Regardless of the form your first trip to the cinema takes, be it a Saturday matinee of some forgotten 90s comedy as a young teen where you’ve wrangled a fiver from your parents in the hope it’ll buy you a snack to go alongside your ticket, or as a toddler, seeing some Disney classic during one of their re-releases, the excitement is something palpable. You go in with your popcorn, your fizzy drink, and your ticket. You find your seat and sit down. From the moment the curtains part, you’re hooked.
Visiting the cinema was the first thing I wrenched myself from my son to do when he was old enough – that was a long 15 months. It was always my first choice when stuck for a way to spend a Saturday or to fill a gap between lectures, and after moving to Suffolk and finding the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds, it quickly became my favourite place to go.
A Celebration of Cinemas 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. I’ve chosen the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds as one of my favourite cinema spaces of all time. It’s a charming, beautiful, historical building that is a central cultural cog for the town.
I had the opportunity to speak to Andrea Holmes, the marketing manager for the Abbeygate, about how they’ve dealt with the lockdowns, kept their loyal customer base close and involved, and discussed just how special this historic cinema is.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Abbeygate?
The building itself dates back to the 1920s. It belonged to the auctioneer Henry Stanley and became known as York House following a visit from the Duke of York. But it first opened as the central cinema in the 1924. Over the years it’s evolved through various brands; having been a Studio, Hollywood, Odeon and ABC cinema, so there’s always been a cinema there. It’s evolved and survived lots of different times. With the advent of video everyone thought that was going to kill the cinema, and there’s been a lot of times when looking back they thought the cinema was going to close in Hatter Street but it’s just survived and kept going. About 10 years ago we were part of the Picture House chain, then bought by Cineworld, and under their wing we were able to build the restaurant, refurbish the whole of the cinema and that’s when it first became known as the Abbeygate cinema. Then a few years ago we became independent, so there’s been a cinema on that site for a really long time. It’s a fabulous building in a very historic part of Bury St Edmunds and has become a bit of a community hub.
What is your personal involvement with them?
My role there is as the Marketing Manager. I’ve been there for about 8 years and I cover anything to do with promoting the business; encouraging customers and membership to us. That includes all the website updates, newsletters, press releases, radio interviews, and the work we do with local colleges and sixth forms. We run dementia friendly screenings, private events in the restaurant, so I manage all of those alongside dealing with the general marketing.
Can you tell me about your own experiences of cinema and why it is important to you?
I have always loved cinema. I was brought up with it. I remember going to see Bambi as a child and standing in enormous queues to see Grease in Norwich – it’s always been so exciting to see something on the big screen. The popcorn, the smell of the cinema, the social environment. To be working there is just fantastic, it doesn’t feel like going into work.
I just think it’s a really nice social thing to do. I love film, all sorts of film, I don’t really have a favourite genre but it’s always special to see something on the big screen.
What do you think is the future of cinemas in the UK? How do independent cinemas like the Abbeygate fit into that?
I’ve previously spoken about the advent of video some years ago and how some people were saying that would be the death of the cinema, but even with new technologies people still want to see films on a big screen. They want to go with friends and family and to immerse themselves in the film. Like anyone with the recent lockdowns, I’ve watched a lot of films at home and the fact that streaming is so convenient and readily available that you don’t even have to go out the door is great, but it’s not the same. You’re checking your phone, you’re pausing it to put the kettle on, the doorbell goes etc. And it’s not that completely immersive feeling.
You can see that in how people try and re-create a film night at home, buying popcorn and turning everything off for 2 hours, to try and capture that feeling of the cinema. But at the same time there’s something to be said for a full house, all of the audience sitting and engaged in that same moment as you. You all gasp at the same time, you laugh at the same time, and I really believe that we’ll be able to keep going alongside streaming, as people still want to go to the cinema. This recent situation has proven that, even though they can watch things at home people are still desperate to come out and go and watch a film on the big screen. So I really believe that there is a future for cinemas and certainly independent cinemas, as we go that extra mile and give something a bit more special than perhaps the multiplex might do. There’s a big audience for that too.
What sets you apart from the multiplex cinemas?
I would say as we’re an independent, we have a very friendly community atmosphere. All of our staff know our regulars, our regulars know our staff, so it’s more like family coming to see a film than customers. Our customers engage with us and through that we can tell what people would like to see. We also try and make coming out feel like an event like going to the theatre. We’ve got an Ambien large screen, we’re also hoping to soon have big chandeliers, plush theatre curtains, cosy chairs, reclining sofas, and you can take a glass of wine and popcorn in with you as well. Because of that we appeal to people who do want to have a bit more of a special event, rather than just nipping out to catch a film.
