“It’s not a life saver, but it is a brain saver”: in praise of parent & baby cinema screenings

It’s oh so quiet: the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley. Image: Basil Jradeh/Wikimedia Commons.

A problem faced by new parents, particularly stay-at-home primary carers, is that it’s not merely possible, but actually highly likely, that you’ll go for up to a week at a time without leaving the house. This is particularly true in the winter months, and especially so if you have a partner who can pick up shopping on their way home from work, or use a grocery delivery service, or both.


A reasonably recent innovation to combat this is parent and baby cinema screenings. These tend to be in the late morning of a week day, often before the cinema in question would ordinarily open, and are specifically flagged as “Baby Club” or similar in listings. The speakers are quieter, and house lights brighter, than at a normal screening, and  parents tend to be permitted to bring their prams and pushchairs into the auditorium, or allow their child to sit next to them, depending on their own preferences.

These aren’t screenings of children’s films, but of something that happens to be on general release anyway. This is great, because another problem faced by stay at home parents is the complete collapse of any time available to consume any art or media aimed at adults.


Such screenings are more common in large cities than elsewhere in the country, at least partially because travelling with a baby is not easy. It’s inadvisable, and in plenty of circumstances actually illegal, for a lone adult to drive a car where the only passenger is a newborn. That means such screenings are more likely to thrive in places with extensive public transport networks or cinemas you can go to on foot. Yup, it’s another advantage of city livin’.

As such it’s probably unsurprising that of the few online aggregators of such screenings, none of which are pretty or comprehensive, Londonnet’s is probably the best. It also attempts, despite the title, to cover all such screenings across the UK and Ireland in any given week. By doing so it offers anyone not in Edinburgh the opportunity to envy the dazzling depth and diversity of films the city’s Filmhouse cinema includes in its Parent & Baby programme. There are some mornings I’ve been tempted to head to King’s Cross station rather than the King’s Cross Everyman, and I’m only just not serious.

Not long ago there was a small scandal about a cinema that would not let

someone take a baby into a standard screening of a film, and which quoted the film’s certificate as a reason to bar the child entry. Technically, legally, for PG and 12A rated films, a child of any age can attend with the consent of an accompanying adult. Some parent and baby screenings therefore limit their repertoire to films with such certificates and are relatively lax about the upper age limit for “baby” attendees.

Others, such as those at the Everyman chain allow children up to 12 months in any film, whereas from 12 to 24 months children are welcome in parent and baby screenings only for U and PG rated films. Most cinemas will also not allow customers who aren’t accompanied by an infant into parent and baby screenings, which not only guarantees a safe atmosphere, but also that no one is going to complain when, as inevitably happens, children cry or need changing, or the older ones try climbing towards the screen in order to better see what’s going on. (This prohibition isn’t merely theoretical; my brother in law was once turned away from a parent & baby screening for arriving without a child, not having realised what he’d booked for.)

It would be an exaggeration to call parent and baby cinemas a life saver, but it is a kind of brain saver. It’s a kind of virtuous circle. The prospect of seeing a film you’re not otherwise going to see in the cinema, if ever, pushes you out the door on certain days of the week when you might otherwise resign yourself to not. It adds routine to a period of life which, initially, knows little routine, being dictated by someone too young to have any concept of time. And it means a rush of stimuli into your brain that are wholly unrelated to looking after a baby. Even if you receive those stimuli while looking after a baby.

It also gives you a strange sense of your child’s progression. The first few times I took my son to a screening, he mostly slept through them. At six months he would sit in his pram looking towards the screen, and would object if he faced the other way. He understood that the screen was the point of being there, even if as far as he was concerned it was – at least according to my doctor – just some random lights, shapes, colours and sounds coming from other there. At a year old he insisted on sitting in his own chair next to me, before inevitably falling asleep.

It also gives you some good anecdotes about the unsuitable material your child is exposed to before they have any idea what’s going on. Recently I saw Armando Iannucci in a cafe and almost went up to him to tell him that he’d directed the first film my baby son had ever seen. It was The Death of Stalin. Although he didn’t like it as much as he liked The Shape of Water. Or try to walk out of it, like he did with Aquaman.

Incidentally, the most attended parent and baby screening I have ever been to, and there is no close second, was Ridley Scott’s All The Money In World, a film about the traumatic kidnap of a child. Whether that represents a failure of most parents attending it to properly check what they were going to see, or something deeply freudian, is a question probably best left unanswered.


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.