Stowmarket’s Regal Theatre goes from 6,000 visitors a year to 6,000 in a fortnight as 80-year-old theatre looks to expansion

Stowmarket Regal set to smash visitor record numbers. Staff left to right, Sarah Page and Sian Copem

Stowmarket Regal set to smash visitor record numbers. Staff left to right, Sarah Page and Sian Copeman. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Around 10 years ago a once-thriving Suffolk cinema was on the brink of closure, with visitor numbers dwindling as council taxpayers picked up the losses.

Queuing for the Regal Cinema theatre to watch Snow White back in 1981

Queuing for the Regal Cinema theatre to watch Snow White back in 1981 - Credit: Archant

The Regal Theatre in Stowmarket, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, used to screen films so out of date that Blockbuster video rentals was its biggest competitor.

When theatre manager David Marsh started his job 11 years ago, a meagre 6,000 visitors would turn up in one whole year.

But today, business could not be better.

“We had 6,000 visitors in a two- week run of the new Bridget Jones movie a couple of weeks ago,” Mr Marsh said. “But things were very bad 10 or 11 years ago.”

When it came to creature comforts, the picture did not get much better. Mr Marsh added: “When I started here someone told me I should put three jumpers on because of how poor the central heating was.

“I laughed it off thinking it was a joke, but soon after I had to go out to get another jumper.”

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A decade later, and despite a fire in 2009, the Ipswich Street cinema is booming. Visitor numbers for this financial year are set to hit around 70,000, smashing last year’s record high of 63,000.

From April to September more than 30,000 watched a film, stage show or one of their popular live streams.

The record-breaking admission figures include the busiest-ever May, July, August and September.

“It does not seem that long ago that we were celebrating 12,000 visitors in a year,” Mr Marsh said.

“2016 has been a fantastic year for the venue, as well as celebrating the theatre’s 80th birthday, we’ve already had over 100 sell-out performances.”

The theatre, which is owned by Stowmarket Town Council, has transformed from a little-used and loss-making relic to a profit-making part of the growing town’s entertainment economy.

Plans are already under way, backed by the town council, to develop the one-screen theatre and add up to two new screens by 2019.

The change of fortunes has been put down to several key factors, including a council prepared to take a risk and invest in the cinema, refurbishing it in 2007 and again after the fire in 2009.

The introduction of Mr Marsh, who has worked in the industry for 20 years, and a team of staff with experience and a passion for cinema has also helped.

But the key selling points have been price and service, Mr Marsh explained.

“A family of four can come to the Regal and get a popcorn and drinks as well and get change from £30,” he said.

“We are showing a lot of films the day they come out now. Back in the day our main competitor was Blockbuster rentals.

“A huge thing for us was actually Cineworld taking out their box office and doing all they can to get people to book online.

“Not everyone wants to, or can, book online – they like to talk to someone about the films. We have staff here who have the film knowledge and can help.”

Building on their successes, The Regal is about to hold its first-ever gala midnight screening when The Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them is shown on November 18.

Tickets for the gala showing go on sale at 10.30am on Saturday, with £1 from every ticket sold being donated to the Royal British Legion.

For a list of events and screenings, visit www.regalstowmarket.co.uk or phone 01449 612825.