Ipswich Film Theatre
An arts cinema for Suffolk
Ipswich Film Theatre
These thoughts were from Feb 2010
I am saddened to hear that Hollywood Film Theatre at Ipswich has closed last week.
I have long felt that Ipswich does not have the right kind of arts cinema and that this lets Suffolk down. I hope this unhappy event opens the way for what the county needs - and here's my thoughts on how and what.
I was disappointed in HFT's programming and felt that the film theatre part of its title was hardly justified. I understand that Ipswich Borough Council had sold off the film theatre in 2007 to a local chain who would continue to show arts film and be a home for the town's film society. I also heard I wasn't the only person feeling that this hadn't been fulfilled.
But in more recent months, I saw an improvement to the programming. Perhaps slightly behind release date, more arts titles were being programmed. There was an attempt to feel artier - brochures from other arts cinemas were made available and they tried to make more of the café area.
Yet the programming - and cheap prices - were fighting against more physical matters. What might have felt right when the council first made the film theatre now is outdated. Let me qualify that I love the old fashioned feel, and the Hollywood chain does retain the cinema going of years gone by, like pubs that refuse to install sofas instead of stools and put up flocked wallpaper and change their logo to a lower case one to be in vogue.
But there's a line between shabbily and charmingly old fashioned - Ipswich Film Theatre has long walked it. That the auditoria are below ground has symbolic significance - they feel an afterthought, beneath the large Victorian room which was once the Corn Exchange. Now beautifully cleared and restored outside, the building inside has been empty for a time; this major entertainment venue for the area has been silent. This silence cannot have helped Hollywood. Instead of a bustling foyer with cinema goers and those seeing comedy, music, dance above - there are only Hollywood patrons.
I wonder if Hollywood found themselves confined by being contracted to run a cinema within someone else's building. Were they allowed to change the bar and box office, or alter seats? The latter need tiering as visibility is poor.
The bar is the vital and missing ingredient. The current one has no daylight, with 1960/70s ceiling squares that look as if you could punch through them. There's nothing here to encourage using it - it's cafeteria-like, and feels like Ipswich is rather behind. And the building isn’t open much.
The arts chain City Screen understood that cafebars are essential to arts cinemas. Having one open to non patrons all day and evening means that people use your building all the time. It means that film isn’t the only thing they come for - they can extend their visit for coffees, snacks and a post film discussion in a different atmosphere to a pub or style bar. Arts cinema cafes are - or should be - a different breed to sports watching, hen and stag party venues, and more informal than a restaurant. They often provide something that is rare or unique in a city and I'm not aware that Ipswich has such a place yet.
As a case study, let us look about 50 miles north to Norwich, one of two full time arthouse cinemas in East Anglia, whose fortunes I have followed for 15 years. It too used to have the feel of Ipswich's former incarnation, and it was much loved. Then in 2003, the manager claimed he would need to extend and renovate to survive, closing the café that was the major part of Cinema City's success. I joined Take 5 café's campaign and began to wonder what wasn't being said, for there were clearly issues that weren't being spoken in public. Take 5 eventually parted with the cinema and reopened in a new venue. I felt it was the buildings which made the café special - a medieval hall, open to the roof with a vast bay window over looking a courtyard. The atmosphere was also part of that - a timeless arty trendy, not the transient kind - relaxed and without pretence. But I could see room for improvement and wondered if someone else could successfully fill the timbers of Suckling Hall.
When I first went back to Norwich in late 2007 (having lived away from the area) I approached the newly reopened the cinema with trepidation, because it had been such a special favourite. How would I feel about what I found?
I knew it was three years behind schedule and had cost quite a bit more (this wasn't criticised by the press like Scotland's Parliament) whilst arts cinema lovers had a reduced programme in a nearby theatre. I wondered that Cinema City hadn't lost most of its patrons by then. Now part of the Picturehouse London based chain, prices went up. The changing art on the café's walls has gone and the distinctive bar, once adorned with African heads - is now light woods and chrome. The former veggie friendly affordable menu is now overpriced bar snacks and a formal dining experience in the former vaulted kitchens. At night, the lights are turned too low to see and several tables have been removed so there is less space to sit. Glass has incongruously appeared over the courtyard and on top of the cinema. The auditorium - a 1920s lecture hall with a gallery - was ripped up and made into three. Two screens are really quite small.
I have spoken to many people who knew the cinema in both incarnations, and I have met with much disappointment. Take 5's campaign had said that the plans seemed to make Cinema City into "a miniplex with a snack bar". Have they?
Independent cinema is often paranoid about multiplexes, but it is irrational. Arts cinema audiences are more inclined to come to the cinema than the multiplex crowd. If a Cineworld closes, how many mailbags to MPs and newspapers would be filled with upset patrons? But if an arts or repertory cinema closes, campaigns are mounted. The multiplexes I know have changed hands at least 3 times in ten years and also suffer with dying custom.
