In Praise of Grassroots Cinema

A look at the rise of community cinema schemes

After a hard day’s work, the first thing you wish to do is get home, crash in front of the sofa, and enjoy a takeaway. You then want to slump in front of the television, catch up on the soaps, or go to Netflix.

But doing so is a rather lonely existence. At least that’s how I see it. If watching television or films, there are certain programmes I prefer to watch on my own (documentaries) or family (the odd quiz show or other forms of lowbrow entertainment).

With film, I would rather go to the cinema. One reason is seeing other people. Another is how going to the cinema demands your attention if you’re seeing a film: exhibited in the way its director intended. Plus of course, if you’re watching a DVD or Bluray disc, or a film on Netflix, there’s the likelihood of being disrupted. A telephone call could mar your enjoyment of the Star Wars franchise. Your parents could mither you to do something else; in spite of one’s ability to pause the feature the feeling of ‘seeing a film’ is devalued.

In our neighbourhoods, there is another cinematic revolution taking place. It is one which has quietly taken place over the last 15 years. With multiplex cinemas having a greater market share, a trip to the pictures is a more expensive treat for low-income families. Not only the joys of admission leaving little change from a tenner but also exorbitant rates for popcorn and ice cream.

The joys of inexpensive cinemagoing isn’t the only maxim. Civic pride is another. Some communities have elected to restore their Electric Palaces at one end. At the other end of the scale, the use of buildings hitherto used for non-cinematic purposes. Some are full time cinemas. Others, part of multipurpose venues, or within public houses.

Though community run cinemas and film clubs have been part of our cultural landscape for some time, they seem to be a pretty new-fangled idea in Greater Manchester. In 2010, if anyone said to me that “Stalybridge will see the return of live cinema”, I would have bet my fellow a pint of Hydes Bitter.

Five years later, it is happening. The gambler’s pint is some 50p more than in August 2010.

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Community Cinemas

As well as civic pride, community cinemas fill a gap where 1) a regular undertaking may not be viable; 2) the waters may be tested for a more permanent facility. In one way, film goers benefit by extra choice. In another, they make best use of existing theatres or public houses, providing another revenue stream (on the drinks for instance).

Here’s a few local examples east of the M60 motorway:

Partington Players’ Theatre, Glossop

Had it not been for the Peak Film Society, Glossop would have been lost to the cinematic wilderness. The Derbyshire town’s nearest full time cinema is either Cineworld in Ashton Moss, or the Regent in Marple. The latter is impossible to get to on public transport after 5pm; unless he or she gets a train (changing at Guide Bridge or Manchester Piccadilly).

The Peak Film Society offers cinemagoers a choice of admission on the night (£5.00, with a £1.00 off for concessions), or a season ticket for all showings (£30.00). For £22.00 (£18.00 concessions), film buffs could enjoy five films, getting £3.00 off their fifth visit (£2.00 off concessions).

Their venue, the Partington Players’ Theatre, is in an unrivalled central location. It is close to the town’s public houses, and its bus and rail termini. With 120 raked seats, it uses the former Liberal Club. The Partington Players have used the venue since 1957. Its reputation for amateur dramatics have seen some of its players move on to professional productions.

There is also a licensed bar. Tickets are available on the night at the venue, or in advance from Bay Tree Books on High Street West (A57).

Buses:
  • Till 7pm: 61, 236, 341, 390, 394;
  • Full time: 237;
  • After 7pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays: 202.
Trains:
  • Northern Rail services from Glossop to Hadfield and Manchester Piccadilly.

Stalybridge Town Cinema

Regular readers of East of the M60 would be familiar with this venture, opening with great aplomb with Brassed Off. The Stalybridge Town Cinema is a recent addition to the circuit and for similar reasons to the Peak Film Society’s aims, fulfilling local needs. Up to now the Town cinema’s programming is mainly classic Northern films.

Situated in Judge’s Bar, which helps to keep the world’s oldest brass band going, it is a monthly Tuesday night takeover of the public house. Admission prices are £4.00 with tickets available from three shops, or on the night. As well as the joys of draught beer, the popcorn and ice cream is well priced, making a trip to the Stalybridge Town Cinema a cheap and very cheerful option.

Buses:
  • Till 7pm: 236, 353, 354, 387;
  • Full time: 237, 343, 348, 389;
  • Peak hours: 216, 219, 408;
  • After 7pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays: 408.
Trains:
  • Northern Rail services from Huddersfield and Manchester Victoria;
  • First/Keolis Transpennine Express services from Hull Paragon, Scarborough, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly, York and Leeds.

