1989 – The year when Harry met Sally, Seinfeld started a show about nothing, and Taylor Alison Swift was born. That year also saw the arrival of another pop-cultural powerhouse. Founded by Lyn Goleby and Tony Jones, initially under the name City Screen, Picturehouse launched the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford in 1989 and changed the UK cinema scene forever. Between renovating historic cinemas of significant local interest (the Duke of York’s in Brighton, The Ritzy in Brixton, The Gate in Notting Hill), and creating brand new, spectacularly designed sites (Picturehouse Central, East Dulwich and Ashford), the company has allied state-of-the-art projection and huge screens with a warm, homely feel, offering true film lovers a slice of cine-nirvana. Not to mention a decent slice of cake.
“My mission statement is that we are neighbourhood cinemas,” says Clare Binns, joint managing director of Picturehouse. “What I feel when I go into a Picturehouse cinema is that I’m part of a family, part of somewhere where I can sit and relax and see a film on a big screen and feel part of a community.”
Yet for all the homely feel, Picturehouse has been at the forefront of changing the way we watch films. In 2006, it became the first cinema chain to embrace digital projection, changing more than 100 years of 35mm as the dominant format for exhibiting films. “It was a huge thing,” recalls Binns. “It is probably the most significant thing that has happened in this industry during our lifetime.”
The company has also broadened the range of content available to see on a cinema screen, pioneering live satellite events in cinemas, starting with the New York Metropolitan Opera, which means audiences can enjoy opera, ballet, theatre and concerts at affordable prices. Picturehouse was also the first cinema to initiate babes-in-arms screenings, and to provide nationwide dog-friendly screenings (Pup Fiction? Mastiff And Commander?) for pooches and their guardians. “It’s quite hard for dog owners, who often have to leave their dogs at home,” says Binns. “But you can sit and enjoy the film together. Often there’s a doggie treat and a nice bowl of water. It’s a very nice thing to do.”
Yet, beyond curating for canines, Picturehouse has been leading the way in bringing the most exciting films to cine-savvy audiences. Inspired by her experiences at festivals watching great films that never found a home in UK cinemas, Binns launched a distribution arm in 2010 to showcase the cream of independent British and world cinema, such as A Ghost Story, God’s Own Country and Custody. It has also continually shone a spotlight on films by and for women, from Sally Potter’s The Party to The Wife, starring Glenn Close. “In every area that we do, it’s about having the best of everything,” explains Binns. “So that would mean the very best blockbusters, the very best specialist films, the very best foreign-language films, the very best of British, and, of course, the very best coffee!”
Great Java aside, Picturehouse refuses to rest on its laurels. Among the jewels on its slate are the stunning Capernaum, short-listed for the Oscars, and Carol Morley’s Out Of Blue. And 2019 will also bring new cinemas, including Bromley Picturehouse in the spring. For Binns, the ambition remains simple: “We want to continue to offer a great place to see films for a very long time to come.” Here’s to the next 30 years.