The people’s palace

Community cinema provides a lifeline to film in areas where mainstream theatres don’t reach. CTC’s Paul Wilmott describes the initiative that brings film to the big screen at the Royston Picture Palace.


THERE ARE MORE THAN 1300 community-led cinemas in the UK. These range across a broad spectrum, from film societies and clubs, through pop-up cinemas, school and university student cinemas, screenings in village halls and arts centres, to youth and community centres.

One such community initiative is Saffron Screen, set up in 2006 as a community cinema for Saffron Walden, in Essex, where the previous cinemas had closed in the 1960s (The Walden) and 1975 (The Plaza). Saffron Screen is a not-for-profit organisation run by a number of part-time staff and many local volunteers. Our aim from day one was to have a professionally run cinema (with 35mm projection, surround sound, and large fixed screen with masking) whilst accepting that there would be some limitations due to the premises being in the local County High School and thus utilising a shared space. Fast forward 14 years and we are now running mostly digital (we still have a Kinoton FP20 35mm projector which we use occasionally) with Dolby 7.1 sound. Being based in a school limits our daytime screenings and we do not always have access in the evenings during the week. However, we still manage 30-40 screenings per month.many live events via satellite, and we welcome over 40,000 customers a year — with an average attendance of 75 per screening. The model has proved to work, so much so that we have embarked on a new venture to operate a nearby cinema, Royston Picture Palace, along similar lines.

The Royston auditorium has a Dolby 5.1 sound system. The front left, centre and right speakers are behind the screen as you would expect but are movable as the stage is used for other events too. This necessitates moving the speakers to the sides and raising the screen. Masking for flat or scope is present making for better presentation.

Both sites use a Lansat receiver from Motion Picture Solutions for DCPs and to show live event broadcasts. We are currently having a Unique server and an Éclair server installed at Royston to receive Pearl & Dean advertising and additional films and trailers.


Double the effort?
When one community cinema takes on the running of a second one there are inevitably challenges. Royston Picture Palace was set up and run by the local Business Improvement District (BID) organisation. A BID is a business-led initiative focused on a defined geographical area, usually in a town or city but sometimes a business park or industrial complex. It provides local businesses with the opportunity to be directly involved in development and improvement of their area, working with the council and other statutory authorities to bring benefits to their own enterprises and the community.

The Royston BID was instrumental in getting the town hall refurbished to include a cinema and the subsequent running of the cinema. However, it was not envisaged that the BID would continue to run the cinema in the long-term. Although Royston Town Council was keen that the cinema should provide entertainment for the town, they realised they did not have the resources to operate it themselves. As Saffron Screen had been involved in providing help and guidance during the cinema’s setup, we were asked if we’d consider taking on its operation. It took 18 months to agree a contract suiting both parties, starting in December 2019.


Getting buy-in from the volunteers
We were adamant that Royston Picture Palace should be a community cinema, and we also wanted to improve the content on offer, so engaging with the existing volunteers was essential. We wanted duty managers to take on greater responsibilities (such as opening and locking up, selling alcohol, technical training) and so offered them paid positions rather than the volunteer status they had been used to. As a backup, we also involved staff from Saffron Screen with the potential to fill in at Royston if we were short on staff.

Our marketing team has had to work hard to reach new audiences in Royston. The cinema had not screened opera, plays and concerts before, so many local residents would be unaware of the content we were providing. Our arts night at Saffron Screen has always been popular and we hope to replicate this at Royston soon. And dementia and autism screenings will also be included in the Royston programme.

Both sites incorporate a concessions stand and we are gradually moving to a situation where our stock is sourced from suppliers who can service each of the cinemas. In both locations we have limitations on what we can provide due to not having a dedicated space, the concession stand needing to be set up before the weekend’s first screening, and packed away at the end of the last screening.We have been able to integrate some elements of the two cinemas. We try to get all DCP hard drives delivered to Saffron Screen and are hoping that in future we will be able to ingest these remotely. Currently our films get delivered separately for each cinema but at some point it would be good only to receive a single copy if both are screening the same film! We integrated both sites into our online ticket and box office system (from Veezi) which saves time on putting films on sale and box office reporting. We also hope to have a single website with easy access for updating both sites. We have been planning a new site for Saffron Screen for a while, so this is a perfect opportunity to add on the Royston venue.

We have always relied on Future Projections for our regular equipment installation and maintenance at Saffron Screen and we have now extended this to cover Royston Picture Palace. Likewise, our film bookings are made by the Independent Cinema Office and they now cover both sites. All of our back office systems have been adapted to cover both cinemas.

Programming films for Royston Picture Palace is not too much extra work as many of the films screened are similar to those shown at Saffron Screen, both towns having a similar demographic. We can also envisage some offers being available at both venues, e.g. our loyalty scheme at Saffron Screen could be extended to Royston. We could also promote each cinema to the other for events that have sold out at one venue, the sites only being just over 10 miles apart.

For a small organisation, this has been quite a challenge, but we are looking forward to making Royston Picture Palace as successful as Saffron Screen. offering a wide range of films and events to two deserving communities.


Technical developments

The Royston Picture Palace in Royston, Hertfordshire, has a similar background to Saffron Screen albeit a bit more recent. The previous cinema in the town closed in 2000 (The Priory Cinema) and the new community cinema was set up in the refurbished Town Hall in 2013. In many ways it is similar to Saffron Screen, utilising a shared space which means the auditorium is not available for cinema use every day of the week. In fact, over the past 18 months or so only two films per weekend have been screened. Having taken over the running of the Picture Palace we are now running a full programme each weekend and are planning to show occasional midweek screenings. We are currently in the process of installing a satellite dish for receiving live broadcasts primarily from NT Live and the Royal Opera House, and hope to screen many more such live events in future.

From a technical point of view, both of the cinemas have a Barco DP2K-15C which is a good choice for the size of screens (9m wide for Saffron Screen and 7m wide for Royston). Saffron Screen has a GDC server which is unusual in the UK whereas Royston has a Dolby server. We try to do most of the setup work for Royston remotely, but we still get many films delivered on a hard drive, thus requiring a trip to Royston to ingest the film. However, as we believe in testing all our films prior to screening, we always have to visit Royston on a weekly basis anyway.