Arts editor Katherine Corcoran talks to Ollie Jenkins, Marketing and Communications Manager at the cinema, about how the renovation will look toward both the future and the past.
So, tell me about the birth of the renovation project. Where did it all begin?
It’s a really exciting time at the Picture House, this redevelopment has been a long time coming. It all kind of started in 2014: that was the year that we turned 100, and that was the point where we thought, we’ve made it to 100, that’s great, now what? And we thought to try and come and up with a really long-term plan to try and get to 200.
Yeah, I mean that’s quite ambitious. So we looked at the ways this cinema could be here for many more years to come. We started a feasibility study, which was supported by the Friends of Hyde Park, our membership base that includes a mixture of people who have been coming here for many years. Lots of students are members as well. That feasibility project was really important, as it’s all about the community and the audience here who love and use the cinema. The study looked at what is possible here, what are the challenges of the building and what we could feasibly do to overcome them. The results were really positive; the study showed that there’s loads of potential to do loads of great stuff. So that study was the basis of an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and demonstrated to them that there’s a project here. They agreed a couple of years ago and gave us two years of development funding, which we’ve just come to the end of, and in that time we fully realized a scheme here. Then they agreed to give us the full amount of £2.3 million to actually make it happen. We’ve also had funding support from Leeds City Council, and from a few foundations and trusts including Garfield Weston, which has been really key because there’s been about £1 million of match funding which we’ve pretty much got to now. So it’s all happening! The work will begin in the autumn. It will take about a year to do everything, and in that time we will be closed, but we’ll be doing off-site work across the city. The cinema will re-open in Autumn 2020.
Were the plans for the renovation made by people already employed at the Picture House, or were external agents brought in?
It’s been led by Wendy Cook, she’s the general manager who’s been working here for about fifteen years. She lives and breathes the cinema. Decisions have really been made by her, with oversight from our board.
In terms of the actual design of the new capital work – once we’d got funding we brought in a design team that consisted of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, various consultants working on activity, access consultants, people looking at acoustics and others. There’s lots and lots of people involved in this scheme – if we’re thinking individuals there’s more than about twenty. A key one is really the lead architect from Page Park Architects, who are fantastic. They’re a practise that are based in Glasgow but they’ve been doing quite a lot of projects in Leeds recently, including the Playhouse. They’ve got a really great track record of working with heritage arts venues, so we’re please that they’ve involved. The engineers are BuroHappold, who have a real wealth of knowledge and expertise. It’s quite complicated engineering here at the Picture House – there are lots of challenges with auditoriums in terms of things like acoustics and ventilation. Cinema spaces are quite complicated. So to answer your question, we have brought in a lot of independent designers but ultimately the decisions have been made by Picture House staff.
So for anyone who hasn’t heard about the project already, what are the main plans? I know there’s a second screen coming, which is really exciting.
The scheme’s solving a lot of problems, it’s going to make the cinema work better in so many ways; one of those being the second screen. It’s really difficult to programme a single-screen cinema these days, every year in the UK over 800 films get released theatrically. We’re increasingly finding it difficult to show everything that we want to, so a second screen’s going to really transform our film programme. We’ll be able to bring films in closer to their release date, keep popular films on for longer and increasingly diversify our programme. That will mean even more foreign language and independent films. We’ll also be able to work with artists on their films, work with local filmmakers, and use that second space to do more non-film type of events, like photography talks, work with schools and generally using it as a space for discussion and activity. So, where do we put this second screen?
That would have been my next question!
Exactly. The feasibility study that started the beginning of the renovation was based around the idea that we’ve got this really big basement under the cinema, and it’s just not used for anything. We thought we could potentially put a screen down here, and that was really the starting point. But once we had established there was potential for a second screen, we had to think about how it would be accessed.
There’s not anywhere internally that you can safely get to the basement, so we would have to look at expanding. As you know, there’s a paved area along the Brudenell Road side of the cinema, and we thought that if we introduced an extension on the side of the building, using this space to access the basement, then that would let us extend the foyer at the front of the cinema too. The foyer is a massive issue for us at the moment: when we’ve got sell-out shows it gets really crammed in there.
I’ve seen lines of people trailing down the road before.
