Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Joys of the Small Town Cinema

Ask most people to describe their cinema-going experiences and quite often you'll be met with a raft of negativity. Ticket prices are too high, you have to re-mortgage your house and book yourself in for a heart bypass to get snacks and there's always someone or something to distract you from your viewing experience. The cinema industry, somehow baffled as to why people are put off going to the movies have been attempting to get bigger and better to entice punters. 3D films, comfier seating, giant screens, ear-splitting surround sound, multiple screens and full scale meals have become the norm at the cinema. It all seems a long way from the smoky local cinemas we used to see.


They do however, still exist, only minus the smoke. Whilst multiplexes get bigger and bigger and seemingly more and more uniform, there are an ever declining army of independent cinemas catering for towns deemed not big enough for Odeons or CineWorlds. These cinemas are far smaller, have much less choice, and probably won't be able to screen 3D films for another 30 years but they provide a valuable service to those that cannot always travel to the next town to catch a recent blockbuster.

I live in Swanage, a small town in the south of England with a population of around 9000 people. The nearest multiplex is a 30 minute drive away, and, as you may have noticed on my post on in flight movies, I don't always get round to see the latest must-see movies in the cinema. Swanage does have a local cinema, but I have tended to avoid it as the viewing experience is little better than watching a film on TV and it does not always show the films I am desperate to see. However, having missed the chance to see The Social Network on its initial run, I decided to bite the bullet and see the film at my local cinema, and it is there that I rediscovered the charms it can offer.

The cinema in question is called the Mowlem, an independently run theatre housed in a desperately ugly building in bad need of renovation. Upon entering I am greeted by stares of bemusement and borderline hostility. The elderly usher sighs and mutters "I guess we'll have to open up after all." Despite arriving late, it turns out I am the first customer to arrive for the screening. Apparently the film has not had more than 5 people viewing it each night since it started showing at the cinema. It seems the people of Swanage are unimpressed by The Social Network's rave reviews.

I am joined by a couple and we are led up to the cinema. "I'm not bothering to open up the main doors so you'll have to come round the side," barks the usher. We oblige and sit down wherever the hell we want on the horribly uncomfortable and worn seats. The trailers are shown on a screen that seems little bigger than a 40" television with a far murkier picture and the projection doesn't quite fit where it's meant to be.

Then there's the intermission. Remember them? The film hasn't even started but the lights go up, cheesy music begins to play and the usher shouts "does anyone want any ice cream because you'll have to come downstairs for it." The couple want ice cream and I wait patiently while the usher leads them out the cinema and down the stairs.

Eventually the film starts. The picture is murky, the sound is awful but The Social Network is a great film and I am satisfied.

So what did I learn from my horrible viewing experience? Well, despite everything I was charmed. The people that run the cinema work with very little money and judging by the amount of people in attendance, they're hardly raking in profits. The cinema remains open, however, and it is done for the love of film.

You go there and you don't know what to expect; a few years ago my sister went to see Titanic and the projector broke down just as the ship began to sink. You don't know if you'll be the only person in the cinema or if the whole town will turn up. Despite all the faults and the inability to compete with the viewing experience at the big multiplexes, these small town cinemas have heart and soul. The people that work there aren't teenagers earning minimum wage for their Saturday jobs, they are people that genuinely love the place, even if they act offended when you turn up.

If the multiplexes pitched up in every small town and these cinemas began to die out, it would be a real shame. These theatres hark back to a simpler time, when going to the cinema was about the film you were going to see, not the cinema itself.

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