By the River Thames, in an old TV studio, a fantasy land of movie-magic is screening modern hits and classics to spellbound audiences. Peter Knight learns about a ‘pop-up cinema’ that’s true to its roots.
UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN LIVING as a cinematic hermit in a dark auditorium for the past decade (and in our industry that is possible…), you cannot help but have noticed the surge in the number |of pop-up cinemas that have been sprung up in all sorts of innovative locations worldwide. I’m most familiar with the pop-up scene in London, which notably boasts a fantastical and interesting selection. Of all these, a handful are now quite well-known — Nomad, Luna, Skylight, Rooftop, Backyard, Secret Cinema to name a few. Each has a different style and approach towards the events they put on and each has a different backstory. One of the most intriguing, by a country mile, is Backyard Cinema.
The genesis of a great idea…
As the name suggests, Backyard Cinema has its roots in an unprepossessing location, namely the backyard of Dominic Davies’ house. He would run movie screenings for his friends, in the back garden, providing the food, the beer and other fun. As it became more and more successful and the cost of supplying refreshments for an expanding and appreciative audience spiralled, Dominic realised there was an opportunity to take the idea to market commercially.
In a small local venue Dominic set up a screening with 30 chairs bought from the back of Argos catalogue. While the majority of that first public audience was made up of friends and family, a few members of the audience had heard about the screening by word of mouth and thought it might be fun to come along. It was at this point that Dominic thought that it might be possible for it to become something bigger.
With some investment, Backyard started to screen films at Camden Market in 2011 as part of its night market. There, Dominic met James Milligan who was events manager at the market and later became a business partner. Dominic admits this experience taught him a lot. They made mistakes that they learnt from, but there was a definite appetite, selling out all 140 tickets for each of the four nights they screened. In the second year they ran three nights of three shows for six weeks — a total of 400 tickets a week. This grew to 840 in 2013, and 4,500 the year after, with tickets selling out two months ahead.
A move to a new ‘permanent’ location
Continued success prompted a move in September 2019 to a new home in Capital Studios — the former film and television studios nestled behind the Youngs brewery south of the Thames in Wandsworth (see box overleaf for more on these former studios). Out of use for five years, the studios had, amongst many acts, played host to the Beatles and Bowie — and nothing less than the TV game show “Ready Steady Cook”. Backyard Cinema has a five-year lease on the site, and spent two months getting ready for the Christmas season last winter. Under its current, winter-themed guise, there are two spaces — Snow Kingdom and the Winter Kingdom. Each has been set up to deliver a wholly different experience. This new home is the first permanent base for the team, and allows them to do much more than before. One of the studios has been given over to an auditorium, with bean-bags for seating, and the old control gallery housing the projection team. The other studio is now a space that features a bar, pizza restaurant and band area. This offers a space to chill out before and after the film screening. Across the courtyard is the second screen, housed in a marquee — not that you would know it. There is currently an amazingly detailed façade of a shop window through which you enter into a space that is set up to feel like an amalgam of movie-style shops, with plenty of details to uncover while waiting for the next element of the experience. Discussing the move to the studios in September 2019 and the decision to have a permanent home, Dominic explained: “We’ve always been a cinema in someone else’s venue. Having our own now means we have complete control over every aspect including the food and beverage. This control means we can control the quality — but it is also all our fault when it goes wrong. This venue was empty for years and we now have a five-year lease which is unusual and scary, but it also offers real opportunity with what we can do. We’ve used every square inch of space for the two Christmas Kingdoms. Look closely — you’ll see the screen goes right up to the fence!”
Space at Capital Studios also offers the opportunity for Backyard to have a proper set of offices and storage, as well as their own dedicated entrance, meaning they can host private events in a way that was much harder previously.
From a technical perspective, both screens currently use HD projectors run from computers/Blu-ray drives, but there Is a backup of every system and a technician monitors the show to ensure nothing goes wrong. The equipment is checked and rehearsed each day, something I experienced myself on my tour. Dominic is investigating the practicalities for installing full DCI kit into the spaces.
A “black box” eperience? Not likely
Like many, I’m not a fan of “black box” auditoriums. The cinemas that capture my heart need to have soul in one form or another, and the Capital Studios has that in spades. Having spent a lot of my working life in television studios, I’m familiar with the buzz you get walking down the corridors of the venue. It has a unique atmosphere and the pre-show experience is great fun, to boot. There aren’t many cinemas where you have to give the password to walk through a secret door to enter the auditorium. The pre-show I saw even included plenty of old familiar adverts many UK cinemagoers will have experienced growing up. It also included a short film that charted how the team created the space, which served to heighten anticipation.
While other pop-up experience cinemas, such as Secret Cinema, have things going on during screenings, Backyard Cinema consciously leaves the audience to focus on watching the film. They do claim, however, to be the UK’s only themed cinema and have created settings that have included The Lost World, Miami Beach and Mission to Mars.
