Cinema of the Month: Picturehouse Central – London, UK

By Patrick von Sychowski | August 10, 2017 9:51 pm PDT
Picturehouse Central Main Entrance

Celluloid Junkie is proud to have partnered with Vista Entertainment Solutions (VES) for the Cinema of the Month series. Vista is the world’s leading cinema management software solutions company. We won’t just be featuring cinemas whose operators use Vista, but we will surely mention when that is the case (like this month). CJ would like to thank everyone at Vista for partnering with CJ to showcase some of the most interesting, innovative and inspiring cinemas from around the world. 

London’s Picturehouse Central is a cinema wonder that few may have anticipated, but the city’s cinema goers richly deserved. More than just an arthouse multiplex, the seven-screen cinema has become a West End destination that oozes quality and hip sophistication. It is also impeccably programmed, operated and maintained, which is all the more remarkable given the location’s chequered cinema past; Picturehouse Central rose from the rubble of what was arguably London’s least loved cinema.

Opened in the summer of 2015 Picturehouse Central is the crown jewel of the Picturehouse portfolio of arthouse cinemas that was acquired by Cineworld in 2012 for GBP £47.3 million (USD $61.4 million). At the time the move was decried as a faceless multiplex corporation swallowing the independent operator of many beloved local cinemas such as Brixton’s Ritzy. But it enabled co-founder Lynn Goleby to push through her passion project of opening a flagship cinema in central London.

Shraftsbury Avenue Entrance of Picturehouse Central in London
Picturehouse Central is situated a block away from Piccadilly Circus on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street in London. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

While it describes itself as ‘just off Leicester Square’ (London’s cinema hub), Picturehouse Central is more accurately situated a block away from Piccadilly Circus on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Located inside the Trocadero building that dates back to 1882, the site opened as an MGM seven-screen cinema in 1991, before becoming a Virgin venue, then a UGC property and finally a Cineworld multiplex. Yet no matter what the brand it remained central London’s most despised cinemas.

During this time of constant ownership change the Trocadero building was also home to the Pepsi IMAX Theatre, which opened in 1997 and was London’s first commercial IMAX cinema, even though the large format company still only played documentaries like “Everest” back then. Few were surprised when the Pepsi IMAX closed in 2000. Both the IMAX and multiplex were hard to reach inside a mall that had long ago lost its lustre, especially with the closure of the HMV store in 2013, (replaced by a store selling cheap London souvenirs), seen as the last nail in the coffin of the Trocadero as a premium retail destination.

At this time the outdated and run-down multiplexes’ sole distinction was being the only place in central London showing the latest Bollywood films – with portrait posters of Shah Rukh Khan films awkwardly fitted into landscape frames. Had the building not been Grade II listed it would no doubt have been torn down similar to the Swiss Centre’s Odeon next door and central London would have lost yet another cinema location. Instead a Picturehouse phoenix was about to rise from the Cineworld ashes.

Picturehouse Central Ground Floor Cafe
The neon sign which beckons patrons into the Ground Floor Cafe at the Picturehouse Central. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Building and Rennovation
Panter Hudspith Architects was tasked with re-imagining the Trocadero’s cinema space (with interior and lighting design by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio), a GBP £4 million (USD $5.2 million) project they tackled with gusto. As they themselves put it:

Our client, Picturehouse Cinemas Ltd, challenged us to undertake a major restoration and reworking of the buildings including an existing redundant cinema within the complex. The aim was to create their flagship cinema, ‘Picturehouse Central’ and our approach was to strip back the historic layers of the structure and weave new spaces into the building.

Instead of accessing the cinema through the grotty Trocadero mall or an escalator/elevator from the outside, a brand new entrance was created on Great Windmill Street facing Shaftsbury Avenue, with retro neon signs and large windows. Utilising the rear space of the old HMV, Panter Hudspith created a grand and spacious entrance with a double-height foyer that is the Ground Floor Cafe.

If it was not for the self-serve ticketing kiosks and illuminated film listing board on the left hand side, you might be forgiven for thinking that you had entered a trendy cafe/restaurant rather than a movie theatre. With its chequer herringbone floor tiles, understated lighting and warm wooden furniture attracting you toward the long deli counter on the right, you wonder if some people might not have wandered in here without realising that there is also a cinema upstairs.

Examining the food options and dishes laid out on the counter does nothing to dispel the notion that this could be a first class stand-alone food retialer: there is a wide variety of sandwiches, salads, granola, fruit, cakes, muffins, cookies and other treats, as well as all manner of drinks, teas and coffees, served up by staff that are unfailingly friendly and helpful. There are also hot food options, such as eggs Benedict. Picturehouse Central gets extra marks not just for the veggie and gluten-free options, but for the self-serve free water dispenser.

The Ground Floor Cafe is open from 9:00 in the morning on weekdays (10:00 on weekends), even before the cinema itself opens, making it a great breakfast or brunch meeting spot. In the afternoon young people with MacBooks make themselves at home with a latte as they type away on their screenplay, book or blog. They seem oblivious to the murals by artist Patrick Vale, who was commissioned with the open brief: ‘do something, as long as cinema is involved,’ and responded magnificently:

The usual cinema-based themes like poster images, film stars, glamour, famous quotes and other cliches were rejected, instead focusing on how films are actually made: machines were drawn, technology, people behind the scenes, film-slang, imaginary conversations based on the nature and the critical disagreements reacting to a trip to the cinema.