The Vale

Mossley’s answer to the Cornerhouse occupies the former Vale Mill on Manchester Road. It is a home for visual arts, still and moving, theatre, and dance. With the acquisition of 60 theatre seats from the Muni theatre, Colne, it is set to have Mossley’s first cinema since the Empire finished with Live and Let Die.

With tickets at £6.00 it is, price wise, closer to matinee prices at a multiplex cinema. Even so, almost 30% less than a typical night time showing. So far, everything augurs well for the new venture. Its first film (03 September), The Blues Brothers, has already sold out. The following Sunday will see Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book shown. As part of an arts workshop, child admission is £5.00 inclusive of materials and a soft drink. Accompanying adult will be admitted free of charge and enjoy a tea or coffee.

The Vale’s website is well polished and designed for mobile devices. Online booking facilities are available.

Buses:
  • Till 7pm: 353, 354;
  • Full time: 343, 350 (10 – 15 minutes walk from Mossley railway station).
Trains:
  • Northern Rail services from Huddersfield, Stalybridge and Manchester Piccadilly.

Denshaw Village Cinema

The Denshaw Village Cinema is situated within its village hall and has regular Saturday showings. Whereas a single showing is the norm in most community cinemas, Denshaw Village Cinema has two houses. Usually at 6pm and 8pm.

There is good local support with a selection of soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. Refreshments are available for 30 minutes before the film starts.

The only downside about Denshaw Village Cinema is its location. Though right in the centre of the village, there is no buses to Denshaw after 7pm. The nearest railway station is Greenfield, so your best bet on public transport after 7pm is the 350 to Delph and a taxi from there. From The White Lion or The Swan Inn public houses in Delph, the cab fare is around £5.00 – £6.00. If you live in parts of Mossley and the whole of Saddleworth, the TfGM funded LocalLink service is another option.

Bookings can made by calling 07940 182509 or 07746 377375. Their Facebook page is worth a look for details of showings.

Buses:
  • Till 7pm: 354, 407;
  • After 7pm: none (catch 350 service to Delph and book taxi for rest of journey).
Trains:
  • Northern Rail services from Huddersfield, Stalybridge and Manchester Piccadilly to Greenfield (then 350 to Delph and cab to Denshaw).

Millgate Arts Centre, Delph

If you’re unable to get to the Denshaw Village Cinema due to sparse public transport options, the Millgate Arts Centre in Delph offers a good alternative. The Saddleworth Film Society offers regular screenings with admission at £5.00 (Guest rate). For £30.00, members can go to all screenings over a year. There is also a winter social event for all members.

The Millgate Arts Centre has been owned by Delphians since Oldham Council ceded control of its library. It is home to the Saddleworth Players and the Saddleworth Concert Society. Its auditorium seats 130 people with full disabled access.

It is well placed for the village’s pubs and chippies. The 350 bus stops nearby.

Buses:
  • Till 6pm: 353 (till 29 August; terminates at Dobcross from 01 September), 354;
  • Full time: 350.
Trains:
  • Northern Rail services from Huddersfield, Stalybridge and Manchester Piccadilly to Greenfield (then 350 to Delph).

Greenacres Community Centre

Formed in October 2013, the Greenacres Pop-Up Cinema offers a range of independent films and classic films. There is also occasional showings of children’s features.

Situated in Greenacres Community Centre, the pop-up cinema has collaborative events with local film makers. Of the ones we have looked at, the only one (to date) which screens Asian films.

The screen is also put to good use when there’s no films on, also being used for video games. Tickets can also be purchased on the door, or by telephoning them on 0161 652 0095.

Buses:
  • Full time: 81A, from Holts Estate, Oldham town centre, Moston and Manchester city centre to Greenacres Community Centre.
Trams:
  • Metrolink services to Rochdale and Manchester from Oldham Mumps (change for 81A bus to Greenacres).

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From our small number of community cinemas are two different approaches. One is a slightly exclusive approach by means of film societies. The other is more community minded, with the onus on popular films getting bums on seats.

As seen with Delph and Glossop, the enthusiasts’ option is good for the most ardent film buffs. The ones who would prefer something different to the mainstream. Denshaw Village Cinema tends to have a nice balance between populist films and more esoteric features.

Both the Stalybridge and Mossley undertakings favour mainstream films. That, more to extol the virtues of the cinemagoing experience. The joy of seeing any film with more than yourself and the dog. The sense of buzz you get sat with other audience members. Also in some cases, the joy of an interval and affordably priced refreshments. Yours truly, the author of this piece, had that joy at Stalybridge Town Cinema last month.

