Going to the pictures has always been a magical and unique experience, an immersive one like no other, a communal, time-limited encounter with no distractions and no extraneous intrusions.

In recent years cinemas, and in particular independent cinemas, have sought to engage more fully with the communities they inhabit. Many cinemas now function as cultural hubs, home not only to film screenings, but also seminars, art exhibitions, game nights and restaurants.

Filmhounds’ A Celebration of Cinemas seeks to spotlight some of the team’s greatest and most adored cinemas, to champion these spaces and uplift them as cultural beacons of brilliance. With that in mind I chose to shine a light on the fledgling theatrical exploits of the Chapeltown Picture House, a boutique cinema located in Manchester’s Cheetham Hill district.

The Picture House made a sizeable impact on me when I first encountered it in 2019, during an intimate daytime screening of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. As a result, I’ve been trumpeting its merits ever since.

It was therefore an immense privilege for me to be able to sit down for a conversation with Picture House Manager Tobias Soar to discuss Chapeltown’s history, the variety of pocket-sized wonders it has to offer, and its cinematic ambitions post-lockdown.

 

The Chapeltown Picture House was established in 2019, which makes the cinema fairly young by modern standards. Could you tell me a bit about its history, and perhaps a bit about the philosophy underpinning its creation?

The cinema was started in 2019 by Jason Bailey, one of the co-founders of Grub (https://www.grubmcr.com ) and it started off as a passion project at Chapeltown Street in Manchester, hence the name, and it was just a space for fans of cult film to be able to come along, watch a classic film, and have a couple of beers from the local brewery. A bit of a low-key affair. Since then, it’s moved to Grub (50 Redbank, Cheetham Hill, Manchester) where it’s all become a bit more ambitious. It was originally about creating a space for film nerds, whereas now it’s a space for films, games, comedy and more.

 

Where do you fit in, Toby?

I fit in as the Picturehouse Manager, I came onboard in October 2020 and essentially my job is that I run the day-to-day operations of the Chapeltown Picture House. Anything from running the screenings themselves to programming, curating, and getting the word out to the public.

 

There are a lot of cinemas in and around Manchester and Greater Manchester, a growing choice for film lovers. What is it in your opinion that makes the experience of watching a film at the Chapeltown Picture House, unique? What does the cinema offer that sets it apart from the multiplex experience, for example?

So, you mention the multiplex experience. A lot of film fans have become disillusioned by the experience of the multiplex. There’s nothing wrong with going to watch a screening at a multiplex but sometimes you want that peace and quiet, that immersion, that you can’t get at a multiplex sometimes. What sets us apart is our house rules and the cinema being a bit more of a controlled environment. All of our screenings are 18+ by default, and we discourage the use of phones and talking. We even adhere to the old school approach of always having an usher in the back of the room, so you know there is someone available if you don’t know your way to the bathroom or you want to order a drink but don’t want to miss a part of the film. I guess the point is it’s about bringing back that classic experience that people fell in love with, in cinemas.

The experience at Chapeltown Picture House is made even more special by its integration with Grub. Cinemagoers will be able to choose from a range of drinks and snacks from Grub’s menu and they can even come in early (or stay after the film) to get some food from the street traders in the garden. The experience at Chapeltown Picture House is a whole day out.

In terms of programming, what sets us apart is our choices. We cater toward the cult, the niche, the classic, stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily find at other places, because we are willing to take risks. Other things that set us apart – as I alluded to earlier – is our more than just film approach, by going to the world of videogames on the big screen and screenings that aren’t traditional. So sure, our normal screenings will be a classic experience, maybe with a Q&A, but a very straightforward, traditional experience. However, with the collaborators we’re talking to, we hope to do screenings such as singalongs and screenings that have a live element, with a view to making the cinema experience new and refreshing.

We also have an open-door policy. From the get-go, we’ve wanted to give people opportunities to come in and do their thing. We’ve already got over 20 collaborators on board, to come in and do programming, whether it’s someone with experience such as Manchester Classic Films or Make a Scene Film Club, or brand-new programmers, some of whom attended our re-launch on the 07/05/21, and who want to dip their feet in programming for the first time. We’re happy to say, hey, we’ll give you a hand with learning how to licence films and how to source films, how to host and present one of these screenings, and start them on a path that might change their career.

 

Lockdown has been hard on cinemas and especially independent cinemas. How’ve you been managing during the pandemic as a newly established indie cinema, and the recent lockdown?  

Well, it’s certainly been tough. The fact that we tried, well I say tried, we did open – quite a successful opening – in October, and then we had to shut, and it was tough because we had all these plans and ideas, and it was all just paused. And of course, financially it was rough, but something that kept us going in terms of morale and also in a business sense, to an extent, was people’s appetite for film, which is still there. I predict that in the coming weeks we will see a ton of articles about cinemas being full of happy filmgoers. Our ticket sales indicate that, already. Surveys that have been done show that people miss the cinema. Sure, watching films at home is great because it gives you access to all sorts of stuff. But people miss the experience of a day out at the cinema. Being able to make a day of it is just something that people really miss. Knowing that has been out there, has kept us positive with regards to re-opening.

 

How do you see the future of UK cinemas post lockdown? What is it that cinemas need to do, do you think to adapt to an altered landscape and where do you see yourselves fitting into that? 

When it comes to cinemas who deal with distributors (which we don’t), brand new films, theatrical releases, it’s going to be quite strange since some distributors are still being quite cautious. Some distributors are being quite flexible and adapting to the times. For us, our programming is flexible. If you want to go watch a brand-new blockbuster, there are the multiplexes. If you want to watch something a bit more niche but is still a new release, there’s the likes of Home in Manchester. Where we fit in is, we are showing films that people might not have caught, and that they know and love, and want to see in a cinema. We add to the choices people have when it comes to the films they want to see.

 

The Chapeltown Picture House has a great re-opening schedule of films laid out for May 17th onwards, a wonderful program of classics and cult gems. Could you maybe tell us a bit about that, and what we can expect from the Picture House moving forward in terms of your longer-term plans?

We’ve a lot more cult classics, a lot more anniversary screenings, a lot of 4K releases coming out that we are going to get on as soon as we can. There are definitely going to be a lot more all-dayers in The House of… format, which is what we call them, so we have The House of Kaiju happening on the 29th May, which is all day. So, you can get to the cinema for 12:30 and stay in the cinema until 11:30 at night, just watching monster movie after monster movie. We want to screen more international films. We will have programmers coming in under the Chapeltown Picture House Presents format such as Manchester Classic Films and Make a Scene Film Club and other collaborators we have been talking to. There will be live comedy nights. We have A Lovely Time coming in first weekend of June and their show is completely sold out. There will be more collectives and artists using the space for exhibitions. We also have a couple of festivals in the works, one of which is the Baaad! Fest, spelled with as many A’s as the year, so twenty-one for 2021. This is going to be a celebration of all things terrible, so fan favourite bad films, bad video-game cut scenes, and more…

For details of forthcoming screenings and events at The Chapeltown Picturehouse go to https://www.cphmcr.com .

By Mark Anthony Ayling

Mark Anthony Ayling is a Registered Mental Health Nurse and writer whose stories have appeared in Perihelion, Cracked Eye, and The Twisted Tails IX anthology. He has written book reviews for Bookbrowse and BlueInk Reviews and contributed film essays and articles at VHS Revival and Horrified Magazine. A collection of his dystopian fiction, titled Northern Futures, was published by Lillicat in 2016. Ayling is also the author of the periodic film blog/journal/diary The Random Movie Journal.

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