Global cinema explodes thanks to Suffolk’s film lovers

Cinemagoers have all felt that feeling of frustration. You’ve read a glowing review of a film that has piqued your curiosity, there’s an evening free, you fancy nipping along to your local cinema to catch up with this new, highly praised masterwork and then you realise that it’s not playing in your neck of the woods.

There’s nothing quite so aggravating - particularly when some Hollywood behemoth which is big on special effects but short on story is playing on half-a-dozen screens which could have been used to show your film plus a clutch of others which are finding it hard to find a home.

Sometimes it makes you feel that you are living in the middle of a cultural desert. But, that isn’t true as we know. Suffolk is a hotbed of cultural activity. We have festivals galore including the celebrated Bury St Edmunds and Aldeburgh Festivals as well as newcomers like HighTide and Latitude. We have popular and critically celebrated theatres in The New Wolsey, The Mercury and the Theatre Royal, Bury and yet film appears to be overlooked.

Apart from isolated pockets in Aldeburgh and Woodbridge, cinema has been relegated into a one-size fits all scenario - but that is all about to change.

Suffolk is about to get two new cinemas within weeks of one another and both will be focusing on expanding the choice of films available to Suffolk’s cinemagoers. In Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, Picturehouse Cinemas have not only taken over the old Hollywood Cinema buildings, they have also purchased the building next door and are in the process of turning the whole site into a luxury cinemagoing experience complete with cafe/bar and private dining facilities. People will be able to host private film parties. Enjoying a meal in the private dining room before adjourning into the luxury of screen two for a personal movie.

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The two screens are being kitted out with new digital projectors and custom-made seating which includes a number of sofas.

Chief executive Lyn Goleby has dubbed the experience as ‘civilised cinema’. She assures customers that luxurious seating won’t mean a huge hike in ticket prices. Prices will vary during the week but a membership scheme will allow customers cheaper prices.

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Meanwhile in Ipswich, the not-for-profit, Ipswich Film Theatre Trust will be re-opening the two-screen Ipswich Film Theatre in the basement of the Corn Exchange building. The trust, of which I am a member, will be operating three days a week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) from May 20.

The cinema will be staffed by trained volunteers and will be seeking to screen films that would not otherwise be seen in the Ipswich area.

Both ventures are seeking to offer filmgoers more than the latest big budget special effects bonanza.

In Bury St Edmunds, the Hatter Street cinema is undergoing a name change which represents both a new start and a nod to its historic past. From April 30, the venue will be called the Abbeygate Picturehouse. For manager Pat Church this represents a return to the cinema’s name when he joined as a projectionist in 1966.

“I’ve worked here for 43 years. I started as a projectionist and the first film I showed was Stanley Baker and Stuart Whitman in The Sands of the Kalahari and they were showing Bette Davis in The Nanny when I came for the interview.”

He said he came down from the projection room when Star Group, the then owners, transferred the manager over the bingo operation, leaving the cinemas rudderless. Pat then has steered the cinema through a series of owners including Cannon Cinemas, MGM, Virgin, ABC, Odeon, Hollywood and now Picturehouse. “With the name change back to Abbeygate, I feel we have come full circle but although the name is nostalgic, I think the future is very exciting. The new operation has got a very modern, very dynamic feel to it and they really love cinema. They love film.”

He said that the Hatter Street cinema had proved very resilient. “It’s the cinema that refused to die. People have always predicted the death of cinema and here we are all these years later, not only still going but we are expanding.”

Lyn Goleby said that in addition to the custom-made recliner seating and the sofas, they were reducing the number of seats per screen to increase leg-room and offer a more relaxed atmosphere. The screens will have new 3-D digital projectors, new screens to project onto and new entrances and exits. The current entrances will become the fire exits and the new entrance will be via the next door building which will act as foyer, reception area, cafe and bar as well as giving access to the upstairs dining area - which will hold between 20-25 people. Members will be awarded big discounts on private hire charges.

“The current cinema is clean and neat but it’s old. We’ll give it a timely makeover. It’ll be a complete reinvention. The whole idea is that it will provide filmgoers with a taste of luxury. We are taking out several rows of seating at the front to accommodate the sofas, this will reduce the seating capacity quite dramatically but it will improve the ambience.”

Screen One will have 108 seats and 18 sofas while Screen Two will have four sofas and 70 seats.