Yes, currently if people want to arrive early for the film they have to wait outside until the film before finishes. People can’t really stick around after the film and chat about it. We want to create a building where people feel welcome to arrive early and spend more time in the space, or even just come and get a drink here during the daytime without watching a film, and the extension will allow us to do that.
The extension also allows us to solve a fundamental issue that we’ve got here: access. At the moment, the building is incredibly unfriendly to wheelchair users. That’s just a part of its nature as a heritage building, and it’s something we’ve had to deal with. But there’s only so long that you can keep making excuses for it. The expansion that we’re doing along the side is going to allow us to have disabled toilets, which we don’t currently have, and there’s some more work going on outside the cinema to allow us ramped access. At the moment, people in wheelchairs have to use the side entrance in the auditorium, which isn’t really treating them with dignity.
The extension is two storeys; it’s going to provide us with a multifunctional space on the first floor. We’re a hub for community groups, local residents and students, and that space will allow us to work more with schools and other local groups who need a space to use. When we’re open for films, that area will also act as another place for people to sit and have a drink.
[Ollie takes me through the plans]
A huge part of the funding we’ve got is around exploring our heritage, the heritage and history of filmmaking in the region, and the potential to use the cinema as a conduit for telling that story. We’ve got loads of archival material that isn’t currently available for people to see, and a part of the project is about making that available for interpretation and for people to learn more about. We’re also keen on encouraging that archive to increase through getting people to send us photographs and oral histories: through the stories of cinemagoing there’s an incredible social history, and with that information you can really start to explore the history of the Hyde Park area. Throughout this project and the new build there will be parts of our archive and parts of the history of the building embedded into the construction.
And then one thing that is really important is protecting what is here now. Some people may be a little bit nervous around the idea of creating something new on the side, and might ask why we need to change the old building. But what we’re doing is essential for making the building both accessible and financially sustainable. Ultimately, if it’s not working from a business perspective then that’s threatening the whole existence of this place. So many cinemas like this have closed over the years – the Picture House does need to look after itself financially, which this project will help achieve. But the renovation will also protect what’s here already and restore incredibly heritage features, like the gas lights. It’s amazing that we’ve still managed to keep them going, but odd fixes aren’t enough. We need to properly refurbish them, and create a long term plan for maintaining both the lights and the skills required to look after them.
Yes, that’s something else I was going to ask. I expect with a renovation project like this you will have the counter-case asking why does it need to be restored, though.
Yes, and that’s why it is important to look back, romanticize a little bit, and really appreciate the heritage and history here. This is a heritage project, and the renovation is all about looking back on the history of this cinema – protecting and preserving what we have, from the gas lights, to the 35mm projector to the beautiful balcony. But it’s also about having a plan to make sure it’s here in the future, and the only way you do that is by investing, adapting and making the building work for everybody. I’ve seen disabled customers who’ve had to use the toilet, and they’ve had to crawl up the steps to get there. Seeing that, even if just the once, and straight away you know you have to do something. In an ideal world this little time capsule would just stay as is, but the only way it’s survived is because it has adapted and moved with the times.
I like the idea of the ‘time capsule’, that’s a good way to put it. A big part of the Picture House’s appeal is that it’s authentic and rough around the edges, how will you ensure that maintaining the old doesn’t become gimmicky and fake?
That’s a really good point. We’ve tried, if ever creating anything new, not to make it look fake. Some people said they thought the adaptation and extension should look like the existing building, and that’s not really something we wanted to do as it would mean creating a faux-Edwardian extension. It would be disrespectful, insincere, and just false really. We want the new adaptations to feel contemporary, but also respectful and complimentary to the old building. So there won’t be any pretending that new stuff is old.
But what is old, from the 1914 era, we will be preserving. In terms of the existing auditorium, it’s very much a soft-touch refurbishment. There’s peeling plaster, damp and chipped paintwork, and the project is just about renewing what’s already there. The seats will probably be replaced. People always say ‘don’t replace the original seats’, but these seats are from 2005! We’ll replace them because they’re getting tired, we can’t repair them because the parts don’t exist. The replacement will be a like-for-like and they’ll probably red again … they’re not going to be leather couches.
Throughout this whole building there’s things people are assume are 100 years old, like the big arches round the screen. The proscenium arches were put in in the 50s or 60s; the chandeliers are from another cinema; the clock is from another cinema: throughout the building there has been layering of history.
