Over the next hour or so, it is talk of the environment that will fill most of the conversation. Not, of course, the kind discussed in conferences about climate change, but the significance of that found within cinema.
As Venue sits with marketing manager Sam Leonard, the kind of environment inhabiting the walls around us is endearing, eclectic and open-minded.
This is a place that refuses to call its fellow cinemas “competitors” (“You need a mainstream to have an alternative … We need each other.”), and embraces the future of film as much as it celebrates the past. This is Cinema City, Norwich’s only “semi-independent” cinema.
The scene for our interview is quaint. It takes place in a room with old wooden floors, arched doorways and elegant dining furniture. The entire building’s aesthetic is much the same, visibly documenting its rich history (built in 1820, it was once known as Suckling House; in a previous life it was a buttery). “People walk by and don’t know we’re a cinema”, Leonard jokes. True, it might not be great for business, but it’s part of the understated charm.
To undermine the antique bliss that goes before, a noisy maintenance worker halts all the wide-eyed infatuation. Consequently, for those students who may encounter builders at 7am in the morning, it’s nothing old buttery doors can’t fix. Said door gets closed. Peace returns. We begin:
Venue: Firstly, there’s a perception that Cinema City is an independent cinema. Is this the case? Because I know it’s owned by a larger company (Picturehouse), so do we class it as an independent cinema or is it something else?
Cinema City: It’s tricky, really. Independent film is like independent music, where bigger labels own smaller labels. Picturehouse aren’t that big a company. They run a few cinemas. The thing they do is pick up failing cinemas, because it’s very difficult for independent cinemas to survive in the current climate, in any climate really.
One of the reasons for that is people that work in independent cinema aren’t interested in money at all, even to the point where they lose money constantly and eventually go out of business. The ethos can be there but they’ll shut down. The thing Picturehouse do is save cinemas from going under and then turn them into, not necessarily faceless cinemas, but profitable ones, while keeping the ethos of independence.
That’s what we do at Cinema City; we have to tow the line between showing a film that three people want to see – but that is really important to those three people – and perhaps a film that isn’t traditional independent cinema, but one that we definitely see the quality in. Films like that help to pay for the films that nobody wants to see.
V: Can you explain the importance of the role that Cinema City plays as an exhibitor in the film chain?
CC: Cinemas like us have about 10% of the market. A good way to look at it is to look at Christopher Nolan, who is now making enormous films with massive budgets that still have an artistic merit to them – though he is now a huge, huge director. His first films, however, something like Memento, wouldn’t really have been shown in a multiplex. They wouldn’t have picked it up and they wouldn’t have seen the worth in it. It wouldn’t have been worth their time and money to exhibit a film like that.
Where Cinema City and places like that come in, well, we would show Memento and similar films of that size, and we work with distributors who will work with films of that size, because we know there are people out there who want to see films like that. So those kinds of films help directors of that size, and studios of that size, and distributors of that size to grow into where they want to be. I think that’s the importance of Cinema City.
The other is to provide an alternative. That’s what we are: we are an alternative to the mainstream. You need a mainstream to have an alternative; you need an alternative to have a mainstream. We need each other.
V: So how are deals with distributors made? How long do you get to keep a film for?
CC: It varies depending on the distributor and the film – and everything! It’s very complicated. We have a programmer who speaks to the distributors. Like I said, we usually deal with small distribution companies to medium sized ones. People like Soda Pictures, Revolver, Canal+, they’re the kind of people that would run small to medium sized films.
Financially, there’s usually a [percentage] split on the tickets. If you’re dealing with a big distributor that’s got a big film they will be quite demanding of you. They’ll say: “We want you to show it for four weeks, and four times a day”, and you get 20% of the profit of that, which they’re entitled to do if they know they’ve got a big hit on their hands. So we have to work out: a) if it’s a film we really want to show and b) whether it’s going to be worth us showing it.
We have three screens, so we have a massive juggling act here, of trying to get and keep films in, and of trying to get a balance between a big film that might make us some money to keep us healthy and a film that is important to what we’re about, that might not make us any money.
So the distributor thing is something that is a constant negotiation, but it can also be an important partnership because small distributors need us – and we need them. We need to be working together with them. It can’t be a war. It has to be a partnership.
V: Often with art house cinemas there is a dogma attached to their philosophy, an unwillingness to show popcorn films that could make the cinema money. Yet, what we like most about Cinema City, and what we see as distinguishing it from other cinemas of its kind, is an understanding of film as both an art form and a business. Would you agree with that mantra?
CC: Yeah … we have passionate staff who care about what we show. We know that because they’re constantly complaining about it. Rightly so, because if they didn’t complain we wouldn’t have that drive to show great films.
We have massively passionate customers as well. When people come and see a good film here, they tell us about it, they tell their friends about it, and that’s it: we have a really passionate audience and interested staff, who aren’t drones.
The one thing we try and do is provide a good environment for watching film because that’s a massive part of it. You can’t just throw people in there and expect them to have a good time, so we provide an environment that’s a bit more grown up. We don’t get a lot of teenagers here.
V: It’s interesting that you’re talking in terms of a target audience, but is accessibility important too?
