[This post inspired partly by Tyneside cinema’s appeal to the public to suggest films for their upcoming programme. I tell a version of this story sometimes when talking about participation on media sites, so apologies if you’ve heard it before.]
In the mid-nineties, while finishing up my studies at Liverpool university, I worked nights at the legendary 051 cinema in the heart of the city. It was legendary for being a brilliant beacon of arthouse and non-mainstream films – only three screens, but with a dedication to film that revealed the passion of those running as well as attending the venue.
[Bear with me for a moment – this wibbly wobbly lined nostalgia is leading somewhere.]
This was before Liverpool city centre was hit by the redevelopment cash in the late nineties. It was a great city, but gritty, and full of the fading, utilitarian end of sixties architecture. The 051 cinema was an unassuming place, in a rather hideous sizties concrete block. Here’s a picture of it during the time I worked there.
I got the job because I spent so much time there in the evenings. Since I was hanging out chatting to the manager before and after films anyway, eventually he asked if I wanted to work regular shifts there in exchange for free entry and a lift home at the end of the night. Of course I did!
So from then on, I just had to turn up an hour earlier than I would otherwise do for a screening, record the answerphone message that gave film times for the week ahead, make popcorn and mix up fizzy drinks (the particular combination of concentrated flavouring syrup and carbonated water the pumps used still haunts my nostrils) or sell tickets before the film, then show latecomers into the darkened screen with a little torch, before settling into the usher’s seat at the back to catch the majority of the movie.
Photo: Cinéma du monde by mrMazure on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
In that year, I missed the beginnings and ends of a lot of brilliant films, and watched still more with the thumping bass accompaniment of the 051 nightclub (which shared the building) pulsating through the walls. It gave Farewell My Concubine a whole new subtext, for sure.
But I digress. I promise you this is going somewhere relevant.
Since it was an independent cinema, the manager could choose what to show. Often that meant new(ish) releases which fit the world/art/indie vibe of the place (like Farewell My Concubine, Lone Star), or blockbusters which had particular literary or artistic pedigree (The English Patient). But the programme often included czech animations, noir classics and other flicks you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of or had an opportunity to see. It also meant the cinema could occasionally programme special events – like showing all the original star wars movies one night – and could respond to special requests from loyal patrons about films they’d like to see.
On the wall next to the ticket-office-concession-stand was a suggestion box. We encouraged people to take a scrap of paper and scribble down any movie they wanted. At the end of the week, the manager would empty it out and sift through the pile of papers, looking for patterns or similarities which might inspire programming, or specific titles, which he could then enquire about with the various distributors.