Cinema of the Month: (Carbon-Neutral) Depot – Lewes, UK

By Helen Budge | May 16, 2019 5:59 am PDT
The Depot - Lewes, UK

Celluloid Junkie is proud to have partnered with Vista Cinema 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. 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. 

Scientists say that we only have a scarily short eleven years until parts of our planet will be irreversibly damaged by climate change. What steps can, or perhaps more pertinently should, the cinema industry be taking towards being sustainable? From moving over to more recyclable (and recycled) products, to building carbon neutral cinemas with more ‘green’ projection equipment, there’s a lot to consider.

Several cinemas in the United Kingdom are already addressing their environmental impact, whether it’s upping recycling efforts or appointing a “green ambassador.” One issue that arises in this area however, is the amount of time and effort it takes to research green options. Not only is this research time consuming but alternatives have to be priced realistically and not cost the earth – no pun intended. This is why anyone who has already put in the man hours and amassed a wealth of information on the subject is worth their weight in (green) gold.

Carmen Slijpen, Co-Founder and Director
Originally hailing from Holland, Carmen Slijpen is the co-founder and director of Depot cinema in Lewes. After moving to the UK twenty years ago and finding Lewes to be a particularly progressive area, she is someone who has truly put in the grunt work when it comes to green research. A real sustainability advocate both personally and professionally, she has a huge amount of eco-friendly knowledge built up over the years, specifically pertaining to the many different areas of cinema operation. Be it screening films or serving coffee, Slijpen is always asking herself how the business can function in a more eco-friendly way.

The site Depot is built on was originally a Royal Mail depot before becoming Harvey’s Brewery. It stood empty for fifteen years before Slijpen and business partner Robert Senior purchased it in 2013 with a view to repurpose the land as a cinema. Slijpen brought the green agenda to the design stage of the build, knowing it was something she wanted to prioritise from day one. From its opening to the public in May 2017, one of Depot’s goals was to achieve carbon-neutrality – in itself no mean feat – but something Slijpen and her team achieved in April 2019.

Depot Cinema, Lewes
Arriving at Lewes station, a town just over an hour south of London near the coast, one might wonder if the journey will take long to the cinema. However, given that the cinema is less than 100 metres away from the station platform this is an unnecessary concern. Depot’s website publicises this fact, along with every other public transport route on a detailed Google map to help dissuade customers from driving.

The impression given when approaching Depot is that it’s a beautifully designed building. It’s comprised of the original depot building and the new extension which encompasses the restaurant and cafe bar. It’s striking how particularly complementary the venue is of its local surroundings, with its flat ‘green roof’ covered in foliage sourced from the local Lewes Downs. In a similar vein, around the front entrance and on parts of the walls, decorative flint is used, a local stone used on many buildings around the Lewes area. The front yard is spacious and has plenty of comfortable seating, a spot no doubt popular in summer. The building surrounding the yard is impressive with its floor to ceiling windows in both the restaurant and the foyer area, all of which are cloaked in handsome chestnut shutters.

In-House Initiatives
There are several ways Depot is tackling its impact on the environment, both in terms of the building itself and how they approach day to day running. To begin with, an integral part of the whole eco-friendly process is for Depot’s staff to also be on board with what they’re doing as an enterprise and, more importantly, why. Part of the battle is education and communication which is why every month the staff meeting is held over a staff breakfast and issues raised and discussed. Staff are also encouraged to bring their own ideas to the table which, if viable, will be fully implemented.

A recent development pushed by Slijpen and her staff is simple yet effective; use of local tap water. Instead of producing hundreds of single-use plastic bottles for patrons, Depot has never stocked them and has simply challenged the misconception that tap water ‘isn’t good enough’. They now have a table in the foyer fully dedicated to glass bottles of tap water and stacks of glasses, the former of which, as Slijpen explains, is highly sanitised and perfectly drinkable. As a team, there were some nerves prior to introducing this approach in case of complaints – but customers have taken to it very well, especially if a short explanation is given (where necessary).

There are, of course, no plastic straws to be seen anywhere at Depot, napkins have been changed to a recycled paper option and Vegware takeaway cups complete with cornstarch lids – fully compostable – have been in situ for a while. Slijpen always, however, has a trial period for any new changes to see if both staff and customers get on with the products. And she is finding that she has a new-found power when it comes to local suppliers. A butcher working with Depot was asked to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used, which they successfully did and they’re now enthusiastically spreading the eco-message themselves. Slijpen is humble about this – and numerous other examples – but wants businesses she works with to be as responsible as she is.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
Depot’s three cinema screens – fundamentally why people visit – are neat, nicely proportioned rooms that have comfortable seating and artwork from the walls of the original depot around the auditoria. Two out of the three rooms now have laser projectors, rather than the more power hungry Xenon lamp projectors and Slijpen hopes to be all-laser as soon as possible. Known for their longer-lasting lifespan and, in Slijpen’s case, no need for a booth or projectionist situated as it is in a projection box on the ceiling of the room, it seems laser projectors, on the whole, are the future of green screens.

