs, including arrival, directional and informational.

Depending on whether the cinema in question is to be incorporated into a shopping mall or located in a town centre, the local authority or the mall owner should always be involved in a communicative partnership, particularly in the instance of signage. Hypothetically speaking, if a sign costs a significant sum such as ten thousand pounds, this financial burden should not rest solely on the client or operator. A cinema is often an anchor business and local community hub, increasing footfall and dwell time, and so is of benefit to all parties.

External Signs

If a customer arrives in an underground car park, there should be arrival signs placed strategically in that vicinity advising them of the venue’s existence and location, and what it has to offer, both concessions and film-wise.

Don’t be afraid to specifically highlight the front entrance to the cinema - there’s often no greater frustration for a customer than being tantalisingly close to a great film experience but not being able to find the front door!

Internal Signs

As well as directional signs inside the cinema, customers need informational signs giving them details about what’s on offer. These signs will show other film listings and which snacks, drinks and other indulgences are available as well as how much they cost. Keep this simple though: an information overload via popcorn counter LED signs will lead to confusion, less sales and customers entering a film screening with a headache!

Branding Layout & Different Offers

The branding concept needs to be communicated from the outside of the building, inwards. What is the brand and what do you want it to communicate?

Consider how to dress the entrance and foyer area of the cinema to reflect this and, importantly, whatever your USP may be. Include concessions / F&B in communicating the concept. Branding needs to be visible throughout the cinema but try to feed this in creatively. Don’t forget furniture and colour choices – it’s not just about the logo

If your brand has been designed to encompass a range of different in-house offers - VIP, kids, premium service - then what are the additional touches that can be added to increase value for money? A premium offer may include F&B delivery-to-seat and a range of upmarket dining options, but how do you differentiate between that and a VIP service? Consider how to separate the “general” flow of customer traffic from a VIP screen entrance or ensure your VIPs have an entirely separate customer journey.

A kids offer, if done well, can increase profitability if leveraged as a potential USP. But a kids party area or specially designed screening room needs to be positioned in a high visibility area so parents are reassured of their safety.

Cinema Layout & Customer Flow

The path taken by customers through the cinema is directly linked to how positive their overall visit will be, and should be made as clear a route through the building as possible. Service / touch points, ticket or F&B dispensers, or a manned F&B counter should be visible and easy-to-use. Can customers see where the self-service machines are or where to go for the toilets? Are the screens clearly indicated? A “dwell time” area (cafe, bar or comfortable seating area) for customers to wait for friends or enjoy concessions prior to entering the auditorium, adds value in a variety of ways, including a potential increase in customer spend.

One critical consideration of customer flow is the avoidance of pinch points. Film programming works in conjunction with this issue to ensure screening times are appropriately staggered. If a major release is expected to have high turnout and occupy multiple screens with many screenings, the following must be taken into account:

1) Constant customer flow - people entering / exiting the building

  • - Customers attending to see the major release
  • - Customers attending to see other releases

2) Dwell time & area to accommodate this traffic

3) Concessions service area (queue / service management)

4) Entering auditoria (avoiding a “crush” scenario)

Layout Considerations

The different aspects critical to a successful cinema are all dependent on one thing: available square footage. Space is a premium and so, when in the initial design and layout stages of planning, enough floor space must be allocated for all necessary functions. In a shopping centre footage is either limited, expensive or both. But an independent site for a new build usually has more flexibility on this issue.

Service Areas

Each area added to the floor plan layout of the cinema (foyer, bar, cafe etc.) must be designed with efficiency of service in mind. Ideally, a service area for, say, popcorn, nachos and soft drinks will be built as an ergonomic pod, with accessible storage nearby. The pod should be set up so that when fully stocked at the beginning of a busy period its supplies are sufficient. A Front of House member of staff shouldn’t have to walk more than a couple of steps to collect whatever they need from any section of the pod. The aim is to make F&B service as convenient as possible while still offering excellent customer engagement - simply “processing” customers should never be acceptable.

Food Preparation

The food prep area, or kitchen if applicable, must be located in close proximity to the service counter, otherwise this poses logistical problems that will adversely affect the quality (and enjoyment) of the produced food. If a VIP service is available, then this should be carefully considered as VIP guests will often be paying a premium for this privilege. There are also legal requirements to be considered in relation to this.

Storage Areas

Any necessary stock should be kept in suitable, adequate storage areas, near to the prep and customer-facing counter, so that staff can easily obtain or receive what they need without disrupting service. Storage must be accessible by both staff and delivery personnel, with the stock often entering the building in large pallets.

To avoid any potential damage (aesthetic or otherwise) from dragging delivery pallets across the foyer in front of guests, a service entrance to the building may be necessary. This external access should be integrated as part of the original architectural design and operational layout. If large deliveries will be made regularly and the building is set over different floors a lift is a necessary and worthwhile investment.

As well as purpose-built storage facilities (and in a bid to maximise all available space) undercroft seating can be utilised for amenities purposes, as toilets, to house stock, a staff office or even as an additional cinema facility (pre-screening space for kids parties, conference rooms etc.).


Having adequate toilet facilities is a very important legal requirement for a cinema, as is having the appropriate facilities for people with disabilities. Specific legislation on the number of toilets per guests is ever-changing and should be monitored and kept up to date.

The toilets are part of the customer journey and should always be visible or clearly signposted. They must be located conveniently and within striking distance of the foyer or cafe / bar area but, perhaps more importantly, each auditoria too: if a customer has to exit a film before it finishes to use the bathroom traversing different levels of the building to do so is extremely inconvenient.

Staff Areas

A manager’s office is a necessary addition to the layout of a cinema and should be based in the vicinity of the “shop floor” in case managerial assistance is required (not hidden away in the back of the building). But it’s important to make sure that space used for this is as limited as possible, for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, staff should be discouraged from loitering or having “downtime” in the manager’s office if they are supposed to be working. When staff are on a break, they should either use the designated staff room or leave the premises.

Secondly, because building capacity is limited when planning the layout of the cinema, the manager’s office should only accommodate the essential services that allow senior staff to carry out necessary behind-the-scenes tasks so as not to take physical space away from other required functions.

TBP’s Role in Cinema Layout Planning

TBP's role in both cinema design and layout is to advise and oversee the process, from a position between the client and the designated architect. As the architect completes early stages of the sketching and cinema layout mock up, we’ll work through the drawings and indicate where a particular element may need to be added or reconsidered. Our experience in this field allows us to predict where otherwise unforeseen problems may arise. For example, it needs to be highlighted if toilets are too far from, or inaccessible to, a particular auditorium.

A project is often presided over by a specific member of the team but our other consultants are on hand to advise on their particular areas of expertise. If necessary they will be brought onto a project to give a comprehensive overview of different aspects, from commercial to operational to technical. Sight lines in auditoria, customer journey & flow, signage, costings, adherence to brand guidelines, storage placement, till positioning, service efficiency are just some of the areas that have to be thoroughly planned for and integrated into successful Cinema Design & Layout.

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