For a little while in the middle of the last decade, I was proud to be able to call myself part of the smallest show on earth. The claim was an official one, backed by a Guinness World Records certificate in the foyer: World’s Smallest Commercial Cinema — The Screen Room, Broad Street, Nottingham; 22 seats. I looked after the ticket desk on Sunday nights in exchange for filter coffee, any carrot cake left when the best-before date arrived, and a chance to sneak into seat 22 once the advertising agency had phoned. It was always the same call, a bored voice that said ‘How many?’, meaning ‘How many people are watching our stuff right now?’ The largest number I ever had to report was eight. They would hang up without comment.
At the time, the Screen Room felt like a microcosm of the cinema business: charming, old-fashioned, rackety, eccentric and almost certainly doomed. Cinemas, we all knew, had been dying ever since television came in, and were now dying faster thanks to videos and DVDs and satellite telly and, newly and excitingly, torrenting off the internet. By the time George Lucas had finished forcing every cinema to buy vastly expensive digital protectors, only soulless out-of-town multiplexes would be left.
Well, the digital revolution has happened — by last year, according to the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association, 95 per cent of Britain’s cinema screens were digital — but the results were not at all as I expected. New cinemas are opening, and not just out-of-town Death Stars but pleasant places to be, in locations you can walk to.
Curzon’s new branch in Victoria Street, London, for example, is so slinkily done out that its foyer could be mistaken for a cocktail bar. (The design is by Afroditi Krassa, who has also done restaurant interiors for Heston Blumenthal, furniture for Ligne Roset — and a cheesecake tub for Pret.) It’s a striking demonstration of faith in cinemas as places from a company that will also now stream new independent films to your home. And with ‘Pullman’ screens hiding behind that bar (that means fewer, bigger seats with more legroom), it reflects a trend among savvy cinema owners to offer a little extra luxury for a price. The most extreme example among the standard chains is probably the Odeon at Whiteleys shopping centre in Bayswater, where in the ‘lounge’ screens, food by Rowley Leigh of Café Anglais fame is brought to your adjustable leather seat. (Tanya Gold visited for The Spectator and pronounced the food ‘pleasing’, though she was less keen on the film.)
Digital cinema has enabled live relays from theatres, opera houses and exhibitions, giving movie houses something new and unique to sell, and me the malicious pleasure of hearing the critic Mark Kermode, in his weekly rundown of the box office top ten for Radio 5 Live, suddenly called upon to consider the merits of the New York Met’s production of Un Ballo in Maschera. Robust and relatively portable digital projectors have also helped create a flowering of unconventional and pop-up cinemas. In Shoreditch, you now have the option of watching your movie on the rooftop of a trendy pub (rooftopfilmclub.com — they’re also in Stratford, Kensington and Peckham, where the view north is particularly nice) or in a hot tub at a former railway station (hottubcinema.com — they showed Hot Tub Time Machine the other week).
Or, if you can get in — the tickets sell out rapidly at north of £50 — there is Secret Cinema, which creates ‘immersive’ worlds, complete with actors and elaborate set-dressing, in appropriate locations for classic movies: La Haine at Broadwater Farm estate; The Shawshank Redemption at a Hackney school transformed for the occasion into a prison. This spring they did The Grand Budapest Hotel, and next month they’re promising to recreate Back to the Future’s Hill Valley. The world can on occasion crowd out the film: a friend claims to have enjoyed their version of The Red Shoes, but left before the opening titles.
The most admirable users of a digital projector, however, may be the self-explanatorily named Free Film Festivals, a volunteer-run group who put on movies in imaginative locations in a lengthening series of London districts. They once managed to show Delicatessen in a delicatessen, an achievement that even Secret Cinema might smile at. For the past two years, they’ve arranged silent film screenings on Peckham Rye with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. It’s an intoxicating mixture of the new — the crowd settling as an unseen hand shuffles through an onscreen menu — and the very old: a screen flickering in a park at dusk, around the corner from where the travelling funfair sets up. If this is what a digital revolution looks like, it’s nothing to be scared of.
TRY THIS AT HOME
Some accessories for your personal movie house
SILVER SERIES SPEAKERS
Slender design and spectacular sound from Monitor Audio’s latest top-of-the-range speaker. Sound worthy of a multiplex will boom through your living room.
BEOVISION AVANT TELEVISION
Bang & Olufsen’s swanky new TV features a 4K high-definition screen, remote-controlled stand options and an incredible three-channel speaker system.
Google’s answer to Apple TV. For just £30, this little gadget plugs into the back of your set, giving you a wealth of films, box sets and catch-up services to plough through.
3D films continue to be churned out by the Hollywood machine and, if in-your-face action is your bag, splashing out on 3D projector could might be a wise suggestion. You won’t go far wrong with this piece of BenQ kit.
GILES AND POSNER POPCORN MAKER
This machine uses hot air instead of oil to prepare you popcorn for a fast and healthy way of bringing the cinema experience to your home.