As magical as the big screen experience is, cinemas have become more than a place to watching the latest releases. Cinemas are often the homes for different communities to meet up and share their love of film: be it younger and older audiences enjoying dedicated screenings, cinephiles taking part in thrilling film quizzes, or for academics to take part in university-led Q&A’s.
A Celebration of Cinema seeks to spotlight some of the FILMHOUNDS team’s greatest and most adored cinemas, to champion these spaces and uplift them as cultural beacons of brilliance. Tucked away in the corner of East Anglia sits a fine cinema in the fine city of Norwich: Picturehouse’s Cinema City.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Cinema City’s Deputy General Manager, Helen Carrick, where we discussed exactly what makes Cinema City so special, the future of cinema post-pandemic and the one thing she is most looking forward to when the cinema will eventually open again.
You’re the Deputy Manager at Cinema City, but before you took on that role, what did Cinema City mean for you?
So my first encounter of Cinema City was… I think I knew about it for a while because I came to Norwich to go to UEA (University of East Anglia) back in 2000, which means I’ve been in Norwich for like 21 years! It’s that city where you come in but you never leave. I did a master’s degree in Film at UEA, and I think I heard about it first then. But I didn’t actually go to Cinema City until probably 2004, before it was a Picturehouse actually, when it was a proper independent cinema.
You used to get these audience notes back then, a little fact sheet about the film, which had like the blurb and stuff and who directed it and lots of other things. And a, “If you like this, you should watch this,” which was lovely. I think I became a member in 2009 or 2010, and then I started. I’d always wanted to work at Cinema City, I always knew that Cinema City was special. Although it’s part of Picturehouse, all of the Picturehouse sites are completely different and have their own atmosphere. We’re so lucky to be in the building that we’re in, which kind of has a modern side but also very historical, and very rooted in Norwich. It’s a proper Norwich institution.
Is there any particular cinematic experience – be it at Cinema City or any other kind of cinema theatre – that you’re really particularly fond of?
There’s quite a few. Probably my first film experience, which I remember, my mum took me to see Snow White And Seven Dwarfs in Catford ABC Cinema, because I’m from Southeast London originally. I could only have been about six or seven. I remember it because they had these amazing fold down, plush theatre seats. I remember having some popcorn, and I sat on the seat and the seat flipped up and the popcorn went everywhere. I remember that quite distinctly but I also remember sitting there and kind of being overwhelmed by the size of the picture. Especially when you’re a kid – if you’re lucky enough to go to the cinema that early on and have people who take you to the cinema – the spectacle, the size of the picture. It’s something that’s obviously stayed with me for a really long time. I think that’s probably where my love of cinema started. I’ve always been a fan of going to cinema and also learning about film, about the creative process, about people that are involved.
What’s a typical day working for Cinema City like, pre-pandemic and during the pandemic? I imagine that’s a day and night difference.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, on a normal day… I don’t remember a normal day now! On a normal day, it can be really busy. The actual booking of the films, the programming of the films, the maintaining of the projection equipment, ordering stock, all that sort of stuff. All the way down to staff recruitment and training, rota, all the mundane admin stuff, but the stuff that’s really important to actually making the cinema run. We also we do a lot of planning, a lot of marketing, a lot of student outreach. It’s not just turning everything on and letting people come in! It’s a bit more involved than that.
Every day is different and that’s why I love it. That’s why I’ve been there so long, because it never gets boring, especially when you’re told within a week that you’ve got to close. When we shut on the 17th of March, it was really hard because I’d been on maternity leave, and the fact that we didn’t know when we were going to go back, that was really hard. We have an incredibly tight knit staff, they all get on well and work really well together. So to not know what was going to happen was quite emotional, actually, like bereft.
How has Cinema City coped during the lockdown? You’ve been talking about how difficult it is for the staff, but Cinema City as a whole, how have they really coped? Have you been doing much or has it just been a case of waiting until you’re able to open again?
