London’s Littlest Cinemas

I’ve been thinking about small cinemas. In particular the one in Southwold, which I visited a couple of summers ago. It was built in the last decade with a small amount of seats, yet rendered in a beautiful 1920s picturehouse style. This gave it a strange Legoland quality, as the real old picturehouses were huge.

Looking it up now, I discover its capacity is 68. Which isn’t all that small, really. A while ago I saw the new ‘Dorian Gray’ flick at a multiplex, and the screen turned out to have the dimensions of an average living room. This was at the Empire Leicester Square, screen number 6. Number of seats: 26.

And yet, it didn’t feel cramped or claustrophobic. In fact, the proximity of strangers in such limited number meant that any would-be chatterers or wrapper rustlers were dissuaded from the off, fearing they could be glowered at (or have their shoulders tapped) so much more easily. On top of this, I’m convinced the intimacy intensified the viewing itself, as I felt closer to being an honoured house guest rather than a visitor in an uncaring public cavern.

On the occasions I’ve reviewed films, I’ve had to go to press screenings in compact rooms, often in Soho. But despite the similar cosiness, the atmosphere there isn’t the same at all. You are in the company of professionals who are watching the film as part of their job, not because they want to escape into stories and visit other worlds in the dark. You can sense the taint of obligation in the air. Enforced fun is never the same as the fun you do for, well, fun.

No, to truly enjoy a film it must be in a room made for the purpose, amongst strangers who have paid to be there. And I’m starting to wonder if small cinemas are better than large ones.

Now, I do hate it when articles justify themselves with tenuous links to the news, such as the Cher movie about burlesque generating columns along the lines of ‘Is Burlesque Empowering Or Not, Or What, Or Whither?’ Or, in the run-up to the release of ‘Black Swan’, articles in the press every single day along the lines of ‘I Too Was In The Same Room As Some Ballet Once’.

But by sheer coincidence – honest – a tiny cinema HAS just been in the news. Nottingham’s Screen Room, which seats 21 and claims to be the smallest cinema in the world (never mind the UK), has just closed its doors. What hasn’t been made clear is where that title rests now.  I was interested in a list of fun-sized London cinemas myself, but couldn’t find one. So I’ve done the research myself.

Although I’m not counting multiplex screens, I’m guessing the 26 seats of Empire 6, Leicester Square must be a contender for the smallest in the West End. Trouble is, multiplexes tend to sell tickets per film rather than per screen, and move the titles around the screens to match demand. You often don’t know what screen you’re getting until you choose the film and time.

I’m also not counting screening rooms in hotels, film clubs in non-cinema venues, private hire places or the Abcat Cine Club in King’s Cross. This being a 20-seat sex cinema that the Cinema Treasures website insists on listing as a ‘classic movie theatre’. I do, however, understand that it shows heterosexual adult films for men to have gay sex to, and that despite the arrival of the internet, it’s still going.  I suppose there’s a lesson there about niche marketing.

With those exceptions noted, here’s a list of the capital’s single-screen cinemas with a capacity of under 100, as of February 2011.

1. The Exhibit, Balham. 24 seats.
2. The Aubin, Shoreditch. 45 seats.
3. Shortwave, Bermondsey. 52 seats.
4. David Lean Clock Tower, Croydon. 68 seats. (Update: This may be closing.)
5. Lexi, Kensal Rise. 77 seats.
6. Electric Cinema, Notting Hill. 98 seats.

Most of these are fairly new, and I’m looking forward to trying them out. I wonder if the coming of digital projectors means that more lounge-sized independent cinemas like these are going to pop up. I do hope so.

The smallest screen in a multi-screen arthouse cinema is probably the NFT’s Studio, with 38 seats. Followed by the ICA’s Screen 2, at 45 seats.

Both screens at the Everyman Baker St are unusually small: one at 85 seats, the other at 77.

As for current contenders for the smallest cinema in Britain, there’s the Blue Walnut Cafe in Torquay (23 seats), Minicine in Leeds (26 seats), and the aforementioned Exhibit in Balham. Out of those, only the Exhibit regularly screens new-ish releases.

If I’ve missed any out, please do let me know.


The Southwold Electric Picture Palace

BBC News story: Screen Room in Nottingham closes

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