We also have in our staff Pat Church, who has been with our cinema for about 50 years. He worked there as a young projectionist, and when we do our special live events, he comes in wearing his dickie bow and he chats to everyone. He knows most of our regulars by name, and his wife comes in and serves ice cream from a tray during the intervals. All of this ends up making it feel more of an event to come out and see a film with us.
Can you tell me a bit about your membership and what that includes?
Yes definitely, the membership is, I think, very reasonably priced. You can have a joint or single membership, we also have concession rates. In that you get three free tickets a year, and then you get a discount on any future tickets and also in the restaurant and bar. A single membership is £45, so by the time you’ve just added up the cost of your free tickets you’ve almost made your money back. So, add that to the discounts and it works out as great deal.
How do you decide what to show? Because you currently have two screens?
We’re currently in the process of expanding to three screens after buying the Bingo hall next door. We’ve taken that over and developed that into our premiere screen as it takes more people than our other two screens so that’s really exciting. In the first lockdown we were able to continue with the development work and the builders were able to come in while we were closed. But of course, that meant that when we were able to open after the lockdown last year it was with a really limited capacity, so it was with mixed feelings that we opened because our dream was to open to a full house, with a special black-tie event. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. We were also timing it to open with the next Bond film which has obviously been pushed back and pushed back, so the timing was pretty dire for us really! But we did start getting people coming in, and they appreciated the Covid measures we’d put in place to make it safe for them. But we now really want to push forward with our premiere screen and have as many people as we can come in to see that.
In terms of choosing what to show, we listen to our customers. We have the numbers available so we know what’s popular with our core audience, and often that’s where we can rub alongside the Cineworld. The blockbusters that they might have on, may not appeal to our audience base. So, we show lots of indie films, classics, black and white films, and we can still show 35mm projector films so we’ll often do that. We were surprised when we did open last year with the social distancing measures in place, as Cineworld chose to remain closed as the films weren’t coming through the distribution. But our audience were asking us to show classics and they were happy to come and support us. So, we showed Pretty Woman and lots of 80s classics. We also have a Discover Tuesday where we’ll show documentaries or we’ll have a Q&A with a director which all helps to get people through the door.
The third screen will allow us to have a more diverse slate and expand our core audience even more, so if we’re showing a big release in the premiere screen, we can still show things that appeal to our loyal long-term audience.
Sometimes we’ll even ask people to vote on Facebook for what they want us to show, and whatever comes out on top we’ll put on on a Sunday afternoon or a Tuesday evening. So our customers have a lot of say in what we show. So, we look at what’s coming up, what will appeal to our core audience, what will potentially attract a new audience and expand on our demographic, and then what customers are asking for.
Any hints at what your release slate looks like for re-opening? What’s the first film your customers will be able to see?
We’re delaying our opening just for a few days. We can open on the 17th May but we’re going to open on the 20th May so that then leads into the weekend and soon after that it’s the bank holiday and then half term. There’s a few films that were held up last year which look like they’re coming through now, such as Peter Rabbit 2 and A Quiet Place 2. It would be really nice if we could have a double billing of these with their original releases. There’s also Cruella due around a similar time so that’s going to be on our slate. We’re slowly listening to the industry and I think things are looking much better now, it does look like we’re heading towards being able to open. Bond is now looking like September, and what we might do is have a delayed launch of our premier screen when it comes out.
There’ll be some showings with Pat Church whose going to run some classic Sunday films. And again, it’ll be what people have said that they really would love to see on the big screen again. I think Jaws might be showing and The Magnificent Seven. He says he can’t remember the last time there was a Great Western on the big screen. We’ll run that alongside the rest of our events, Brunches on Sunday, things like that.
Is there anything else that you’d like to speak about or tell us?
I think really just to re-emphasise that with us being an independent cinema, that people look at us as a cog in the town. We had people who had just started visiting us when we went into the November lockdown. A lot of our vulnerable and older customers were having to shield and another thing we had was suggested by someone in our team, about us doing a chat with Pat. We were running that on a Monday afternoon so even though we were closed he was offering his time up for people to ring up and chat to him about film.
He’s got a favourite film for every stage of his life. He’s got film that will remind him about this time or that time. We just had people ringing in on a Monday afternoon to chat like they would have done if they were coming in to see a film and that attracts so much public interest because it’s such a nice thing to do and it was still involving the cinema in people’s lives. That emphasized for us how crucial our cinema is to the community.
The Abbeygate Cinema reopens on May 20th, you can find more info here.