The ‘Mother of All Interlocks’ mural stretches from proto-cinema figures like the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge all the way to the digital projection age. It is worth examining closely and feeling clever if you recognise the references and inside-jokes of Robert Paul cursing the Lumière brothers. And did I mention that there is free Wifi everywhere?

Leading up to the Mezzanine level is a grand staircase illuminated by an elaborate array of lights floating above it. It could be argued that this industrial aesthetic is on its way to becoming cliche generic Brooklyn/Shoreditch/Los Feliz chic, with its mismatched furniture, aged all-timber flooring, exposed brickwork and visible ducts. (I’m always reminded when I see this of the Central Services advert seen in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian “Brazil”: ‘Do your ducts seem old-fashioned, out-of-date?’) But it works in the context of Picturehouse Central and the Mezzanine makes a good initial impression.

Immediately grabbing your attention at the top of the staircase is a sweets and merchandising counter. To the right is a box office, for those that have not used the self-service kiosks downstairs or booked online. Yet the chief purpose of this point of sale is to entice visitors with many concession offerings that go way beyond the standard popcorn and Coke. As well as several ice-cream types – Pop’s Premium Popsicles, Jude’s Ice-Cream or healthier Acai Superfood bowls.

On the savoury side there is wasabi peas, beetroot, horseradish and dill crisps, chili nuts or just raw mixed nuts, sitting in wooden crates to suggest country farm freshness. Alongside regular popcorn there is gourmet pre-packed Joe & Seph flavoured popcorn and Popcorn Shed pecan or rich chocolate options. There’s three kinds of gourmet chocolate, with more traditional M&M’s, Minstrels, Maltesers and Revels confined to the bottom shelf.

To the left of the concession stand there is a bar and restaurant area. This is open from noon until late as serves coffee, food and alcohol. With lots of couches and natural light coming in from the windows facing Shatesbury Avenue, this is an even more relaxed hang-out space before or after the film – or even if you are not here to see a film – than the downstairs cafe. This too has become a go-to West End meeting space, particularly for people in the film and creative industry given its proximity to Soho.

Having sampled a wonderful Lamington cake – that would make an Australian both proud and homesick – with proper barista coffee downstairs, I still decided to try the popcorn and Coke before I made my way under a neon sign that read SCREENS and hung over the red-painted steel beams that hint at the scale of remodeling work undertaken to the cinema section. Here you are greeted by typical movie standees along with a photo booth for selfie movie campaigns, such as donning a bad wig for “Toni Erdmann”. Very social media savvy.

Picturehouse Central in London
A neon sign that reads SCREENS hangs over red-painted steel beams hinting at the scale of remodeling work undertaken at the Picturehouse Central in London. (Source: Picturehouse)

An escalator leads up to the seven auditoriums, which have largely retained the layout of the old Cineworld multiplex. However, before you get to the cinema there is the Member’s Bar area.

Member’s Bar and Roof Terrace
Membership at Picturehouse Central is GBP £75 (USD $97.4) for one year and gives you four tickets, discounts and access to the Members’ Bar. There is also a Membership Plus for GBP £140 (USD $182) which offers more tickets and discounts for friends, as well as discounts for students and seniors. There are also other perks such as a three-month free access to the online arthouse PVoD platform MUBI, 25% off Gourmet Burger and more. It’s worth noting the E4Slacker Club (free monthly screenings for students) and Cineworld Unlimited cards are valid at Picturehouse cinemas.

By far the best benefit of Picturehouse Membership is access to the Member’s Bar and Roof Terrace. This is a generous secluded corner of the building with great views of Piccadilly and Haymarket. I had visited it before when the ECA Conference was held in the cinema and it is a great space. While London is full of private members’ clubs, such as Soho House, Groucho and The Hospital, their annual membership runs several hundred pounds – that is, if you ever make it off the waiting list for applicants.

In this context Pictuehouse Central’s Membership and access to the Bar and Roof Terrace is an insanely good value. So much so that I almost hesitate writing about it for fear that, (a) too many people will apply and swamp the relaxed atmosphere, or (b) the price will get hiked up when everyone realises what a phenomenal value this is. The only downside to the Member’s Bar is that you need a ticket to a film to buy alcoholic drinks here after 9pm. The solution is to get a Cineworld Unlimited card and have a ticket even if you don’t plan to see a film. It will still be one-tenth of what it cost you to be a member and purchase cocktail at Soho House.

However good a bar, lounge and decor it may have, a cinema’s true character is ultimately expressed by the films that it shows. This is where Picturehouse Central truly shines. Credit for the stellar and varied programming goes to the fabulous Clare Binns, who is Director of Acquisitions & Programming for the Picturehouse Cinema Group. Picturehouse Central’s programming is no less ambitious in scope than that of the British Film Institute’s South Bank cinema. This is all the more impressive given the the cinema’s commercial constraints, where you are as likely to catch “Dunkirk” or “Baby Driver” as “The Beguiled” or an obscure documentary.

