The Rebirth of Neighbourhood Cinemas

Car tail-lights stream past Newlyn Filmhouse in the Coombe at Newlyn. Pic Phil Monckton.

The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) here in the UK organised a fascinating Zoom presentation by one of the UK’s leading cinema architects Stefanie Fischer on Saturday 6th November. It was a privilege to listen to Stefanie and to learn about her recent work and her ideas about a mini-revolution which could eventually transform the cinema experience for some previously neglected audiences as well as helping to re-generate high streets.

What is a ‘neighbourhood cinema’? It’s actually quite difficult to be definitive but these are generally small cinemas located in small towns or districts of larger cities. They are cinemas attempting to offer film screenings to the widest possible demographic, i.e. across age groups, gender, ethnicity etc. They are also attempting to be cultural hubs and social centres so they try to offer meeting spaces, food and drink and sometimes film education and other forms of social activity. As Fischer pointed out there has been a long history of cinemas serving as a form of ‘civic presence’ on the high street. The term isn’t meant to cover commercial multiplexes or the latest round of new ‘bijou’ or ’boutique’ cinemas such as those of the Everyman and Curzon chains and their smaller competitors. Such cinemas may fulfil some of the criteria but they are likely to target wealthier middle-class patrons and to charge more for admission and for up-market food and drink. There are also various forms of specialised cinemas, often accessing public funding, which might meet all the criteria but which are mostly located in the centre of large cities. ‘Community cinemas’ are similar in some respects but also different in significant ways.

Fischer began her talk with a case study which exemplified several of the features she wanted to emphasise. Newlyn Filmhouse is a new cinema in Cornwall opened in 2016. Newlyn is a small seaside town and important fishing port with a population of 4-5,000. It is only 2 miles from the larger town of Penzance (21,000 pop) which still has a traditional cinema with 4 screens as part of the Merlin chain. The Newlyn Filmhouse has been designed to ‘re-purpose’ an existing building, a fish warehouse which had several features as a light industrial building that could be utilised as part of a cinema design. Stefanie pointed out that Newlyn had an original cinema, the Gaiety which opened in 1905 and closed in the 1964 but has been re-purposed as a restaurant and is visible from the Filmhouse, further down the road. The Filmhouse has only two screens with a total of 135 seats. It shows a variety of commercial films, specialised films, live theatre transmissions and special events and has a food and drink offer in a café-bar, but food is not allowed in the auditorium. The small number of seats means that the cinema must aim for greater occupancy targets and returning audiences. The flexible programme and lower running costs have only been possible because of digital distribution and projection.

The Regal in Wadebridge

The history of the Gaiety led Stefanie to argue that in the early 1900s many re-purposed buildings were being used for cinema screenings before the main period of purpose-built cinemas began around 1911-12. Many such cinemas later closed for a range of reasons, including competition from bigger, more modern screens in the 1920s/30s and the general decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s/60s. But the re-purposed buildings are often in good positions and some early cinemas have survived. Fischer offered us a comparison with an inner city area, utilising Jeremy Buck’s work on Haringey cinemas in North London. She also referred to a second neighbourhood cinema, also in Cornwall, The Regal in Wadebridge. This cinema first opened in 1931 but by 1967 was in danger of closure when it was acquired by a local construction business, W. T. Williams which already had two other Cornwall cinemas in St Austell and Padstow. The ‘WTW’ chain invested in renovating the Regal and in 1986 converting to a two screen cinema. Since then WTW have continued to upgrade the screens in terms of seating and also switched to digital projection and new audio systems as ‘early adopters’. Fischer argued convincingly that this cinema demonstrates two key factors in the survival of neighbourhood cinemas over the past 100 years or more – local ownership and constant attention to the need to upgrade facilities. The current Regal has 204 seats in Screen 1 and 98 in Screen 2. Photos of the auditoria can be found on the cinema’s website. Wadebridge has a population of around 8,000 and offers a range of films comparable to those at the Newlyn Filmhouse.