“We have approached this from one direction. Let’s be completely different from Cineworld and every other mainstream cinema. Let’s offer something that they can’t.” She added there will be new sound-proof walls installed to prevent sound bleeding from one auditorium into another.

She said that they will have the flexibility to screen traditional 35mm prints and new digital films. “Screen Two will have a very intimate atmosphere and will feel more like a private screening room than a commercial cinema. Infact it will be available for hire for private parties in conjunction with the new upstairs dining room which will be completed in the autumn.”

She said the cinema will have a classic feel to it, in keeping with Bury’s heritage. Access will be through the listed doorway of York House, the Georgian building next to the current cinema entrance. “The idea is that it will feel like an integrated grand building, incorporating all the various elements which go to make up an enjoyable and successful evening at the cinema.”

She added that bingo fans will not be inconvenienced. The adjacent bingo hall is a separate business and is not affected by their redevelopment plans at all – although they are negotiating about the possibility of moving signs and replacing the current signage area with a balcony filled with plants.

Although, the cinema re-opens on April 30, the redevelopment work on the cafe/bar and the upstairs dining room will continue. The Abbeygate’s grand re-opening will coincide with the start of the Bury Festival and the picturehouse will be providing a season of French films including the UK premiere of Catherine Deneuve’s latest film The Girl on the Train, this year’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes A Prophet, Daniel Auteil’s recent Conversations with my Gardener and a rare chance to see the classic comedy Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday on the big screen.

Lyn said that they want to develop closer links with the festival in future years but were pleased to be able to be open in time to participate this year. She said that they will also tap into some gems from the Cambridge Film Festival, providing an expanded audience for some films that may not get a wide release beyond the festival circuit.

She said that they will host special screenings for mothers and children under one, have all day cheap admission on Wednesdays – market day in Bury, and will have a kids club on Saturday mornings. She said that she was also exploring the possibility of establishing Slacker’s Club student screenings which Picturehouse did in conjunction with E4 but there were still areas that needed clarification.

She added that the addition of digital projection equipment meant that they could link in with post screening discussions at events in London with leading directors, actors and writers. “They are becoming increasingly popular and can offer some real fascinating insights into the films audience have just seen, so we would be very keen to bring those to Bury.”

Meanwhile in Ipswich, the Ipswich Film Theatre Trust is trying to create a community feel to their volunteer driven re-opening of the film theatre premises which has been dark since October when Hollywood Cinemas closed the venue. The Ipswich Film Theatre Trust have harnessed enthusiastic volunteers with specialised skills which they are willing to donate and to share in order to get the cinema up and running again. They are establishing a dialogue with their customers which will help shape the programme as well as forming links with Suffolk New College, the UCS and various schools and sixth form centres.

Jane Riley, chairman of the IFTT, said that creating a sense of community was important for the development of the reopened cinema. “We are in the process of unveiling an exciting website and facebook sites with regularly updated news, trailers, reviews, blogs. We want people to feel that this is their cinema – that they have a stake in its future.

“This is Ipswich’s chance to be reacquainted with the delights of “specialised cinema”, the quirky, thoughtful , independent, European and foreign language films which are so often overlooked by the mainstream cinemas. I first discovered the film theatre when I was a sixth former thanks to Neil Salmon, an English teacher at Northgate and soon found out that there is much more to film than the standard Hollywood blockbuster.

“We won’t just be showing foreign language films, but even so, set aside your prejudices and come and see what we have to offer. Many of Hollywood’s most successful films are often inferior remakes of earlier world cinema hits. Penelope Cruz is so much better when speaking her native Spanish.”

She said that the opening programme included the Colin Firth’s award-winning movie A Single Man and the Helen Mirren/James McAvoy movie The Last Station. They were also going to screen Stephen Poliakoff’s acclaimed Glorious 39 with Romola Gari, Bill Nighy, Julie Christie and David Tennant.

Once the Ipswich cinema is up and running, it is hoped to open for four or five days a week, run Saturday matinees and host special screenings - including movies which tie into media and English courses.

The IFTT will be advertising the programme online, through supporters email lists and through a monthly brochure which will be available from tourist information centres, libraries, coffee shops, pubs, bars, bookshops –“anywhere where people gather,” said Jane.

The Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds opens on April 30, the Ipswich Film Theatre, within the Corn Exchange, opens on May 20.

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