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LEEDS 2023 in conversation with the Hyde Park Picture House on the city’s relationship with film and cinema

The Hyde Park Picture House (Credit - Tom Joy)

We sat down with Ollie Jenkins, Marketing & Communications Manager at the Hyde Park Picture House for a chat about the cultural impact of cinema.

What do you think the Hyde Park Picture House means to Leeds?

Well, it means different things to different people. There are those who have strong memories of visiting us in the seventies and eighties as students; others have found us more recently. The Picture House has been around so long, it’s become a sort of cultural landmark in the city. This is partly down to its age and longevity, but also in how it resonates on an emotional level.

People are precious about the cinema. There’s a real sense of ownership – it feels like a home from home, somewhere comfortable they can retreat to. But I also think it holds a place in people’s hearts in a way that goes beyond the physical venue. The act of watching a movie can be a gateway to somewhere new. It can be a profound, even cathartic experience – especially during hard times.

Leeds residents have been visiting the Picture House for over a hundred years now, through all kinds of turbulence. And when you combine the transportive nature of cinema with the tactile experience of being in such a historic space, it can create some incredibly powerful memories. From first dates to family outings and special occasions, people associate the Picture House with very specific times in their lives.

When it comes to film and cinema, Leeds has a long, rich history. How does the Picture House fit into it?

Leeds certainly has a unique relationship with film. It’s well documented that Louis Le Prince conducted his motion-picture experiments in the city in 1888, first in Roundhay Gardens, then on Leeds bridge. These were undoubtedly important moments in the history of cinema, but there are other milestones too.

Around the same time, Abram Kershaw established a business in Leeds making various photographic items, including lanterns and projection equipment. In the 1910s he went on to produce Kalee cinema projectors – a name created from the initials of his surname and his first name, plus the first three letters of Leeds.

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s and 1970s

Like a lot of cities, there was a huge proliferation of picture houses in the early 20th century. And we’re lucky to have to have two incredibly old, independent cinemas still running in Leeds to this day. The Picture House – along with Cottage Road in Headingley – help cement this long legacy in people’s minds.

We take our own heritage very seriously. The refurbishment project we’re currently undertaking is all happening with enormous precision and care. It’s allowing us to quite literally dig into the past and explore our own heritage – we love sharing what we’re unearthing. It feels like a really authentic way to celebrate Leeds’ cinematic history.

Hiding in Plain Sight is one of our projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund – we’ve worked with local illustrator Adam Allsuch Boardman and created an interactive map showing all the old cinema buildings across Leeds. The Picture House is a conduit for people to explore the wider context. It’s living history; you don’t have to imagine it or look at old photographs – the building is still here in the present day, opening people’s eyes to the past.

What other community projects is the cinema involved with?

We have a long history of working with younger audiences, helping them discover the world of cinema through our family-friendly screenings or school events. We’ve taken some of these out on the road with us – we’re currently hosting monthly screenings at HEART – Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre – alongside occasional events at other venues we love, such as the SCRAP Centre For Creative Reuse and The Tetley.

Being involved with schools has always been important to us. With the cinema temporarily closed, it’s something we’re really missing – that’s why we decided to team up once again with Adam Boardman to produce a set of educational packs on different elements of film history that tie into the curriculum and explain the backstory of the cinema. They’re shaping up nicely – we can’t wait to share them!

Also in the pipeline is Memory Bank, a new resource pack made up of archive material to support people living with dementia. This was developed for us by the Yorkshire Film Archive – they’ve pioneered the use of archive material to promote wellbeing in this way. We’ll be making them available for free to care homes, charities and individual carers early next year. Sourced from different communities in Leeds, the archive footage acts as a kind of reminiscence therapy – audio visual stimulus to help people reconnect with their memories. It should feel very familiar to local audiences.

We’re also really lucky to work with the Leeds African Communities Trust (LACT) to understand how we can better serve the African communities of Leeds, as well as growing our audiences for African film. We plan to launch a mini season of events with them next year, with the aim of introducing a new African cinema strand into our regular programme.

We regularly link up with a wide range of local partners, such as Heritage Corner and Yorkshire Sculpture International, or national partners like Birds’ Eye View and TAPE Collective. We’re always looking to find better ways of working with partners in a more long-term planned out way, inviting people to help with our decision-making from the very beginning.

We’re fortunate that such a wide variety of people and organisations want to work with us. The affection we feel for the cinema extends out to a lot of different communities. And it’s really exciting to be shaping what the Picture House will be like in the future – our audiences have placed so much trust in what we’re doing to take the cinema forward. We need to keep evolving to meet people’s needs, but when you’re 107 years old it’s the adaptation that makes it all so much fun!