The Vale’s cinema looks promising, especially given the idea of spin-off workshops (as for The Jungle Book feature). Its introduction of online booking aims to steal a march on other community cinemas.

*                     *                     *

Where Next For Community Cinema?

With the first night at Stalybridge Town Cinema proving to be a success (and hopes of similar success in Mossley next month), where next? Our fellows at Judge’s Bar and Stalybridge Town have benefited from the British Film Institute’s Neighbourhood Cinema initiative which enables the creation of new schemes. Could Dukinfield and Denton follow suit?

As well as showing a mix of populist and more esoteric films, community cinema should represent all sections of its neighbourhood. It needs the best aspects of the traditional filmgoing experience to placate older people and add a sense of occasion to the whole experience. There needs to be a wide selection of films for young people and ethnic minorities.

Better still is the use of outreach facilities like arts events. These increase the awareness of the cinema to a wider audience. One has to look at the multichannel approach utilised by the Cornerhouse and Home, its forerunners on First Street, Manchester.

Expanding cinemagoing to a wider audience

Community cinemas enable us to:
  1. Enjoy film in ways its director intended us to do so: most films are best enjoyed in a communal sense. How many people yearn for the Saturday matinees of old? An action film seems lost on a flatscreen television;
  2. Meet up with fellow members of our neighbourhood: this fosters a sense of ‘ownership’, the feeling of ‘our cinema’ and a local shared experience;
  3. Enjoy an afternoon or evening out at a reasonable rates: ask me again: how much is a brew at your local multiplex? Don’t ask. Firstly your choc ice or popcorn money benefits the neighbourhood cinema. Secondly, in most cases, admission prices better represent what neighbourhoods are willing to pay;
  4. (In most cases) Go to a venue easy to get to on public transport or on foot: unless you’re lucky enough to live in Marple or any other town which retains a real cinema, it is a joy to see a film without having to go to a windy car park before paying for your ticket.

From my visit in Stalybridge, I have seen community cinema as a way of democratising the exhibition of film. There is scope for exhibiting local features. As well as a varied film programme, there should be:

  • Room for local film makers: prior to the main feature, a supporting feature covering their neighbourhood could be considered. This could be as a 5 – 10 minute long feature before the advertisements and the main feature;
  • Scope for local advertising: as at the first night of the Stalybridge Town Cinema, advertisements featuring local business could help towards the upkeep of the facility. Yours truly suggested this for Stalybridge Town Cinema as a tribute to the 1960s and 1970s cinema adverts (Manchester Video Limited made the slides);
  • Occasional film festivals or seasons: if possible, a week long season of films as well as their usual programme. During the October half term holidays, scope for a Horror Film Festival with titles including Friday The 13th, and a title suitable for families.

Towards a full time working community cinema

The neighbourhood cinema, as per the BFI’s approach could be a catalyst for bigger things subject to audience figures. Using Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne as examples, there isn’t only two vacant purpose built cinemas. Market Street, Stalybridge, also has three vacant public houses which offer potential.

The former Pavilion Bars in the same town offers scope for a possible permanent site. This has opportunity for an intimate 100 – 120 seat facility though little more.

Opposite, the long closed Rififi (formerly the Palace Cinema), offers greater potential as a community facility. As well as being a cinema, it could assume the guise of a live music venue a la Holmfirth Picturedrome. Bus and rail connections are faultless which gives the Palace site an upper hand over Holmfirth.

This month sees the Stalybridge Town Cinema’s showing of The Full Monty (25 August 2015). The Vale’s first cinematic showing of The Blues Brothers offers high hopes for the future.

Whether there’s enough income to reopen the Palace remains to be seen. Extensive amounts will be required for the restoration of its original purpose. Realistically, the conversion of The Pavilion Bars could be more cost effective. The Palace, owing to the cost of maintaining the building would need further uses to ensure its viability.

For the time being, long may community cinemas continue. If we can have a commercial multiplex on the edge of Ashton, what about a community run multiplex around Tameside?

By this use of multiplex, a network of community cinemas maintaining their autonomy in terms of programme delivery. The only two common factors could be their community ethos and publicity. Perhaps by means of a map of community cinemas dotted around Tameside with a listings guide. Something similar to the Cheers Mag or the Dukinfield Pubs guide could be considered.

S.V., 16 August 2015.

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