Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated
Published in this months issue of Filmwire, we've shone the spotlight on the reopening of the Electric Cinema in Birmingham.
When Birmingham’s historic Electric Cinema closed at the start of the pandemic, it looked like it might be the end of the line for the oldest working cinema in the UK. Thankfully, a new owner took ownership of the venue in late 2021 - Kevin Markwick, who operates the family run Picture House Cinema in Uckfield and has been working in the independent cinema business for over forty years. We caught up with Kevin a month after the Electric’s doors had reopened.
So how have things been going since the Electric returned to life?
It’s been going really well. People are clearly very pleased to have the cinema back and they’ve all been very supportive so far. Everyone’s been lovely - almost without exception - and I’m not just saying that to blow smoke up peoples’ arses! I am, however, still getting used to the one way system in Birmingham. There’s lots of building work too. People in Sussex ask me what Birmingham’s like, and I tell them, ‘It’ll be nice when it’s finished.’
How challenging has it been putting together the programme, in trying to understand what the Electric audience wants?
The problem is I have no historical data about what films used to do well at the Electric. I don’t know where [the previous owner] hid it, buried it or burnt it, but there’s nothing. So some films are bringing people in and some aren’t, which is always the way of things, but what’s been really encouraging is how enthusiastic audiences are about older films. That really surprised me, because having been down in Sussex for the last zillion years, I often find my reach exceeds my grasp. We’d show obvious classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence Of Arabia at the Picture House in Uckfield, and those would do okay, but then The Long Good Friday or Harold & Maude wouldn’t. Whereas I could have sold out Barry Lyndon three times over at the Electric! So it’s a process really. I’m still just trying to understand what people want to see.
Have you had a few empty screens during opening month?
Oh yeah. I mean, we showed The Souvenir Part II on a Saturday night, and we had two people in. Two people! How could we be in a city of almost 1.2 million people and have just two people watching a film on a Saturday night?! That happens to every cinema though, so you just have to take it and move on.
What were the biggest challenges in resurrecting the cinema?
Getting the projectors working. Well, they didn’t work, so we had to buy two new laser projectors, and the sound was pretty much shot from an amplifier point of view, so all of those got replaced. The boiler was a problem too, because no heating was a nightmare. Buildings don’t like not being used for 18 months. It wasn’t as oven ready as I’d imagined it was going to be, put it that way. I thought I’d go in, hoover up, switch everything on and then open for business. And it didn’t happen like that.
One of the more depressing events in the Electric’s long history happened in March 2020, when the previous owner fired all of the staff at the start of the pandemic and refused them furlough. Is staff safeguarding a key part of your plan for the Electric?
Absolutely. You can’t run a business without staff, and they need to be enthusiastic about the place and not feel exploited. We have all the proper safeguards in place, and the bottom line is that our HR insurance insists we follow all the relevant rules. Staff welfare is very important to us. People love the actual building, but a place like the Electric is nothing without the people.
The Electric is one of the only Midlands cinemas that still screens 35mm film, which always bring in crowds. Do you think 35mm is having a bit of a renaissance along the lines of vinyl?
I think there’s an element of that, but it all depends on the film. We’ve done a few 35mm screenings since we reopened, like The Apartment and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but I’m the only one that can run a 35mm projector and we don’t have the time at the moment to properly train staff up. The problem with 35mm isn’t when it’s working, it’s when it goes wrong and starts spewing film out onto the floor in pieces. That’s when you need somebody with experience. A couple of people have come in and said they’d like to help in the future though, so we’ll see.
What are your thoughts on the state of the indie cinema industry after the pandemic? Is it in recovery now?
All evidence definitely points to that, certainly on a commercial level. Some of the audience hasn’t come back and the media got a bit of a bee in their bonnet about it all during the worst of the pandemic, particularly The Guardian, who decided cinemas were finished. And the narrative wasn't just about how we were finished, but that this was the last nail in the coffin, which was ridiculous. Before the pandemic hit, we’d just had the best few months we’d ever had! But I think misquoting that famous phrase is appropriate here - ‘Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated’.