We’ve got a WhatsApp group and we keep in touch with each other. If anyone was struggling financially or anything like that, we would point them in the direction of resources that they could use. Also made a habit of checking in mental health wise, making sure that they were okay. I think everyone just wants to get in and get behind the bar and stoke up the old coffee machine. And just to start talking to people about film again, introducing people to exciting new experiences.
Luckily, because of the pandemic, there is a mountain of stuff that’s coming out. I don’t think we’re we’re going to be short of content for a while, especially things like Bond. Bond is a huge event at Cinema City. I think when the last one came out, we had all three screens playing it, people were arriving in black tie. It was amazing. I think people just can’t wait to get in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and watch a piece of cinema!
And people were completely relying on video on demand and subscription services during lockdown. It’s been a huge conversation point but what do you think is the future of cinema with this huge rise of video on demand and home premiere releases?
The pandemic meant that studios had to be a lot more clever with their product. They knew that there was a captive audience for it, especially Disney+ with Mulan, which was the first one where they did premiere access. I still think films are made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I just don’t think you get the same experience of watching something on your phone, as you would watching it on the big screen. Sitting down, the titles starting, and that collective intake of breath, to know that you’re going to all see something together and have that experience. Especially now, I think that’s what people are really craving is that collective experience.
I think it’s naïve of us to think that it won’t have an impact. The Netflix films are doing so well, awards wise as well. I think there’s definitely some work that needs to be done between the cinemas and VOD to come to some arrangement. Cineworld, who own Picturehouse, have come to an arrangement with Warner Brothers, where they’re going to have exclusive access to their content before it goes on demand, so that’s interesting and that’ll be interesting to see how it filters down to Picturehouse. Picturehouse is lucky because it has its own distribution arm as well, Picturehouse Entertainment, so we do make content for our own screens as well. So I think there has to be some interplay between VOD and cinema, but I still think that people will be coming to the cinema. I think more for the experience, people are craving to get out of their living rooms!
Cinema City feels very catered towards that kind of cinephile crowd. If we’re talking within Norwich, you’ve got your Vue, your Odeon, very much mainstream multiplexes. Do you think audiences will less likely return to Vue and Odeon for these big films because they’re going to be readily available for renting in homes, whereas Cinema City might have a different comeback when cinemas open again because those cinephiles prefer that big screen experience?
Yeah. I actually went to see Ammonite as part of the London Film Festival at Odeon. We were going to show it at Cinema City but we were shut by then, and it did feel weird going to an Odeon to see that sort of film. It feels like a Cinema City film. I appreciate that more and more places like Odeon and Vue are doing a lot of what we do, the other strands, like our operas and National Theatre Live. We market Cinema City as very much a place for everyone to come in and enjoy film, and to discover film, but our members are incredibly loyal. When we shut, people were like, “How can we help? We’ll just start writing cheques!” and I was like, “You don’t need to write cheques, we’re going to be back…” I think that’s probably the thing that we’re most looking forward to is welcoming everybody back in.
I think Cinema City will always have a point of difference, always have its own content and will always rise to that challenge. We have shown big blockbusters before. We’ve done Avengers, we’ve done Harry Potter, we’ve done Wonder Woman, we do Bond because you get a different experience of that film when you come to us. Going to see Bond at Odeon is going to be huge and bombastic. But coming to see it at Cinema City is going to be… I don’t mean to say “civilized”, but you’re going to take a drink in. We’re going to come and dress the cinema up and it’s going to be much more of an event than just buying a ticket, buying some popcorn and going to see a film.
I feel like I know what the answer is going to be, but what’s the one thing that you’re most looking forward to when Cinema City can open again?
Probably seeing all the staff again. I think that’s going to be really lovely, all of us back together, and just getting back to work. I didn’t realise how much work was a major part of my life. I’ve really, really missed it. I’ve missed getting annoyed by stupid stuff again, like there being no biscuits for Silver Screen!
I think we’re all really looking forward to being together, working towards making the cinema successful again. Having one of those nights where everything just works really well. You know, all the cinema is full, everyone’s having a great time, people are in the restaurant, there’s people in the courtyard. Just that vibe of Cinema City which is really special.
Cinema City hope to open soon, but you can visit their website for more information at https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/cinema-city-picturehouse