How much does the area of Hyde Park inform and reflect the personality of the Picture House?

LS6 is a really exciting, vibrant part of Leeds. It has an unfair reputation for being a neighbourhood of overflowing bins and student house parties, but there’s way more to it than those negative stereotypes would have you believe. There’s an entire community that exists around the cinema, made up of an ever-growing network of cultural organisations.

Inside the projector room (Credit – Thomas Morris)

The Brudenell Social Club is still one of the greatest gig venues in the city, Left Bank completely transformed itself in the past year, and the Hyde Park Book Club continues to grow and grow – along with the Picture House, these are four of the best cultural institutions in the city, encouraging cultural activity in all its forms. It’s a really diverse area, and we’re doing what we can to combat those lazy stereotypes – there’s a positive narrative emerging as we work together and grow, allowing people to express themselves in all kinds of ways.

You could even argue the area is fast becoming a sort of northern quarter for the city. There’s an amazing music and arts scene. It’s the birthplace of so many bands, DJs, artist spaces – there’s loads of great things happening. And in recent years there’s been huge amounts of growth, investment and reinvigoration, nurturing an entirely new generation of creators, hopefully allowing people to keep making exciting stuff for years to come.

Where do you think film sits when compared to other forms of culture?

For me, it’s one of the greatest. It’s one of the most readily available art forms – it has the power to reach so many people. There are so many high quality, interesting movies being made today that are artistically and culturally valuable, whilst also being incredibly accessible. It’s a great leveller – it can reach people in a way that no other art form can.

A lot of people watch blockbusters at the multiplex, or at home. And that’s fine – but that’s just one window into the world of film. No one would suggest one particular radio channel represents all of music. There’s a huge wealth of diversity within film, and our aim is to bring a wider variety of films to Leeds for people to experience. We do this as part of our regular programming, but also as part of wider events, like the Leeds International Film Festival.

Pre-pandemic, there were over a thousand films being released in UK cinemas each year – so many amazing stories with so much artistic and cultural expression. Most people won’t ever come into contact with more than a few dozen of those, the top few percent that make all the noise and take all the box office. But once you scratch beneath the surface, there are so many other captivating films out there.

I think film can – and should – sit comfortably alongside the likes of theatre, opera and ballet. Whenever it’s not viewed in the same light, it often means it doesn’t get the same funding, resource or attention, or even the same credibility. And that’s a shame. At the Picture House we encourage a huge crossover with other artforms. For example, we work with Pavillion – an artist commissioning group in Leeds – to bring their moving image pieces to the big screen. We also show live musical performances too.

Is the way people experience films changing?

People have long predicted the downfall of traditional cinema, with phrases like “the death of cinema” being used more and more. There’s been a huge increase in streaming options, not just for films that have already been shown at the cinema, but sometimes with a simultaneous home and theatrical release. And yet, within the industry, there’s more confidence than ever, because there’s nothing quite like the collective experience of cinema; it’s the thing people are drawn to.

The pandemic robbed us of that experience. Cinemas were literally closed down, and people were reduced to watching movies on their laptops and phones in their bedrooms and living rooms. It was like some kind of enormous experiment, one that showed us people don’t want a world without cinema. People missed the social experience of watching a movie in a dark, quiet room specifically designed for it, surrounded by others.

Enjoying the show (Credit – Ollie Jenkins)

Cinema is far from dead, and people are flocking back to them. Everyone has their own timeline, which makes the road to recovery slow and gradual, but as an industry I’m sure we’ll get there. The last few months have proved there’s still an appetite. In fact, before the pandemic, audience numbers for independent cinemas were extremely healthy – it was a definite high point, right across the country.

Parasite – Bong Joon-ho’s best picture winning comedy thriller – was the most successful film we’ve shown at the Picture House in the last ten years, right before we had to close our doors in February 2020. Along with other big name arthouse movies and world cinema, films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse have all proved incredibly popular. There was an emerging trend of audiences filling the cinema night after night for these kinds of films. Independent cinemas are not seeing a return to those levels just yet, but we’re slowly getting back on track.

What is it about the specific experience of heading out to the cinema that really resonates with people? 

Some people like socialising, heading along with a big group of friends for a night out. Others prefer to go alone – there’s something quite unique about being by yourself and totally anonymous. It’s appealing, comforting even. People develop relationships with venues – they like particular screens, know what to expect with the programme and grow to trust what they can expect.

Our ‘Tuesday Wonders’, for example, offered an especially diverse array of films. They were the kind of hidden gems that wouldn’t normally get seen, from right across the board in terms of genre. Whether it was a documentary or a work of fiction, people came along regardless of the movie because they had faith in the selection process. Whatever the film turned out to be, there was a good chance they’d like it.

