Small Space Big Vibes

Entrepreneurs in exhibition are bringing to fruition a multitude of new boutique venues and mixed-use spaces. Karen Pitman, director at Future Projections, explores the implications this has on the role of the integrator.


Every week at Future Projections we take a couple of calls or emails from enthusiastic people wanting to build a cinema or bring back to life a neglected one. That’s a fantastic state of affairs as it reflects the optimism and energy that still comes with the most accessible of art forms — film. So what is our role as an integrator — the provider of the technology — in bringing these dreams to their opening night? First off, these visionaries trust us to build a sturdy structure around which they can flesh out the image they have dreamt of. The change from the expensive, skill-intensive — though beautiful — 16/35/70mm technology to relatively cheaper and more flexible digital equipment has opened this area up to people who may have previously considered it too closed an industry for them. Spaces and venues that were once tricky in shape or too small to suit larger projectors are now perfect for boutique-style cinemas installed with smaller, more flexible equipment. These are heralding a wider range of clients. And I say “client” rather than “customer” because these are the venues bringing the preview theatre feel all across the UK — a long overdue concept. Is there a possibility that, for these new-style entrepreneurs, we as the integrators will mistake the quality experience their clientele demand with a need to overspecify their technology? Yes absolutely — however well-meant. Overspecced technology can saddle smaller venues with high future running costs, paying out on spares and engineering support as a result of over-complex equipment — even though we are “Porsche dealers”, it may not be the most appropriate way to get to the supermarket!

The question is how much the technology translates into the customer experience that pays the bills in these venues. If the owners are new to the industry, then it’s up to us as integrators to give sound advice, not simply to sell them the most expensive kit. This is how we can help to keep them in business — and when they make sufficient money to upgrade to laser, then we’d like to be the first they call, of course.

A myriad of fascinating venues

Within this new wave of builders and managers, there are some really interesting venues, including several in South-East London such as the new Catford Mews three-screen site from the Really Local Group, the Fellowship and Star, in Bellingham, transformed from its 1920s origins, and The Institute of Light in a railway arch in Hackney. Among the local authority-backed forays into film that we’ve worked on recently are the historic Buxton Opera House in Derbyshire and Dorset’s public-use community centre, Verwood Hub.

The Really Local Group chose Catford SE6 in under-screened Lewisham as its first site. Space was at a premium and in order to get as many bottoms on seats as possible we had to think boothless — so we made the Barco DP2k-6E projectors into art installations, visible to the public and hung in the corridors outside each screen. The Barco DP2k-6E is among the quietest projectors on the market, making it ideal for unpredictable locations. It is also a low cost of ownership solution due to the UHP lamps it uses, with the added advantage that, as a twin lamp, it can still work one if one fails during screenings. We had to find ways to push the HDMI and USB protocols due to cabling distance, but both now ingest at the maximum possible speed — and the technician only has to look up to see the service lights.

The Fellowship and Star Cinema close by in Bellingham had a definite Miss Haversham feel to it — a totally neglected but aristocratic 1920s structure in an old theatre space. The main venue still had a local pub and you could see the boxing space where Henry Cooper trained for his fight against Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile the music space has hosted bands such as Fleetwood Mac. The Electric Star Group took on the venue, lavishing it with love and style. Now the 86-seat cinema provides what locals want — comfortable seats, a good screen size and great food and drink. Again, a Barco DP2k-6E was placed into a purpose-made void above the main door, with two access panels for maintenance. Perhaps they’ll go for Dolby Atmos and 4k projectors later, but it wasn’t needed at this stage. We not only came in on budget, our solutions saved the owners money. Their marketing is great, they employ 70 per cent local Bellingham residents and it’s a success story which looks like it will lead to more sites — this is how to support the industry and keep it growing in difficult financial times.

Vintage cocktails and dreams…

The last of the privately run sites to mention is The Institute of Light (now known as No10/London) — probably one of the coolest venues ever in a railway arch in Hackney. Brought to fruition by architect Jo Hagan, it currently combines cinema with a vinyl record shop, Japanese food and fresh signature cocktails. Small cinemas in interesting spaces need this fluidity allowing them to alter with the changes and stay on trend. We initially put both digital and 35mm in for Jo as he wanted to offer a vintage experience to his clientele. Sadly today’s paucity of skilled operators meant he eventually had to ask our advice on the underused film projector — and we offered a buyback deal which worked for him. That projector, after being used at the Royal Academy of Art, has now found a home in Switzerland with an art collector!

Looking after the public purse

Cash-strapped local authorities are rightly always looking for ways to push arts venues to be more self- sustaining, so that they can spend money on essentials like schools. This means there’s another type of entrepreneur in our world: the staff and managers at arts centres, libraries and theatres. As an integrator, we have a responsibility to respect the public purse and the staff who will be left to run it successfully.

At the technical manager’s invitation I travelled to Buxton in the Peak District recently to meet with the technicians and staff at the town’s Opera House, to talk through how an adjoining cinema would work — and to reassure them it would be a fun project to be involved in! In winter the town can be cut off by snow, so I suggested they either screen “Everest” or warm the audience with “The Beach”. I watched the programmer visibly relax at the realisation that, yes, this could be fun. After looking at the rear projection concept the client initially favoured, our solution was eventually to install a Barco DP2k-10s — again no booth, so, in-house, we built a custom enclosure and inverted the projector.

If you’ve never been to Buxton, I recommend a visit to see the Opera House. Built in 1903, it is a stunning venue — together with its busy cinema which is running beautifully. If we don’t hear from the team there until their servicing time comes, we are happy. It means we’ve done our job well.

The final site that typifies this new breed of venue is Dorset Council’s Verwood Hub site, near Bournemouth. Looking to add film as an additional revenue stream, our solution for them was to put in a Barco DP2k-8s and — a year later — the venue is thriving. We visited recently to service their equipment and were pleased that they are chuffed to be running far more screenings than anticipated. As their integrator, we trained the technical staff already in situ for the theatre. This saved them money — they don’t need a specialist for screenings and this helps balance the books.

There are many more potential sites out there looking to add film — universities, schools, museums, theme parks etc — all of which we’ve worked with. There are always appropriate solutions, whether it is a permanent installation or maybe a long-term hire, as well as for clients such as post-production houses looking for short-term hire across Europe. This new breed of cinema entrepreneur demands an extra level of customer service from their integrator. We need to see their vision and understand who they cater to, giving them a strong foundation of support and technology that they can build on. In the final analysis, the cinema team simply want it to work when they press the button — and that is our job.