Words By Laila Rumbold – Kazzuz
In October 2020, Brighton’s cinemas announced that they were closing, or ‘hibernating’ as Cineworld put it. Duke of York’s Picturehouse and Dukes at Komedia, both Cineworld-owned, were among those being forced to close due to the pandemic and the resulting delay in major blockbuster film release dates. This new postponement of movie releases was born of the studios’ fear of box office failure, the perception that the audience just wouldn’t turn out. Chain cinemas rely almost exclusively on the releases of blockbusters like Marvel movies to keep the doors open. The lack of new ultra-commercial films being distributed combined with on and off lockdowns, understandably, made cinemas largely untenable for the foreseeable future. The Odeon on West Street stayed open the longest but inevitably followed suit.
I have been running a pop-up cinema in Brighton since 2014, and over the past year we have become the only operating cinema in Brighton, running in a socially distanced manner during the lifting of lockdowns, when all other cinemas sadly remain closed. We call ourselves White Wall Cinema, our name predicated on the idea that all we need to be able to put on an exciting evening of films is… you guessed it, a white wall! Over the past few years our modus operandi has been to lug around our own equipment (fourteen-foot screen, speakers, 4K projector) and show up wherever we are permitted, or requested to be. I feel a twinge of guilt when I say this as I genuinely mourn for the closure of cinemas at large, but this pandemic has expanded our cinema beyond anything it’s ever been before. Life has generally been awful over the last year, but I can’t deny that White Wall Cinema, which over the past year has become the most joyful thing in my life, owes some of its recent success to the necessity to adapt to the new world.
We have had great success with our events from our start in 2014, and in recent years have developed somewhat of a cult following in Brighton. At every screening, I see familiar faces alongside new ones and there is a tangible excitement about the DIY feel that we bring to our events. There’s very much the sense at our screenings that we are doing something underground. Screening old and new films alike, our main criteria is that we put unseen or overlooked but, vitally, important films in front of eyes. Our definition of important isn’t always married to an ideological message either. Like the films of Terrence Malick or Jean-Jacques Beineix’s visually intoxicating Betty Blue, we believe in the importance of pure, aesthetic cinema as much as we value culturally significant story-based cinema. We are simply interested in showing people great films in their many forms, whether heavily narrative, or void of one altogether. In a world of streaming and laptop screens, we just want to provide a space for people to continue experiencing film on the big screen with big sound and popcorn and for a reasonable price. Many people’s favourite aspect of our offering though, is that we give a short speech before every film, putting the film into context and unlocking the hidden joys of the film for our audience. On our special mystery film nights (Secret Movie Club) where the film’s title is only revealed when the opening credits roll, these pre-film rambles are cryptic and often hilarious as we try to drop clues but skirt around the film enough that we don’t ruin the surprise.
Given our status as a pop-up, underground and volunteer-run cinema then, it’s almost ironic that we have ended up being the only remaining big screen in Brighton throughout the months where multiplexes were forced to close. Because of our volunteers, and our cinema being a passion project whereby tickets cover the cost of running only, we have been blessed in that there is no financial impetus weighing on us to close our doors – unlike the multiplexes, we don’t rely on the latest blockbuster to keep us going. In fact, since the summer of 2020 we have inhabited Wagner Hall just off West Street on somewhat of a permanent basis, becoming more of a bona fide ‘cinema’ than we have ever been before.
Rather than popping up in various locations across the city (which we love to do but became impossible with the closure of shops, bars and pubs- our usual favourite haunts!) we have established ourselves as somewhat of a local favourite. Our pop-up nature makes us unique in that we can configure our cinema any which way we please, so our summer 2020 season was one to remember! In the months leading up to the closure of the multiplexes, we carried our fourteen-foot pop-up screen into Wagner Hall’s beautiful garden, set up our speakers outdoors with the help of cable ties, wires, ropes and the shade of Wagner’s wonderful fig tree, and created an incredible outdoor cinema for the lovely yet sometimes scorching summer months.
