Chiswick Cinema celebrates its second anniversary – and there is much to celebrate

A cinema where Chiswick people can feel comfortable, like they belong

Chiswick Cinema has just passed its second anniversary (on 25 June), celebrated with two-for-one cocktails and the highly addictive Joe & Seph’s gourmet popcorn. They have done pretty well to survive, considering they opened during a pandemic. The business plan got torn up fairly early on, but they appear to be doing rather better than surviving – dare we even say thriving?

The Chiswick Calendar spoke to the cinema’s marketing manager Chris Parker about what is going well and what is going less well.

Chiswick Cinema got off to a pretty rocky start when it opened in June 2021.

“We started at the worst possible time. The plan for year one certainly became just to survive” he told me. “Year two, we have been figuring out our identity, meeting our community and forging partnerships, trying to return some of the support we’ve had.”

Full disclosure, The Chiswick Calendar is one of those partnerships. The cinema advertises with us, and we have set up the Chiswick In Film festival together.

Is it making money yet?

“That’s not a question I can really answer. We are owned by Trafalgar [who have their hands on the purse strings]. As an independent cinema we are in a very good position compared with other cinemas. We are OK.”

Image above: Films currently on show at Chiswick Cinema

Why is it so expensive?

“We’re not. You can’t compare us to ActOne. [The new cinema in Acton]. That’s run by volunteers.”

Who should we compare you with?

“The Olympic cinema in Barnes, the Gate in Notting Hill, the Picturehouse cinema in Fulham Rd has a similar offering, but even then, the Olympic has two screens, the Gate has just one. We have five screens. We all have different offerings.

“We always set out to be a boutique cinema. We are unique in the cinema spectrum. We are the only place to offer free [membership] tickets on Encore [live theatre] events and 3D films.”

Cinema as an industry is struggling.

Covid is one reason. Even when cinemas were reopened, groups had to sit together within their own ‘bubble’. You could not book to sit next to a friend if you tried, and in any case who wanted to share an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers?

It also caused a production drought. “The slate is much drier than it used to be” says Chris, “but the principal thing we have to overcome is how to exist alongside streaming, at a time when people don’t have much money.”

Image above: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

The trouble with banking on blockbusters

They are reliant on people wanting to see the big blockbuster action movies on a big screen, but those big blockbuster films aren’t doing the business they used to:

“People have had 12 years of  Marvel now, and they want something new.”

What audiences will make of a film has always been a bit of a gamble. Last year’s summer film was Top Gun, Maverick, which played for three months. This summer’s is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which has had a month of bad press from Cannes, criticised for being a cynical attempt to squeeze the last drop of blood out of an old franchise.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a phenomenal film” says Chris, indignantly, his voice getting louder. “It’s brilliant – inventive, nostalgic, but also new. Great family viewing.”

[Our film critic Andrea Carnevali thought so too – you can read his review here: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny]

But the result of the bad publicity is that they are quieter this summer.

Image above: All Quiet on the Western Front

Competition from streaming services

More long term and systemic is the competition from streaming. Why would you schlep out to the cinema when you can watch the same thing at home at a fraction of the cost? Big screen … incredibly high-quality digital images and an amazing sound system … air conditioning. (OK but what have the Romans ever done for us? …)

Chris thinks the hit they are taking because of streaming will work itself out and cinemas will learn to live with it just as radio learned to live with television, and television did with video.

“I think the streaming services will change their strategy. Just look at All Quiet On The Western Front for example. It was not shown in cinemas initially but once it won all the nominations Netflix wanted it in cinemas. West Side Story did ok, but it went on Disney + and was still selling out screenings.”

Image above: A burger from the cinema’s Taycan Lounge

While that all shakes down and sorts itself out, what can cinemas do to help themselves?

One thing is to make the cinema more of a ‘destination’. Everything seems to have to offer more these days than the just service it was originally intended to provide.

In Chiswick Cinema’s case they are, rather ironically, fighting against the legacy of their creation to a degree. Two years before the cinema opened, they were selling ‘Founder memberships’ because they wanted to bring in money up-front to fund the building.

