In its previous incarnations the room above the Spar in Clapton, Hackney, was a bingo hall, a shoe factory and a snooker hall. But in February this year the space in the east London art deco building returned to its original glory as a cinema.
The rebirth was thanks to film fans Asher Charman and Danielle Swift. They threw their energy into a Kickstarter campaign to revive the old single-screen Castle Electric Theatre, which had closed its curtains in 1958 after a 45-year run.
Charman and Swift never envisaged becoming full-time cinema owners. The couple organise pop-up film nights, Hot Tub Cinema and Pillow Cinema, across the capital and were looking for a venue for an event when they stumbled upon the empty space in Clapton. But they were so bowled over by the building it made them reassess their plans. “It was one of the earliest cinemas ever built and it just compelled us,” says Charman. “It was a beautiful space with a curved ceiling and original features of the cinema. It became apparent that here was an opportunity to create a long-term vision.”
With £57,000 raised, one year later the historic Castle Cinema drew back its curtains once again, and screened La La Land on opening night. Charman also injected £10,000 of his own funds into the venture, but success relied on the Kickstarter campaign. “Crowdfunding was essential in sourcing money, but more than money it was a powerful way of gauging interest,” he says. “It meant that when the doors opened, we already had up to 600 loyal members.”
Cinema entrepreneur Tony Mudin is the former owner of a packaging company. His connection to film is through his wife who has held several roles in the industry, most recently as a scriptwriter. Mudin restored The Ritz cinema in Belpar, Derbyshire, in 2006 and The Regal in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, in 2013. Then a third presented itself in Heaton Moor, a suburb of Stockport.
“We were looking for cinemas to reopen and somebody mentioned The Savoy in the local town and we thought it could be something we’d be interested in,” says Mudin, chief executive of the parent company behind the trio of cinemas. “Local residents were trying to rescue it and turn it into an arts centre, but they needed funding and were busy professionals. We ended up reverting it to our luxury experience format, and changed the seat capacity to 180 (it was previously 460), putting in sofas and a full bar.” It opened in October 2015.
Now the business is a family affair, with Mudin’s middle son and daughter in law running The Regal and his youngest son and other daugher in law running The Savoy. “We enjoy the industry and it’s great to save these buildings. If opportunities present themselves, we will look at them,” he says. “It makes people happy and we want to be part of it.”
Film and television streaming services are on the rise with nearly seven in 10 Britons reporting that their household subscribes to watch live broadcast or on-demand programming. But film fans are still devoted to the cinema experience. At the end of 2015 there were 4,046 cinema screens, 137 more than 2014, according to the British Film Institute (BFI).
Indie cinemas account for around 350 screens. “Independent cinemas are having a good run at the moment,” says Ben Luxford, head of UK-wide audiences at the BFI. “If you look back at recent titles such as Moonlight, La La Land, Lion, Elle and Viceroy’s House [arthouse films that tend to be shown at independent cinemas] – all have delivered exceptionally well at the box office.”
Mudin believes indie cinemas aren’t in competition with online streaming. “People have a fridge of food but still go to restaurants,” he says. “[In the same vein] even if they are watching [movies] on Sky or Netflix, they are still maintaining an interest in films and we play a part in that interest. Our mission is to provide a luxurious and enjoyable experience.”
But the battle for customers means indie cinemas tend to be more than just a screen. They need to build an enticing experience into their business plan. Today’s cinema venues, Luxford says, are often also restaurants, cafes or bars, or offer space for wider cultural activities such as art exhibitions.
Many also have a strong role to play in the local community. “For people attending indies, there’s a sense of supporting the local business,” says Charman. Rebecca Turner is one film fan won over by her local independent. She visits The Island in Lytham Saint Annes, Lancashire, with her husband nearly every week. “We love the fact it’s not a big chain,” she says. “It feels like we’re supporting local enterprise, and it’s cheaper than going to the big chains nearby.”
Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, is hopeful that indie cinemas can continue to pull in the crowds. “There’s no reason not to remain optimistic as signs show that people will continue to respond to an immersive, and increasingly personalised, out-of-home experience,” he says.
The organisation estimates that the UK could see about 100 new cinema sites in the next five years, with a good proportion being independents.
After successfully restoring a local screen, what tips can Charman share with other budding cinema saviours? “It’s important to try and play content that appeals to a broad audience. Try and capture something for everyone.”
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