The two current settings — the Winter Night Garden and the Snow Kingdom — don’t simply require you to walk down a dark corridor to a titivated auditorium, but instead secrets are imparted, you have to find hidden doors, navigate passages lined throughout with living plants, clamber through wardrobes and uncover a host of other exciting elements.
Within the Studios’ courtyard are various pop-up food and drink vendors who offer a range of refreshments that can be enjoyed before or after the movies. The companies represented are all local and offer plenty of choice. In the reception area and throughout the building you find little nods both to the history of the building and to Backyard Cinema’s own history — there is even a mini ‘museum’ just inside the front doors.
The team must be doing something right. They achieve an average 80% occupancy which rose to 98%+ in the run-up to Christmas, and they sell out of tickets six weeks in advance. On the weekend I visited, they were expecting more than 4,000 customers. Sales of tickets and popcorn is further evidence of the success they have combining experience and cinema.
People actively travel to be at this venue — including one group who recently travelled several hours from Manchester for a weekend to try out both different experiences. Because Dominic is still hands on with each of the productions and the events, he will go down to help out and often finds members of the audience come up to him at the end of screenings to thank him for letting them be part of it. Each of the events has been created from deep within the team’s imagination, and is delivered with care and attention.
Dominic says that first and foremost Backyard is a cinema, so sightlines and the quality of the viewing experience is vital. It is also important that people feel relaxed when they attend one of the screenings. While the price of a ticket is still nearly £20, for London that is fairly normal — tickets to a screening at a standard multiplex on a Friday evening can be £18-£25.
Traditionally, pop-up cinemas has always been for summer outdoor events. As the sector has developed, this is no longer the case and with some clever thinking several now operate year-round with the Halloween and Christmas seasons now important markers in the calendar. As Dominic explained, a few years back he and the team realised no-one else was doing anything in winter, so in 2015 Backyard Cinema presented a residency at Victoria Park in East London. From there it has grown to be a part of their annual calendar.
Roll up, roll up — it’s showtime!
“Backyard Cinema is definitely experience lead. Everything starts from that point,” says Dominic. He admitted to a love of theme parks, and there is a notable flavour of the theme park in the Capital Studios and at other events they have put on. Dominic acknowledges that they have a big team, but that it is required as part of creating maximum impact. He wants to surprise and delight and there are still plans to continue to run roaming pop-ups on which they were founded. Dominic is adamant that “Cinema is better together” and still visits his local Cineworld at least twice a week. “There’s something so special about the large screen, the dark room…” he says.
Backyard is different to your local cinema, and this new Capital Studios venue offers a real opportunity for the team. The enthusiasm and passion the Backyard team bring to the enterprise are notable. They specialise in creating sets inspired by the films they play, and these time-limited themes harness the excitement of a pop-up event at a permanent location. By changing its themes seasonally, Backyard Cinema can guarantee a new and exciting interactive backdrop that transports their customers to another world, better to enjoy all their favourite films. It’s a compelling proposition.
Backyard Cinema @ Winter Wonderland December 2018
One of Backyard’s most memorable pop-ups was the multi-room space at the Winter Wonderland event in London’s Hyde Park in 2018. Using a variety of different spaces and projection techniques, the famous and highly appropriate animated ‘Snowman’ film was screened. One of the most interesting set-ups saw the audience sat opposite each other along the length of a table laid out just as in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, with the snowman himself making an appearance at the same time as he does in the film itself. It was an imaginative retelling of the traditional movie and it saw the Backyard team working with Penguin books on the project. It opened for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight weeks. Dominic admitted it was a challenge to achieve and was different to anything they had put on previously, but the opportunity to work with such intellectual property owners was exciting.
Capital Studios, part of Wandsworth’s history: 1968-2014
There are two studios on the site, studio A was 60 x 50ft, while studio B is slightly smaller at 50 x 40ft. Heavily used to make adverts, promos and TV programmes for 40 years, in the 1960s, the cinematographer Keith Ewart worked with a young director named Ridley Scott to make adverts here. A sale to Capital Radio group saw the site renamed Capital Studios before being sold in 1997. In the 1990s Fantasy Football League with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel was made here, as were other quiz shows and cookery programmes. Fifteen to One was on site for years in A, and Ready Steady Cook was a fixture for years. The studio also produced two live shows each week — Saturday Cooks for ITV1 and on Sundays the BBC2 kids’ show Smile in the early 2000s. In common with many parts of London, the land became more valuable than the studio, so the site was sold for redevelopment. The banking crisis of 2008 happened and plans went on hold, with the studios saved from the fixation for high-end apartments that has afflicted so many historic sites. Capital Studios operated until August 2008 when it was boarded up, briefly reopening between 2010-2014. In 2014, they closed for good and were scheduled to be demolished to make way for housing, but with all the attendant project delays, Backyard Cinema has been able to take on a five-year lease.