Now, allow me to stress the volunteer-run nature of this venture. Myself and the co-founder literally walked across town to the venue every day from June to September, deconstructed the indoor cinema space and moved all the equipment outdoors, where we promptly reconstructed the set-up to suit the new space in the boiling hot weather, employing only the shade of said wonderful fig tree! We used sports cones from Decathlon and a measuring tape to mark out seating at two metres apart, placed about fifty bottles of hand sanitizer around the venue and guided our patrons to their socially-distanced seats on arrival. When the film was over, we deconstructed the outdoor set up and moved all our equipment back inside, ready to go again the next day. We ran five nights per week across the whole summer, something which with the ‘hibernation’ of other cinemas came to feel less of a pop-up event and more of a cultural crusade. It was incredibly intense both physically and mentally, but we wouldn’t change a thing. The garden itself is a wonderful open space with bark flooring and the incredible scent of mint wafting from surrounding flowerbeds. Short of being Somerset House’s Summer Screen, I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic outdoor cinema scenario.
There is something profound about the physical experience of setting up cinema equipment that you’ve worked hard to pay for piece by piece over the years. This, combined with the knowledge that literally two doors down was the Odeon, sitting empty and awaiting impending closure, made what we were doing feel essential to the survival of the Arts in Brighton. As the colder months approached, Henry (the true film buff and technical master of these events) began work on our autumn line up. The screen was moved inside and a scattering of orange autumnal leaves became the backdrop to our ‘White Wall Cinema Autumn Lineup’ trailer, to be shown before each screening. The work doesn’t begin and end in the venue. We spend weeks cutting together the trailers of all the films we have scheduled, creating posters and flyers, ordering snacks and drinks for our beloved little ‘Snack Nicholson’ bar. All of these extra features that make our cinema feel like a real cinema experience are things that have been born of the last year. In the past, as a pop-up in various small spaces, we didn’t have a White Wall Cinema ident, a film listing advert, trailers for all of our films or our own little bar. The pandemic’s forcing us to remain in one larger space has allowed our cinema, ironically, to grow- and that includes the size of our screen!
It hasn’t all been roses, though. We are not exempt from the struggles of this pandemic and though we may have grown in terms of operating during the summer months, in the subsequent months of lockdown we have struggled to survive. We too have been closed during lockdown and subsequently have not been able to sell tickets and make enough money to operate for the next season. Again born of the necessity to be creative during the pandemic, we’ve had to create a new way of delivering cinema to our supporters. We are currently offering a ‘Home Service’ in return for donations. This is a customised bundle containing a 1-2-1 Zoom consultation, a hand selected film with personalised introduction, gourmet popcorn and a post-film chat, delivered to your door. Our Home Service idea was spotted and mentioned on Channel 4 as one of the ‘most innovative ways cinema is dealing with the pandemic’. These Home Services are a lifeline and like our cinema, do not exist to be profitable, but to cover costs and ensure that when lockdown lifts we will be able to open and operate again and not have to succumb to closure like every other cinema. They exist to make sure that when others cannot open, we are able to be that one screen in Brighton that’s still there for everyone, keeping a little corner of the Arts alive.
The closure of cinemas is devastating and something that we want to see reversed, and with MGM’s delay of new Bond film No Time to Die, contrary to the panicked transition to streaming we’ve seen from the likes of Warner Bros, we are hopeful that cinemas will gain their footing again once reopened. Regardless though, the past year has made it more likely that White Wall Cinema will continue to improve and grow. We’ve had more footfall in our cinema over the past year than all our other years combined, but we still rely on the word of mouth nature of our little cult following, and donations from our generous patrons.
When restrictions ease enough in (hopefully) May, we will be back at Wagner Hall for our Spring 2021 season and ready to go all over again. Until then, if you’re looking for some home entertainment and have rinsed Netflix and Disney +, perhaps you’ll consider supporting your local cinema with a Home Service that’s sure to bring a bit more movie magic to your doorstep than your standard streaming fare and is certainly more personalised than any anonymous algorithm can be!