Thursday, February 25News For London

London’s independent cinemas: building revolution

It’s Saturday evening in Central London. It’s cold outside, and a young student couple fancies a good movie. Their decision will reveal how the cinema business in the capital has evolved to a new paradigm of both management and consumption.

It’s mid-March and all the Oscar-award winning films are on screen. She wants to see La la land, but he has already seen it, so it’s going to be Moonlight. They check the screenings on their smartphones. The closest venue is the Curzon in Bloomsbury. 13 pounds. Too much for their short budget. Another option: the Vue in Islington. 11 pounds. Still too expensive. They live in East London, so what about the Hackney Picturehouse? 11,5 pounds, no way. He is about to quit. Wait, she says, let’s check the Genesis in Whitechapel. Look, 7 pounds. Deal. Once inside, they see the week price schedule. On Mondays and Wednesdays is just 4,5 pounds. From now on, the Genesis is going to be their second home.

Independent tickets can be up to £4 cheaper than franchises for students (£11.5 v £7.6 on average) and £3 for adults (£13,6 v £10,5 on average). Figures from London cinemas websites. © Marc Farràs

This daily scene is just a common example of the differences between franchises and independent cinemas in London. The digital revolution has changed the way people consume cinema, and the capital, with its 24/7 leisure policy, is leading the transformation.

Since the outbreak of home streaming, piracy and the financial crisis, the business has had to adapt to a new scenario. As the big franchises –Odeon, Curzon, Vue, Picturehouse- have increased the prices and have invested in bigger screens, comfortable seats, food&drinking menus and a whole family&shopping activity, their younger brothers, independent cinemas, have been forced to shape a new cinema experience to seduce the public.

Funding: mission possible?

Community-based, volunteer-run Deptford Cinema has been operating for a couple of years in Lewisham, south-east London. According to Director Philip Dale, the funding is their greatest concern: “we rely on donations, ticket sales and, best of all, the bar, so the license is crucial. We also do life-drawing, private hire and concerts. In order to survive, economically, the place has to diversify”.

Shira Macleod, Director of historic Regent Street Cinema, the first theatre in the UK, agrees that alternative ways of funding are essential not only to survive but also to keep an ambitious, high-profile curation of films: “We do commercial events in the day, hire the cinema for film locations and photoshoots, any way you can to make money in order to screen Tarkovsky at night”.

Roger K. Burton founded and manages the Horse Hospital Cinema in Russell Square. These extraordinary stables were transformed 23 years ago into a unique arts venue. However, they have always stood alone: “funding is a battle. I have a business which rents costumes to film and TV, and that pays a rent on the building, as well as through people’s generosity.”

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Engagement: Make people an offer they can’t refuse

Most of independent venues in London have pretty small screens, with around 40 seats, old projectors and sound problems. So, in order for them to survive they try to engage with the local community with special programs and extra activities.

Macleod tries to take advantage of London’s diversity: “we show a lot of foreign films and festivals, we support a lot of communities around the city and work with different countries. I try to embrace the multinational make up of London.”

Freedom and flexibility are also key. According to Burton, “we don’t have a board of directors to satisfy. Although we program a lot in advance, we always leave gaps and spaces in case someone comes along with an idea and fit them it quickly. And that gives us an advantage because others places have to stick to their schedule and they have a certain budget. Having no budget is really a bonus.”

Being distinctive is crucial to attract new audiences. Sometimes old-fashioned places like Deptford Cinema bring young and old people together. “It looks funky, alternative, a little bit hippy, but it draws in lots of different people. They come initially to see a particular film or to a particular event, and they get caught up in the cosiness and the nobility of it. There’s something magic and unique about this space. So they come back, and sometimes they even get involved,” says Dale. From a social perspective, cinema has helped to strengthen the ties within the community. “Stuff of a political nature bring all kinds of activists of all ages. I have met friends from all over the world. We’re a collective with open doors. We’re the opposite of exclusive”.

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The Horse Hospital Cinema also has a specific relationship with the public. Assistant Manager Sholto Dobei explains that “we have a very mixed audience, many different groups of people, probably more mixed that any other places in London because this is part of our identity. We have a very individual reputation, so people don’t often know what to expect when they come here.”

Competition: Dances with wolves

Who do these cinemas compete with? For Macleod, “the British Film Institute in Southbank has an amazing programming, a very loyal audience and more money to do things. Plus, Prince Charles Cinema does more cult films and also double bills. Then lots of people are going to the chains now because of the environment and luxury, whereas for me cinema is about the films.”

Dale has a more romantic approach: “We show a more diverse and interesting collection of films which don’t necessarily get shown at big franchises. And of course looking at the history of cinema, which not even television takes much care of nowadays. We have actually no competition around here because we do something special.”

The Horse Hospital claims to be ‘the only independent cinema of its type in the UK’. Dobei argues that “It exists without any institutional funding, so it’s operated without any official framework – I find it hard to think of any other venue in London which is able to exist like that. Secondly, we put on stuff here that couldn’t be shown in a commercial framework as institutions wouldn’t necessarily be aware of or interested in. We usually discover things that haven’t been seen or shown before”.

We will always have London

The current situation shows an uncertain future for independent cinemas in London. Despite doing their best to offer an attractive, personally-curated program, they are still struggling to engage with new audiences in order to keep the business safe. Overall, financial stability remains a pipe-dream for most of them. Cinema might still be the land of hope and dreams for a few heroes, but in the end it has always been a business – a very hard one.

*All the pictures, videos, audios and other multimedia material have been originally produced and edited by Marc Farràs