I wrote a piece on Hubpages: 'Killing the Cinema Industry' - which states that poor public behaviour is the biggest threat to cinemas - not DVD, the net or the recession. I suspect that many multiplex goers are happy to wait for DVDs to come out, or they have a Sky/Virgin movies type package. But arts cinema people will come to the cinema more.
Yet what Cinema City did was to concentrate on the borderline audience who go to multiplexes as well, and is keen to gain their sole patronage. But we want choice. If I live in a city with nearly 30 screens across 4 cinemas, I want to use them all. I want variation, and to use it. Business that is built on fear of rivals is unhealthy and I think that's the mentality behind our economical problems.
Arts Cinema has, I believe, had a reformation after multiplexes - and now there's a counter reformation where the multiplexes are responding to new style arts cinemas. It seems to be about comfy seats and eating and drinking whilst you watch.
But arts cinema are less worthy of that title as they increasingly combine silly blockbusters with alternative programming, which they claim they need to do to survive. I am doubtful. There are regular quality films which would fill seats - The Reader, The Duchess, Doubt, Atonement, Creation…
I have met many who care about cinema and eschew Vues and Empires and Odeons, and who go regularly. I think there are more of us than art cinema marketers want to admit - for perhaps I think it suits them to show blockbusters. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that: I am not criticising big budget films, Hollywood, or high box office grossing. You can have a very good film that is and does all those. I mean films that are merely entertainment - that aren’t intelligent and have nothing to say, no social commentary to make. Well - in a sense that's not many films, as all films have a message - but whether I like them or not, I wouldn’t expect to see screwball comedy, action thriller or chickflicks at my local arts. When a cinema is the sole one for a local community - say Brixton's Ritzy or Woodbridge Riverside - then a mix of films seems right. But Norwich is in the heart of the city where the other 3 cinemas are, and they are all too similar.
Ipswich is down to one cinema now since the silvery Odeon closed. There is no point in vying with the 13 screens of Cineworld, but using the ones in the arts cinema to show something different.
I have long felt that the right place for an arts cinema for Ipswich is at the Waterfront, and that Contship House is wasted on private use. The tinted glass frontage would make a wonderful bar overlooking the marina and reflecting its neighbour the Custom House. With Dance East moving into its new home on Regatta Quay, it would be appropriate to add film to the docks. It's an aspect of Bristol that I'd like Ipswich to borrow from. Bristol has two arts cinemas in waterside warehouses facing each other. Just because Bristol's bigger by population it doesn’t necessarily have more scope for arts - I know Bristol and it feels quite akin to Ipswich.
How do we know how artsy Ipswich without trying it out? I hate the presumptions of marketing.
- I am thankful to Hollywood Cinemas for providing an alternative film venue for the people of Ipswich and Suffolk for the last two years.
- There is a place for the older style family cinema, and perhaps it could be in addition to - but not instead of - the arts one.
- Remember too that Ipswich is a county town and that people from all over Suffolk and beyond would potentially come. Suffolk has several independent cinemas but no full time committed arts cinema, and most (except Woodbridge) are way behind release date. There's no arts cinema in Essex either, so perhaps you may get patrons from Colchester too, as confirmed by comments on this piece.
- So do something for all these people and listen to us. It may be you can't please us all but then the way should be open for a further cinema - and not have money and support ring fenced for their one venture.
- This is a region without many style bars and I for one am glad of that. Offer the all day and evening relaxed café bar where people can have light bites and cheap meals, hot, soft for alcoholic drinks, and feel at home wherever their age or whether they're coming to a film today. If you have this (and leaflets and a little film/card shop) then people are encouraged into the building and keep up with what's on, so they're more inclined to see a film here.
- Try to get films near to the release date. I know the distributors ask for more money and make you show that film constantly, but it is nice to see some things straight away and will stop us going elsewhere. Having more than one screen should help.
- Please don’t show the tacky stuff that Cineworld will show anyway - and if some of your patrons will go there sometimes - so what? Just make sure they've got something to come to you for another time.
- Offer a different experience to a multiplex. We do not want a mini one. And don’t get het up with what's trendy which is really just of the moment, and passing. Ipswich is not a big city so don’t try to make us into one. Note that Manchester's excellent cinema (Cornerhouse) is not like the style bars of Manchester - but has an arty quality. Liverpool's FACT tried to be too much like any other bar and is too mainstream and that discourages people.
- Embrace what Ipswich is and concentrate on its qualities and do something that's special and appropriate to here.
I encourage people to put their support in the comments box as I really want to see an arts cinema for Suffolk as soon as possible. I think it will transform the town.