The restored Campbeltown Picture House

Most of the examples of neighbourhood cinemas and detailed case studies that Stefanie Fischer worked through with us were projects on which she had worked either with her original partnership of Burrell Foley Fischer or more recently as a Cinema Consultant. Apart from the very wonderful Campbeltown Picture Palace in Argyll and Bute, these cinemas are all in Southern/South West England, East Anglia or the East Midlands. I don’t think that the points she makes are inapplicable in the North of England, the region I know best, or in the other Home Nations, but I suspect that there might be some economic differences and possibly other factors. Nevertheless I found the whole presentation very useful. The other discourse was about regeneration of high streets and town centres and, looking into the very near future, the need for ‘eco cinemas’ with a net zero carbon footprint. No longer is the small neighbourhood cinema at a disadvantage with the large cinema chain which initially invested in out of town multiplexes in the peak building period of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In stark contrast, Fischer referred to new research that suggests that in many small towns, cinema patrons would prefer not to use a car and instead walk or cycle (strangely no mention of buses or trains) to get to their local screen. This is related to the concept of the ’15 minute city’ in which all the necessary facilities for a healthy lifestyle are within the same accessible locality. Re-purposing buildings in the town centre is more ecologically friendly than an out of town facility requiring a car for most audiences. Re-purposing saves on building costs and often has the support of older townspeople, reviving memories. Fischer gave an example of the benefits of digital technologies when she made the point that a new generation of smaller digital projectors can be ceiling-mounted without the need for separate projection rooms. But also important is the transformation of some existing cinemas with their lack of enough space in foyer areas. She showed how this had been solved at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.

The Everyman, Crystal Palace in South London is a ’boutique cinema’ with 4 screens opening in 2018. It is housed in the former Rialto/Granada Cinema that closed as a cinema in 1968 but continued with bingo until 2009 when it was acquired by a church which subsequently sold the property to Everyman.

There was much more in the presentation that I haven’t been able to cover but Stefanie Fischer ended with a rallying cry, saying “There is a hunger – people have to be able to see films” – and neighbourhood cinemas can satisfy that hunger at minimal cost to the environment and maximum benefits to communities. There was plenty of time for questions and comments. The one I recognised immediately was about the upmarket ’boutique’ cinemas. Some of these from the Everyman and Curzon chains do meet some of Fischer’s criteria, including the repurposing of ex-traditional circuit cinemas like the Muswell Hill Odeon, the Curzon Sheffield in a bank building or the Curzon Ripon in shops. There is nothing new in this. The major specialised cinema in Sheffield, The Showroom, was housed in an ex-car showroom and Cornerhouse in Manchester was partly in a furniture store. More worrying is the high seat price and the focus on food. One audience member referred to “restaurants with cinemas attached”. That is certainly the reputation of the Leeds Everyman. I have no intention of visiting a cinema in which somebody is eating pizza while I am watching a film. The other downside to these cinemas is the very high seat prices and the equally highly-priced food and drink. Boutique cinemas in London are charging £15 or more and I have come across prices of £20 for weekend screenings (see the new Tivoli Cinema in Cheltenham). The neighbourhood cinemas discussed by Stephanie Fischer are generally sticking to £8 to £8.50, which I think is fairly standard for most of England.

Fischer did use the Broadway in Nottingham as one of her examples and I would class that as an important specialised cinema, one of a few around the country likely to play most foreign language film releases as well as re-releases and archive films, travelling festival seasons etc. ‘Community cinemas’ are usually run by volunteers, often in ‘non-traditional venues’ and screenings on a part-time basis. They have always been an important part of film distribution in the UK, in the form of film societies and public cinemas, especially in rural areas. It would be good if the CTA paid more attention to the sector, even if they do not often use recognisable cinema buildings. After all, “What is Cinema?” as André Bazin asked? It doesn’t mean only the building.

This was a well attended Zoom Event. At one point I counted 78 ‘participants’, including at least one person from North America and I think one from elsewhere in Europe. I’m pleased to see these CTA Events as a member and I look forward to similar events. There have been others that I have not attended because they seemed too specialised for me, but this one was too important to miss. Thank you Stefanie Fischer and the CTA organisers for a valuable insight into the wave of new and ‘returning’ cinemas in our high streets.

5 comments

  1. keith1942

    Interesting Roy but there seems to have been a lack of information about technical provision and standards. I may be part of a small minority but I believe there is a constituency that is concerned about the standard of projection and format. In all these presentations on various ‘cinemas’, including ‘pop-up’, there is an assumption that ‘film’ means any of the photo-chemical or digital formats; a view I do not share.

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    • Roy Stafford

      These new neighbourhood cinemas are primarily digital. As indicated in the posting, the switch to digital distribution and projection is one of the main factors in the success of the cinemas in screening a range of films and ‘live’ broadcasts. If you want to know about the projector standards, this information is often on the cinema website. Some of them have 4k projection facilities. These are not ‘specialised cinemas’ catering to cinephile audiences, but local cinemas attracting as many of the local community as possible, so their main concern is getting a good quality digital print onto their screens efficiently and to the highest standard. Because of possible space restrictions many of them will install ‘floating’ screens, so no tabs unfortunately. But the examples of cinemas on which Stefanie Fischer has worked all have very high standards of projection and cinema design features. They are not ‘pop-ups’. Depot Cinema at Lewes is a good example and you can see the facilities listed on the website here.