In terms of being ‘rough and ready’, that’s another interesting point. Yes, we are quite rough and ready. We’re really keen to maintain that independent ethos, and we’re not going to become this a slick, multiplex, soulless base; we’re going to retain the heart and soul. But, as I said, there’s damp and heating that breaks, and most people would agree that it’s good to fix these things. It’s good to be looking after a really important, old building and not let it fall into disrepair. This is what the long term maintenance plan will do.
What kinds of film do you hope that the new screen will allow you to show? And will there be a split between the kinds of film shown in the main auditorium and the basement?
To give a short answer, the second screen will allow us to do what we’re already doing but do it even better.
To delve a bit deeper, that does mean that we can diversify the programme even more. And by that I mean show generally more films – films from diverse filmmakers, more world cinema, looking back on interesting films historically. Some people might think that the new screen means we become more commercial and we suddenly start to show more Hollywood Blockbusters, and whilst I can’t say what will happen in a few years, I’m 100% confident that’s not going to be the case for the reopening. We’re not going to start showing Johnny English on its release week. It’s going to be the opposite really – we’ll be able to show more independent, challenging, brilliant films that don’t really get the showing that they deserve in the city.
It will mean that films that are really popular, but also fall into that category of independence, can be shown for longer. So at the moment The Favourite is doing incredibly well – it’s fantastic to see that film do so well with audiences – and whilst we’ve kept it on as long as we can, there comes a point where we have to start bringing in other stuff. Having two screens will mean that we can show popular, independent titles for even longer. It makes sense for the audiences who want to see these films, and it makes sense for us: popular films allow us to subsidise elements of our program that are less profitable, letting us show more arthouse and world cinema that often does need some subsidy.
Will there be a way for students to get involved in the plans, the reopening, or the off-site events happening in the mean time?
So we have been consulting with lots of people, and that has included people from student unions. We’ve also showed the plans to students at freshers’ fairs, and we’ve organised a few sessions with students as well. The student perspective, opinion and voice has definitely been heard and incorporated into our plans, and that will continue to happen.
The next stage of consultation is programming. We are starting to set up consultation groups with various audience demographics, to get their input on how we can grow those audiences. For example, we’ve got a group for 16-18 year olds, as that’s an age range that’s not really visiting the cinema that much, and we’re working out what we could change about the program, the way we market and the way we talk to people in order to grow that audience. We will be looking to do something similar with a slightly older group, a university age group, and it would be great to work with the Gryphon and the student union to start that process happening. So if anyone is interested in being involved in shaping the future program for a student age bracket, we would be really interested to hear from you.
I’m sure there are plenty of University of Leeds students who would be interested in that.
The second screen really is going to try a lot more new things; things like new ticket deals too. I’m quite keen to look at a massively reduced price for all young people, whether university students or not. I’ve had questions from people asking whether the ticket prices might rise after the reopening, and actually for young people – including students – I think the opposite is going to happen. I can’t say for sure yet, but it should be the same price, or even cheaper, for you to come here.
I feel like I’ve committed now. It’s going to be in print, like Nick Clegg’s pledges.
Hopefully not – but we understand if things change along the way. It’s still a good thing for students to know about.
The final question I have regards students starting at Leeds in September this year, whilst the Picture House is closed. Where do you recommend they go to see great film whilst the refurbishment takes place?
There’s loads of other great cinema activity going on in the city, and a really rich array of community screenings. Scalarama is community of DIY cinemas, and they have a festival every September which you’d probably catch the back end of during freshers’ week. That’s a really great way to discover these non-traditional spaces that are doing screenings. There’s the Reliance in town, Films at Heart in Headingley and Oakwood Cinema. There’s so many cool things going on. In terms of more regular stuff, there’s also the Cottage Road cinema, which is fantastic – that’s an independent cinema that’s slightly older than us. Their program is a bit more mainstream than ours, but that’s great. If you want to watch Star Wars, you should consider going there as much as you would consider the multiplex.
So that’s the diplomatic answer. But the other thing I want to say is that we will still be doing screenings in our closure period. We’re still deciding where, and how many, but within the next few months we’ll have that confirmed. We’ll be running an off-site program of screenings in other venues, which are potentially quite close to the students. I’m not going to say any more, but there’s a little nugget of what’s to come.
Image Courtesy of The Picture House Project