At the end of the day, there’s just something special about watching a film with an audience. It heightens and multiplies the emotion. Comedies and horrors are obvious examples; we all know a joke or a jump scare will land better if there are others around. If something emotional is unfolding on screen, you can sense people reacting around you. There’s an energy. And being in a cinema with a big screen, 4K resolution, 7.1 surround sound and proper projection elevates that experience. The quality takes it to the next level.

I think people also appreciate going to a place where they can turn off their phones and be off grid for a couple of hours. It’s a sacred space with no distractions – no one can change the channel or decide to pick another movie. The environment is geared up for the film – even if it’s not 100% to your taste, it means you’ll generally give it a chance. There’s something nice about having that temporary detox and letting yourself be carried away by the movie.

The Hyde Park Picture House is currently undergoing an enormous redevelopment project. How did this huge decision come about, and why is it needed? 

We started the process in 2014 – the centenary of the Picture House. The building is amazing, and everyone loves it, but it’s failing in many ways. Because it’s such an old, historic building, the overall condition reached a point where it was no longer sustainable. A lot of the deterioration was hidden from view – things like damp, rotting in the roof and weakening metalwork. Even the beautiful facade on the front was cracking. 

We could have continued to fire-fight and fix things as we went along, but there comes a point at which you have to solve the issues for the long term rather than papering over the cracks. It reached that point. Plus, deterioration aside, we simply needed to be more accessible. Even though it’s a heritage building, that’s no excuse for not being fully accessible in this day and age.

The restoration is a once in a generation project. It’s a chance to fix a lot of issues all in one go, such as the access problems and the careful conservation of the building’s historical features. We’re being as transparent as possible, documenting the entire process as we go and keeping the public in the loop. It also allows us to update our facilities and bring the cinema into the 21st century. This in turn means we’ll have the financial sustainability to put a maintenance plan in place for the future.

There are going to be huge positives for audiences. The upgraded building will allow us to show more films, give people more options for private hires, and better food and drink. Overall, more people coming through the doors means we can offer a wider variety of things, which in turn means better value for the Leeds community.

The iconic lamppost being taken away for restoration; fundraiser rewards include a pin-badge and decorative tiles (Credits – Mark Johnston, Ollie Jenkins and Sunken Studio)

You’re currently running a Winter Fundraiser to help with the redevelopment – how’s it going so far?

It’s off to a great start. We had no idea what the response would be, so it’s been especially heartening to receive donations from over 600 incredibly generous people –  we’ve raised over £30,000 so far. The fundraiser closes on Christmas Eve – we’re aiming to hit £40,000 before Christmas if we can!

From day one of the redevelopment project, funding and support from different sources was always going to be required. The grant we received from the Heritage Lottery Fund was the driving force, but we always knew we’d need match funding. That’s why – with the project now well underway – we’ve started asking for help from trusts, foundations and generous individuals.  

We always try to involve the public as much as possible – generally speaking, we do a lot of consultation. And this is the biggest step change in the cinema’s history – we want audiences to feel part of the journey. One of the ways we’re doing this is by giving people the chance to sponsor specific parts of the conservation, making them feel involved in a tangible way. So, for example, people can sponsor the restoration of our lamppost, or a seat within the cinema.

We’ve made an extra special effort with our rewards – we wanted people to feel they were getting something of real value. We have limited edition pin badges, prints and decorative tiles, as well as the chance to have a plaque placed within the building. We really want people to understand the magnitude of what we’re doing, and how we’re revitalising the place. It’s now or never really!

When can the people of Leeds finally get back to seeing films at the Picture House?

We’re hoping to reopen in September 2022. There’s still a lot of work to do, so we can’t say for certain just yet. We’re currently excavating the basement for our second screen – we’re digging down two metres to make the room much bigger, and making sure it will be fully soundproofed. There are still a few unknowns at this complex stage, but once this section of work is complete things should get a little easier!

There’s a lot happening over the next nine months. We have a major rebrand in the works, plus a new membership offer. Our heritage engagement work is ongoing, and we’re still running our On The Road programme in various venues across the city, which is great because it means people can still access our film selections throughout the refurbishment.

We’ll also be assessing new programming opportunities. Doubling the screens and increasing our capacity means we can put on more specialist screenings, and – as we look ahead to 2023 and beyond – be a cinema for even more people in Leeds to use and enjoy. It’s going to be a whole new chapter!

You can find out more about the Winter Fundriaser on the Hyde Park Picture House website.