These have recently been changed to ‘Platinum’ memberships, as you cannot go on having more and more ‘founders’ indefinitely, but they do need to go on selling premium memberships. They have found the exclusivity which they offered initially had a disadvantage, in that it made people think, wrongly, that they had to be a member to go and see a film.

He is at pains to point out this is not so. Anyone can walk in off the street and buy a ticket for a film.

The ‘Founder Members’ Bar’ is now the ‘Taycan Lounge’, sponsored by Porsche West London, and is open to everyone. And I mean it is actually open. There was quite a long period of Catch-22 when a lot of the time it was annoyingly closed because no one used it and it was not worth the cost of the staff to keep it open.

The bar has hosted a series of community events, from Abundance London and Make and Paint’s launch of the Platinum Jubilee’s children’s paintings for the High Rd’s shop windows, to the Chiswick Book Festival’s launch of their updated Writers Trail.

They positively welcome people coming in to sit with their laptop and while away some time and are encouraging people to drop in for lunch. (Who even needs films?)

Image above: L to R Lesley Nicol, Gareth Neame, Phyllis Logan and Simon Curtis at the Chiswick In Film festival

Returning to the theme of identity, how would Chris characterise Chiswick Cinema?

Not arthouse (thank God). Not just whatever the latest thing is that Hollywood has served up, (ditto), but a carefully curated mix that includes blockbusters, family films, what has become known as ‘Screen art’ (Royal Opera House /  National Theatre  / Metropolitan Opera / Exhibition on Screen), independent cinema (ie. some arthouse), special events and different screenings for particular groups – Silverscreen (£8 for senior citizens Monday – Thursday), Kids Club (£5 for Saturday morning 10.30am screenings, for adults and children), Subtitled, Audio Described.

“We know we’ve got a much broader and diverse audience than would be served by just arthouse movies, or Hollywood. We have some arthouse films – The Worst Person In The World was classically an arthouse film, as was One Fine Morning. We have rep screenings [older films] and some world cinema, foreign language films. We screened Laal Singh Chaddha last year in Tamil and Hindi.

“We are showing The Last Rider [cycling documentary] and Pretty Red Dress which aren’t as mainstream. I like to think someone can find something each week they want to see.”

Image above: Stephen Frears and Vanessa Redgrave

Special events

The special events are Chris’s passion. He has just started a two year Richard Attenborough season, working with the late, great film maker’s son Michael, who lives in Chiswick. Earlier this year there was a Karel Reisz season, which brought in such luminaries as Melvyn Bragg and Vanessa Redgrave to discuss his films with an audience. With less fanfare there is (still ongoing) a Wes Anderson season.

Jonathan Maitland recently conducted a Q&A session with Shakespeare in Love director John Madden. Aimee Fuller and Katya Jones shared their experiences of reality TV show Celebrity Hunted. The director of Royal Paintbox, Margy Kinmonth, talked about her experiences interviewing Prince Charles about the royal family’s collection of paintings. And those are just the special events I can think of since March.

Last year we started the Chiswick In Film festival, with the producer, director and cast members of Downton Abbey in attendance, and film star Sarah Miles. We are busy planning this year’s for the weekend of 29 September- 1 October and are running a young people’s film making competition which will be judged by Colin Firth and Michael Attenborough.

Andrea Carnevali has established a monthly film club, open to all, to watch films and discuss them (which is refreshingly unpretentious). There are regular film quizzes….

All of this is what makes the Chiswick Cinema offering something special.

And the things that are going less well?

It has not all been plain sailing. While Chris has been doing his level best to get people to sign up to the new package of memberships, several people have told The Chiswick Calendar they have not been able to renew their Founder memberships or convert them to the new Platinum memberships because of IT problems.

“We are using the biggest, most popular cinema operating system” says Chris, guardedly. “But it doesn’t work” say I.

“Unfortunately it is not working the way we would like,” he says, with careful restraint. (I know it is making his life a misery).

“If anyone would like to renew their membership and they are having trouble, please ask them to contact us by email at: membership@chiswickcinema.co.uk, or pop in and see me” he says.

But whatever you do, do not stop going to our local cinema. We waited long enough to get it!

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