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Facelift for a Centenarian
Date posted: 15.09.2010
Built in 1910, making it one of the first cinemas in the UK, The Phoenix in East Finchley has survived two World Wars, several recessions and the advent of the multiplexes. Over the years it has also attracted many loyal and notable fans including Mike Leigh, Judi Dench and Ken Loach.
Now, after 100 years of continued operation as a cinema, the Grade II building has been brought back to its early 20th century glory in a 14-week £1.1million restoration and rebuilt process.
Work has been undertaken to the Mollo and Egan Art Deco interior and impressive Edwardian barrel ceiling. A new café bar has also been added to the venue. The purpose: to continue giving audiences from the local community and beyond the genuine cinema experience in stunning surroundings.
To mark its 100 years of history in the community, The Phoenix is planning a full programme of events, including a range of heritage-related activities supported by Film London and the UK Film Council's Digital Film Archive Fund. Alongside educational activities, behind the scene tours of the building and a touring exhibition on the history of The Phoenix, the 'Centenary Timeline' will be a new permanent interactive display of archive film material and historical information from 1910-2010 and 'From the Archives' will show achive films at a series of free screenings accompanied by introductions, talks and Q&As.
The 'new' Phoenix will also host Film London's Exhibitors' Forum on 16 September, which will be an opportunity for cinema exhibitors and festival organisers to learn how to draw in new audiences by programming archive film.
Paul Homer, Chief Executive of The Phoenix Cinema Trust – the charitable organisation that runs the cinema – led a long and complicated fundraising process to secure The Phoenix's renaissance. Here, he tells us all about the project and the plans to mark the cinema's 100th anniversary.
The Phoenix cinema is reopening this month after a 14-week long restoration process – what changes can we expect to see?
A completely restored wonderful looking building back to its 1930s glory. A brand new cafe bar overlooking the high street and the best auditorium in London (at least we think so!).
How are the improvements to the site going to benefit the cinema-going experience at The Phoenix?
The whole place is about the enjoyment and pleasure of cinema. The auditorium is a lovely welcoming room in which to experience great films in a stunning atmosphere.
This is a £1.1m restoration - how did you raise the finance for the project?
Slowly! It's a project we've been planning for many years. We launched the fundraising drive just under three years ago and have been bowled over by the public response. Our supporters came out in droves and gave us donations large and small. We had a really positive reaction from Charitable Trusts and Foundations who gave over a quarter of the money. We ran a number of events at the cinema with proceeds going towards the project and also approached companies, though with less success in this area.
As this is a Grade II listed building, did you need to get specialists on board to complete the work?
Yes. We bought a firm of specialist restoration architects, HMDW, on board very early. Their advice and guidance has been critical to the success of the project. We also worked with Durkan, the main contractors who are experienced at restoring buildings.
As part of the launch and the wider Centenary celebrations you are launching two new regular free programmes of events at The Phoenix: 'Behind the Scenes Tours' and 'From the Archives' – both supported by Film London. Tell us a bit about these.
The Phoenix is a special place, more than just a cinema. It contains film history, architectural history, social history and more. We wanted these stories to come out through our restoration project, so we've organised a range of screenings and events that bring out this amazing history. It allows people to understand more about the Phoenix but also to contextualise it in wider history. They are free, fun events for everyone to enjoy.
There is a strong educational programme at the cinema as well – how important do you think it is to engage younger audiences with film and history?
It's vital. Younger audiences are tomorrow's cineastes. Many people remember their formative cinematic experiences, I know I do, so we want to engage with young people to give them a taste of cinema and hope that they'll fall in love with it. Film is such a fantastic gateway to so many other things; politics, art, history, science. It can be anything that young audiences want it to be.
To celebrate the grand re-opening, 'A Century of Cinema' screenings will show a film for each decade the cinema has been open. How did you go about choosing a film that would represent each decade?
With great difficulty and much debate. We set some criteria including that the films not only had to be made in the decade we were celebrating but they had to be set in that decade and somehow capture what was happening in society at that time. We had a number of people – academics, writers, educators – draw up short lists and then we all got together and argued it out. It was great fun but we did have to drop some great films from the lists as we couldn't show them all.
The Phoenix lays claim as the oldest purpose built cinema in the UK – how has it survived World Wars, recessions and the changing face of the British film industry?
That's a huge question, and the detail can be found in our recently published book 'The Phoenix Cinema, A Century of Film in East Finchley'. In essence it boils down to being innovative and being adaptable. We've changed our programming, marketing, management and even our name in order to keep surviving, often against the odds. The fact that we still remain is extraordinary.
How do cinemas like The Phoenix, which has a focus on independent and non-mainstream film, compete with the growth of multiplex cinemas, the advent of new technology such as 3D and the 'blockbuster' culture?
I don't really see multiplexes, 3D and blockbuster as direct competition. We offer something very different to those cinemas. Those cinemas have their place and are very popular so shouldn't be dismissed. We just offer a wonderful building that is about the wonder and beauty of cinema. We believe that great films should be shown in great buildings. Throw into that knowledgeable staff, a great bar and a diverse programme then you get a unique offer.
Patrons for The Phoenix read as a Who's Who of the film industry, including Maureen Lipman, Michael Palin, Bill Paterson, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Mark Kermode and Judi Dench – what has been the key to securing the support of such high-profile personalities?
The simple reason is that they have all used the cinema and most have lived locally at some point in their lives. So they visit the cinema at some point and we say hi, and then we might ask them to introduce a film, or do a Q&A session. That then grows into a deeper involvement so we then ask them to become a patron. Also they're all lovely people who care about film and cinemas and their local community and want to use their profile to support a charity that chimes with their own outlook.
How do you see The Phoenix developing over the next 100 years?
I really don't know. Cinema has changed so much in the last century that if you'd told people in 1910 whether cinema would still be here in 2010 they wouldn't have believed you. So who can predict the technological changes in the next ten years, let alone the next 100. That said I do think that people will always want to gather together to share stories and emotions, something that cinema does so well. So if that appetite is still there I hope the future caretakers of The Phoenix can keep the bird flying.
A Gala to celebrate The Phoenix's reopening and its 100 years of life will take place on 23 September. For more information about the reopening programme visit The Phoenix's website.