Words by Pamela Buxton
What does your role at Picturehouse broadly entail?
I grow and manage the business and have overall responsibility for site development, from choosing which sites we go into, throughout the build and up to opening.
Did you have a background in development prior to Picturehouse?
No, my background was in financing and, in a smaller way, producing films. But the way we develop cinema projects is very much like patching together the finance for films.
What is your development strategy at Picturehouse?
It's very much about converting architecturally interesting buildings into venues with character -- we're not into bland modern buildings and we rarely go into shopping centres and the like. I really love rescuing buildings and converting them to a new use as a cinema at the heart of the community. That's what makes my job so fascinating.
What is the key to a successful cinema experience and how important is design in achieving this?
For us, the film is king. It's all about the broadest range of programming and the best environment for the films -- we're anti anything that distracts from this.
I try to plot the customer journey very carefully. I've always thought that our main competitor is the sofa in the living room, so we're looking to create a sense of event at our cinemas. It's all about the excitement, and the joy, and the adventure of going out.
This isn't always easy with some of the old buildings we deal with -- each space and its local environment dictates what we can do with it. I don't aim to roll out a Picturehouse brand. Although people may notice common threads through our cinemas, there isn't even the great imprint of a brand.
Founder member boards decorate the cafe/bar at the Picturehouse London, East Dulwich, designed by Panter Hudspith. Photo: Andy Matthews.
Have you noticed any changes in what your audience wants in terms of the cinema environment?
The UK is a mature market. Audience expectations are very high. People want really decent-sized leg-room, comfort and good screen sizes. The sort of buildings we go into present plenty of challenges to achieve all that. Food and beverage is a crucial part of what we do these days and contributes to the whole experience of the evening out.
How many different design projects do you generally commission a year?
We always have a steady stream coming through of new venues and are generally working on five or six at any one time, although I wouldn't aim to open more than three in a year. The typical development journey for a new venue takes about four years. Our cafe/bars though tend to have a four or five-year design life.
How do you go about commissioning designers and architects?
Sometimes by pitch, or sometimes we use a designer we already have a relationship with. We like to mix and match according to site, so we don't always commission the same architect or designer. Often the development project is architect-led and doesn't involve a separate interior designer. Over the years, we've probably worked with four key practices the most -- Panter Hudspith, Earle Architects, Fletcher Priest Architects and Burrell Foley Fischer.
What qualities do you look for in a designer/architect?
A strong vision of what will give our spaces a USP, a realistic grasp of the practical operational requirements and strong technical capabilities. The specialist aspects of screen spaces that work for the best sound and viewing experience can't be underestimated.
You've recently opened Picturehouse Central at the London Trocadero. What was the challenge here?
I pushed very hard to do this project. Picturehouse Central was a complete reinvention of a cinema that previously had a very multiplex character. I felt that if we could open up the glories of the facade and get the traditional language of cinema going there we could deliver a great destination.
Working with Panter Hudspith, we've created a grand entrance and sense of occasion -- it's now the sort of place where you could hold a premiere; and indeed we have already done so.
We're still working on the exterior setting of the colonnade, redoing the paving stones, railings and signs to move away from its previous grungy character and instead link up with new developments to the north near Air Street and to the south on Haymarket.
What is the most challenging and rewarding aspect of your job as a design client?
The best bit is definitely standing in the foyer and listening to the reactions -- I love seeing happy customers. The hardest thing is dealing with the subjectivity of design when you find yourself the design arbiter on the team. There are often different points of view, and trying to synthesise the new ideas with know-how from past projects into a new design that works is the most challenging part of the job.
What venues do you feel have turned out particularly successfully?
Historically, I've always loved our cinema in York, which was created from a derelict print works. Hackney has turned out very successfully, as has East Dulwich, where with Panter Hudspith we converted an old church into a new space for the community. I'm always proud of refurbishments that have been transformational, such as at The Ritzy in Brixton. There we worked with Earle Architects to open the building up to the square.
What's coming up next in terms of new venues?
Crouch End will be next, then I hope Chiswick and West Norwood. We're also currently working on Kensington, which will open in 2019, and we have plans for a venue in Durham.
Do you have any favourite cinemas or art venues that you take inspiration from?
In terms of old cinemas, it has to be the grandeur and glamour of The Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill Gate. I don't tend to look to other cinemas however -- I take inspiration from other buildings such as art galleries and other design environments. When our Hackney cinema was called the Tate Modern of cinema, I was really chuffed!