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  2. keith1942

    I checked out ‘The Depot’. It would seem from their programme that ‘cinephiles’ are part of their audience; something that would apply in most cases. And I do not think the standards of presentation are just a cinephile issue.
    Roy notes the problem with lack of masking; 2K digital does not have the colour range of photo-chemical film so we get grey/black. A friend tells me that the new laser digital projectors have deep black in the surrounds.
    There is also the question of seating. I assume that ‘The Chapel’ in Halifax is an example that Roy writes about; their seating is a movable tier not anchored at the lower end and suffers from vibration and noise; something I think is likely to be common in multi-purpose auditorium.
    And even if these cinemas have proper theatrical digital the source material is not always of that standard. And there is a problem with a lack of skilled projectionist. Various operations are required to screen digital; including taking into account the source, the screen, focal length and so on. Apparently ‘The Chapel’ uses a computerized system so there is not actually someone there at a screening. If something is wrong who do you tell.
    My original point was the lack of technical information; this may have been supplied in the talk but is not apparent. And one of the problems in the modern industry is the lack of technical information. The Distributors Association listings do not even record if a package is 2K or 4K. New local cinemas are great; I agree there with Roy. But they can only work within the standards set by the industry.
    Salutary reading on the process of digitization is David Bordwell’s ‘Pandora’s Box’; it came out in 2011 and thing shave moved on, but much of this record and comment is still relevant.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I appreciate that your interest is in cinemas that can project film and that we are lucky in West Yorkshire in that there are still venues capable of doing this. I tried in my posting to be clear about the concerns at the centre of Stefanie Fischer’s presentation. It is, of course, difficult to make definitive classifications of cinemas and there will be overlaps, so Depot at Lewes is possibly both a neighbourhood cinema and a specialised cinema. But to be clear, the focus in the talk was on local cinemas with a commercial operation but also with a commitment to be a form of community hub and part of the regeneration of small town centres or local district centres in larger conurbations. These are all cinemas with full modern cinema technologies meeting current industry standards. Square Chapel in Halifax fulfils some of the criteria, but as a multi-arts venue it doesn’t meet the same requirements for seating and other cinema elements. In most cases cinema designers and cinema managements must balance many factors and the flexibility of seating and auditorium design at Square Chapel is a priority. Similarly the possibility of projectionists with training and experience of a range of film formats, i.e. celluloid film and current digital standards, is a luxury that only a few specialised cinemas can afford. The cinemas used as examples in Stefanie Fischer’s presentation, as she pointed out, have been able to be successful because of the switch to digital. Because most of the examples discussed are in the South of England I cannot vouch for the experience of watching a film in them, but there is an analysis (mainly architectural) of Lewes Depot (no definite article I now realise) in Picture House Magazine of the CTA No 42, 2017. There is also an article about the Campbeltown Picture House (which I did visit in 2019) in Picture House No 43, 2018.. An important aspect of these cinemas that was discussed by Stefanie Fischer was the possibility of removing the need for a separate projection box. The Cinematograph Act of 1909 requires projectors to separated from the audience by fireproof barriers. I remember that the earliest digital projectors at the National Media Museum did produce a great deal of heat that required extra ventilation. New projectors no longer have this disadvantage and can be housed in the auditorium in ‘projector pods’. This is a new interpretation of the Act.

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  3. keith1942

    I appreciate Roy expanding his report. However, it does not satisfy any of my concerns. As a point, I enjoy watching both film and digital formats but I prefer to view them in their originating format. And my problems with screenings apply to both sets.
    Judging by Roy’s comments these venues are not actually cinemas since they do not require the agreed technical standards. i can see that they will be superior to what are termed ‘pop-up cinemas’. I would think an accurate description would be multi-media centres including moving image facilities.
    My recurring complaint is that in many walks of commerce we are provided with more detailed information; in the cinema industry we seem to suffer the opposite. The current Leeds Film festival provides less information about venues and titles than earlier ones.
    It may make me a cinephile but I liked to check out venues and titles beforehand so I know what i am paying for. I should add that i have walked out of both film and digital screenings because of frustration over the poor quality.

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