Self-serve Ticketing Kiosks at the Picturehouse Central
Self-serve ticketing kiosks and the illuminated film listing board inside the ground floor entrance of the Picturehouse Central in London. (Photo: Patrick von Sychowski – Celluloid Junkie)

Picturehouse has not one, but two in-house magazines, one specifically for London. Far from just anodyne across-the-board recommendations, @ClareLBinns calls out both high-art and crowd pleasers in her intro. “‘Wonder Woman’ is SUCH good fun – this woman kicks ass! Forget ‘Suffragette,’ this does more for girl power than any film I have seen in a long time.” But without pausing for breath recommends “My Life as a Courgette” and the re-release of “Daughters of the Dust”.

Picturehouse Central does not just programme all the latest feature films and documentaries being released, but is also now home to Sundance Film Festival London, as well as monthly themed seasons: Out at… shows LGBT films, Criminal Acts celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial homosexuality decriminalisation, there are Robot Special Double Bills (“The Terminator” and “Metropolis”), Critic’s Circle, Archive Film Screening with Live Music, 35mm shows, Screening for Dogs, Culture Shock, Keeping It Reel 70mm (“Interstellar”), Club Ciné, Korean and Indian Film Festivals, Discover Tuesdays, Vintage Sundays, Screen Arts, Kids Club, Autism Friendly, Dementia Friendly, Silver Screen, Film Courses, Education – and that was just June and July!

Trocadero Frieze at Picturehouse Central in London
The Arthurian themed frieze hanging above the escalators at the Picturehouse Central in London was made by Gerald Moira and F Lynn Jenkins in 1896 for the luxurious Trocadero Restaurant. (Photo: James McDonald)

Cinema screens
While incongruous with the rest of the design and decor, Picturehouse deserves credit for retaining and restoring the friezes from the old Trocadero Restaurant, which you can see as you go up the escalators to the auditoriums. Each of the auditorium is named after a famous movie personality, from Sigourney Weaver for screen  1 to Terry Thomas for screen 7. While a lot of attention and money has gone into the retail areas, no less attention has been devoted to the screens and auditoriums.

You can read a detailed discussion of Picturehouse Central cinemas’ technical specifications in an interview with Picturehouse Cinemas Head of Technical Operation Geoff Newitt on the Picturehouse Blog, including a lengthy discussion of the cinema’s 70mm capabilities, 4K projection and Dolby Atmos sound. The auditorium capacities are: Screen 1: 341 seats, Screen 2: 177 seats, Screen 3: 131 seats, Screen 4: 127 seats, Screen 5: 82 seats, Screen 6: 78 seats and Screen 7: 65 seats. A total of 1,001 seats.

Some key points about the screens:

  • Screen 1 & Screen 2 have been renamed to Screen 2 & Screen 1.
  • Screen 1 is fitted with a Dolby Atmos system.
  • The two largest screens are equipped with 4K projection.
  • Four screens support RealD 3D.
  • 35mm/70mm capability in Screen 1 (formerly Screen 2), 35mm in Screen 7.
  • All auditoria retained but completely re-fitted, including increased floor rake in Screen 1 and increased screen sizes in 1 and 2.

Picturehouse Central was able to increase the size of the screens in almost all of the seven old Cineworld auditoriums, as explained by Geoff Newitt:

Screens 1 and 2 (formerly Screens 2 and 1) see the biggest changes. In fact, Screen 1 will be almost unrecognisable; we’ve removed the rear two or three rows of seats and tiered the floor to improve the sightlines. At the same time, the picture increases from 12.2m wide to 13.9m. Screen 2 grows from 10.1m to 11.5m wide, while several others have useful increases in size and/or corrected aspect ratios.

The seats might not be recliners, but they are large, comfortable and generously spaced. I settled in to watch something so obscure you might think it was selected to prove just how eclectic Picturehouse Central’s programming is, but it just happened to be the first film that played that day.

“The Road Movie” (2016) by Dimitrii Kalashnikov (yes, that’s really the director’s name) is a documentary that consists of nothing but dashboard camera footage from Russia where comets crash to earth, cars drive through forrest fire infernos, thugs smash up windshields, maniacs jump and cling onto the hood, several truly spectacular car crashes and much more. As I leave the only other audience member, and older gentleman impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, is fast asleep in the back row. Was he once a member of a nearby Mayfair club or was he teleported here form a different era? Upon exiting the auditorium I see a poster for a David Lynch documentary showing next. Even when it looks odd, everything here somehow makes beautiful sense and I can’t wait to be back.

Celluloid Junkie selects the CJ Cinema of the Month based on our own independent survey. We always pay for our own tickets and and Lamington cakes, and visit the cinema in a ‘mystery patron’ capacity in most cases. Whenever possible we take our own photographs of a cinema in lieu of corporate stock photos. Thus, sometimes you get authenticity at the expense of focus. Our impressions may be subjective, but we always try to be fair and factually accurate in everything being presented about one of the cinemas we have chosen.

Patrick von Sychowski
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