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35 years of Cinema City – interview

Norwich’s Cinema City will be celebrating 35 years of film exhibition on 29 April 2013. Venue popped by to speak to General Manager Jack Thompson to ask how it feels to be getting old, what it means to the staff, and whether they will be partying in style…

Venue: Firstly, I’m sure we’re just one of many to say: congratulations on your 35th anniversary as a cinema. That must feel pretty good to hear? Are you planning any parties?

Jack Thompson: Thank you! We’ve got a whole weekend of special events from the 26 – 28 April. We’re celebrating 35 years with some great films; on 35mm for only £3.50 – can you see a pattern emerging?

Skyfall - Sony PicturesBig names titles like Skyfall bring new visitors to Cinema City. Photo: press image.

V: What does it mean to your staff, and the cinema as a whole, to be 35 years old?

JT: It means a lot. We’re really happy to have played a part in Norwich’s cultural landscape. So many people have worked incredibly hard to make the cinema what it is. We’re extremely grateful.

V: What have been some of the best moments in the cinema’s history? Any personal favourites?

JT: The biggest moment for Cinema City has to be the £3.5 million refurbishment from a single screen to a fully equipped digital three-screen cinema, completed in late 2007. We had Geoffrey Rush here to re-open the building with the premiere of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. There was lots of press and a satellite link-up to the other Picturehouse sites, which made it a very special, memorable evening.

More recently, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan introduced a sold out screening of “cult classic” The Room, which was a pretty wild way to launch our new series of Friday Late screenings. We were also delighted to announce John Hurt as the Patron of Cinema City and Cinema Plus, an amazing endorsement for the services we provide and the work that Cinema Plus does within film education.

We’ve had great success in terms of admissions with films such as The Kings Speech, The Artist, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Skyfall but it’s the mix of films here that makes this place special. It’s essential that we screen the smaller, indie and foreign language titles that otherwise would not be given space on the big screen here in Norwich. The box office returns for the big titles help us to take that risk.

The big titles also bring a new audience through our doors. It’s always gratifying to see an audience attend a film they may not have been aware of had they not visited. Our Picturehouse Docs, Sunday Classics, Kids Club, Autism Friendly and Big Scream screenings have all benefited from a larger audience each year as a result.

V: How much of the cinema’s success can be attributed to its parent company, Picturehouse? What impact have they had? Are they making note of the celebration?

JT: Picturehouse Cinemas have been incredibly supportive and play a massive role in the Cinema City you see today. They have as much to celebrate as anyone. Picturehouse Cinemas understand the role a cinema plays within its community. Over the last 25 years they have perfected the art of mixed programming whilst being sympathetic to each sites individuality, as can be seen at Cinema City week in, week out.

V: It’s been 35 years of 35mm. The last time we spoke (September 2012) you were unsure of how much longer the 35mm facilities would be needed. Is this uncertainty still the case?

JT: Well we’re celebrating 35 years by looking back to 1978, when 35mm was the main format. We’re sure it will continue to be loved and used for special occasions but the vast majority of films screened in most cinemas these days are digital. 35mm, as a new release format, has its days numbered and it would be surprising if any films were released on 35mm by the end of 2013. While its easy to be nostalgic about 35mm it had many flaws and digital can provide a much more consistent level of quality and performance.

V: What do you attribute to Cinema City’s longevity?

JT: We have extremely loyal customers and passionate staff. We all love film and are dedicated to sharing the very best of it. Our customers are our best ambassadors. They watch a film, have a drink in the bar, perhaps a meal in the restaurant and always renew their membership. They are fiercely protective of Cinema City and love the building and the atmosphere.

V: If, in 2013, you were to start running a cinema, what characteristics would you need to survive 35 years in today’s climate?

JT: You need to love film and listen to your customers…and a good coffee machine! Oh and offer students free films once a month and give them free memberships.

V: Can you see the cinema existing for another 35 years, if not more?

JT: Most certainly, we hope to be here for a long time to come! We’re committed to showing a varied and interesting mix of content and as long as people want to watch films and fall in love with cinema, we’ll be here!

V: How would you assess the state of the cinema now from when it opened 35 years ago? How have things changed?

JT: Well we’ve gone from one screen to three; we have over 10,000 members and rising. The emergence of social media has made Cinema City much more interactive with our audience. We’re a place for all generations from babies at Big Scream to 60+ at Silver Screen. We’re the place to experience film for the first time and to re-watch old favourites.

Our formats have changed through the years and the technology has advanced to make film a much more clear and immersive experience – not to mention the live screenings of theatre, concerts, comedy and exhibitions, which has opened up our screens to content that just didn’t exist even 10 years ago.

With our bar, bar events and restaurant we’ve become a complete night out with people often spending many hours here at a time. That’s surely where cinema ought to be now: more than just a film experience, though an experience with film at its heart!

V: And finally, describe Cinema City’s legacy in one word.

JT: Spiky!

…You’ll need to see the Alan Partridge Cinema City birthday message to understand that choice.


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