CC: Yeah, but as long as we don’t lose what we’re about. There’s a real risk sometimes of trying to go too far and trying to reach too big an audience, and then you lose what you’re about.
The thing about blockbusters is we pick the ones that are good – and we’re really happy to put them on. Our customers are happy to come and see them with us because of the environment that we have. I think people know that if they do come and see Prometheus with us, then that kind of helps to fund a film that no one else will dare show that we might show.
V: You can kind of read into a sense of community that’s found here as well. You’ve got the bar, autism friendly screenings, and a Twitter account! It makes you feel accessible. So how important is all this to the cinema: this sense of community?
CC: That’s the good stuff really. That’s what sets us apart from other cinemas: we engage with the community, we deal with a lot of local businesses and local groups.
We’re trying our best to make cinema accessible, because that’s exactly what it is. The educational department deals with local schools. So those are the things that make me happy to be involved in this because I think that it’s great stuff! That’s what companies should be doing. It shows that we care about film, and we care about people being able to watch film.
V: How do you see Cinema City as setting itself apart from its competitors?
CC: We don’t really have competitors …
V: So you don’t see Odeon or Vue or any other big multiplex–
CC: They don’t see us as competitors and we have a very small amount of the market. They’ve got their thing and we’ve got our thing. We’re the alternative; we do different things to Odeon. I mean, I would love to go to Odeon. They have Imax! We could never do Imax here. But Odeon can’t do some of the things that we can do, like small Q&As for films about ping pong!
V: For cinemas in general, it’s a really interesting and testing time. How’s this cinema dealt with changes in technology and the rise of digital filmmaking?
CC: Well, we’re fully digital.
V: So, no 35mm?
CC: We do 35mm, probably more than Odeon and Vue, who I think have just gone completely digital because they don’t show old film. When we actually show seasons of films, genres, and things like that, then we’ll do 35mm. We still need the 35mm facilities, for how much longer I don’t know.
V: Do you think it will get to a point where you will get rid of the facilities?
CC: It could happen, definitely. But you never know. People said that vinyl would go. People said that when TV was invented that radio wouldn’t exist anymore. So, you can’t tell what audiences want, and you can’t tell audiences what they will want. People will choose and we can’t do anything about it. We just have to give [them] what they want. I’m not too nostalgic about it because I think digital looks great. If it looks good, that’s the way it is. Otherwise we’ll be watching films on flicker books.
V: What about combating home viewing and piracy? Because both of those are threats as well, facing all forms of cinema.
CC: Definitely. When I was at university, torrenting was massive. I didn’t go to the cinema because I watched everything on torrents. But because I didn’t know about independent cinema I didn’t know the consequences of that, and there certainly are consequences. It can cause people to lose their jobs.
What we have to do is offer people a quality environment. You just want to give people a good experience, and that’s all we can do. You can’t scare people into not downloading films. People aren’t going to knock down your door and you’re not going to get prosecuted, most of the time. All we can do is offer them something good and hope that they take it up. If they don’t then it’s a shame because cinemas like us won’t exist, which is a horrible thought.
Personally, I’m not worried about home piracy affecting us, it’s more the multiplexes that should fear it, because we have a very dedicated audience that come here for a specific reason. The other thing is that we don’t show films that you can get on a torrent site.
V: That’s a good way of beating the piracy.
CC: A documentary about ping-pong isn’t on PirateBay, y’know.
V: And then there’s home viewing, which is kind of a different beast. You can buy big screens now, surround sound. Again, how do you combat that?
CC: Yeah, I’m a bit more scared of that [laughs]. I think a big thing is event cinema. People like Secret Cinema in London do really great escape cinema, where you’re buying an experience. You can watch a film at home if you want but there’s a great thing in shared experience. I like the experience of being in a dark room, with a big screen, good sound, a nice seat and a glass of beer.
V: So, Norwich itself: how do you see Norwich as a place for film? How do you rate it?
CC: One of the great things about being in Norwich is that we’re the only cinema in Norfolk, of our kind and our size and our quality. So, people will travel to Norwich. Sometimes it’s good to be the only place to come and see these kinds of things, because we get all of that focus.
Norwich is a great place. It’s full of people who think differently. UEA and NUCA are definitely responsible for rich filmmaking. We have good links with UEA and NUCA and we see a lot of stuff that comes out of them. We see the quality in stuff that comes out of education and institutions in Norwich, it is the kind of place where you can do that, because you’re not stifled by big city mentality. That means you can have time to create.
V: Finally, there are lots of new students coming here in September, what can you offer them?
CC: If you are a new student you get a free membership to Cinema City, which is worth £26. You become a member of the cinema, you get a free ticket, you get a free drink, you get free popcorn, then after you pay £4.50 for a ticket, which is the cheapest in town.
You can see the most interesting films in Norwich for the cheapest price, and I would’ve killed for that in my first year at university. We also have slacker’s club – every month a free preview of a new film. Even if you don’t buy a ticket from us, you get to see a free film, and that’s a really cool thing.
We’d like to think you wouldn’t go back to other cinemas because you like what we do. We care about what we do and we think it’s pretty good.You’ve got so much free stuff; take the free stuff!