Powering a Cinema Without Fossil Fuels

Depot - Lewes, UK
The heat pulled up through the pipes buried 120 metres in the ground outside Depot cinema in Lewes, United Kingdom is then controlled by a sizeable pump situated in the plant room. (Source: Depot)

The invisible triumph of Depot is how its heating system is powered without fossil fuels – a main factor of keeping the venue as carbon-neutral as possible. After researching options, Slijpen arrived at the conclusion that, although solar and wind power are effective, a ground source heat pump (GSHP) was the most appropriate option. Though doable if the site in question doesn’t have copious amounts of land to use – the pump can be placed under the building itself – Depot’s yard was the perfect solution to accommodate the (invisible) twelve bore holes, drilled down 120 metres (394 feet) towards the earth’s core. The heat pulled up through these pipes is then controlled by the sizeable pump situated in the plant room. Because of its size, it was vital that the use of the pump was introduced to proceedings at the very inception of the design of the building.

Cost being another frequent issue raised when discussing sustainability, it’s important to note that installation of a GSHP isn’t cheap. But this does have to be considered in the context of long term savings and the availability of government funding to help with set up costs. Slijpen explains that cinema energy bills vary greatly from site to site and it’s especially difficult to compare the independents and multiplexes. But as a rough figure, she figures that Depot’s annual energy bill is around GBP £50,000 (USD $64,000) compared to that of GBP £80,000 (USD $102,400) plus for other sites, thanks in large part, to the pump.

The Green Roof – Communicating the Message
The roof at Depot houses solar panelling for additional energy capture but also provides effective insulation. But Slijpen’s approach isn’t just about putting in these functions that facilitate sustainability. The roof is not only attractive but the greenery and wild flowers that bloom in spring and summer are there to show the neighbouring residents and town what Depot, as a business, stands for.

Sharing this philosophy is the recycled wooden picnic benches in the yard as well as the skylight panels in the roof which allow the building to cool in the hot summer months in place of an air conditioning unit – a big energy guzzler.

Depot - Lewes, UK
The efficient ventilation system at Depot cinema in Lewes, United Kingdom. (Photo: Helen Budge – Celluloid Junkie)

Takeaways for the Industry
Although an overwhelming amount of information is available, Slijpen wants to use the array of knowledge she has gathered to help other cinemas, advising them on their best course of action. She is the first to acknowledge that sustainability takes effort but that it also has to make business sense. There’s no point in investing in something that’s going to bankrupt the company or make life unbearably difficult – it has to be about balance. But, that said, it’s a conversation that needs to happen.

Depot obviously has a massive advantage in that it’s a new building and so the ‘green agenda’ could be implemented from the ground up on day one, which a lot of cinemas don’t have the luxury of doing. But it’s a warm, attractive venue whose staff are helpful and happy to chat about the common goal they all share. Their customers – a wide range of ages from mums with babies, teenagers and a certain number of an older demographic – prove that Depot is an enjoyable place to hang out, as well as aiming to make the world a better place. As a side note, the food looked and tasted delicious too – and all sourced locally and as sustainably as possible!

But one important point for Slijpen, that has clearly also made Depot into a nice place to work, is that the “eco message” has to be a positive one. Nagging and negativity do not make for happy staff, customers or even the industry at large, and so she puts a lot of creativity into creating fun sustainability events, informative workshops and treating her staff well.

For Slijpen, the future of the industry would see a green focus appear on every cinema conference agenda, communicating various ideas and areas that can be worked on together. She would love more research to be carried out into cinema sustainability and then discussed in more detail on, for example, the longer term effects and costs of Xenon lamps on the environment and switching to laser projection.

She states, “There is obviously a divide between what independent cinemas and multiplexes can do. There is a different expectation when you go to your local multiplex compared to somewhere [like Depot]. But although the clientele may be different, that does not mean they aren’t engaged with the green message and it’s about engaging with it as well as we can.”

It’s hard not to be impressed by Slijpen, the lengths Depot is going to – half of which haven’t even been touched on here, out of sheer volume – and what they’ve achieved so far. But, environmentally speaking, more effort is needed, by everyone, to get where we as an industry need to be. If more cinemas gradually come around to the notion that they should be doing what they can for the environment, by taking small or large steps in their sustainability efforts, that’s encouraging. As long as it doesn’t take more than eleven years.

Celluloid Junkie selects the CJ Cinema of the Month based on our own independent survey. We always pay for our own tickets, popcorn and Coke, 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.

Helen Budge