I duck under red stage drapes into the projection room. The walls are lined with DVD and video game cases. Toby Soar talks me through the impressive specs of each piece of technology with a great deal of pride. “We show cult cinema and anything film nerds want,” he says. I scan the shelves, picking out Dune amongst many names I don’t recognise.
Most of the films were collected by Jason Bailey, co-founder of GRUB, who began Chapeltown Picture House as a passion project. The cinema has since moved from Chapeltown Street to the Red Bank Project in Cheetham Hill, but the name remains the same.
I’ve arranged a visit to see how independent cinemas have survived during multiple lockdowns and what emerging from the pandemic looks like for the film industry at a grassroots level.
Toby is the Picture House’s first full-time manager, taking over day-to-day running of the cinema last October. He’s young and full of energy, and even though he’s wearing a mask, I can see the joy in his face when we talk about film.
“I remember there was a moment when I was about 14 or 15 when I watched ‘It Follows’, and didn’t get it, hated it,” he says. But the film stuck in his head and a week later he decided to give it another chance. “I was watching it and I was like “hang on a minute, this is something special,” and that really opened my eyes to a new way of watching films.”
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Toby was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina and lived just outside of Barcelona until he was 18. He then moved to Manchester for university and got involved in the student newspaper, editing its film section. “I attended a lot of Grimmfest stuff, MANIFF, Kinofilm – basically got to know the really rich and diverse film scene in Manchester,” he says.
Whilst writing a piece about independent cinemas, Toby interviewed Jason Bailey who had just set up the Picture House. He then kept his eye on the cinema to see where it went and “when they were looking for […] a manager, I went “this is what I want to do.”
The cinema is part of GRUB, a popular street food fair with an outside seating area. There are freshly painted murals on the walls and bunting streams overhead. The idea is that customers can have a meal from one of the street food traders and then enjoy popcorn or ice-cream as they watch the film. The whole site has a DIY feel to it, far removed from the typical chain-cinema experience many will be used to.
“With social distancing we can fit up to 56 people in the space,” Toby says as he shows me around the screen room. “Without social distancing we can fit up to 96, probably 99 if we have a row of people sitting at the back in the cheap seats.” There’s a small stage at the front which Toby hopes can be used for panel talks or podcast recordings.
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I sit in the sweet spot – three rows back, two seats in from the middle aisle – and Toby disappears behind the stage curtains. We watch a clip from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The picture and sound quality is impressive: an ‘Optoma 4K550 5000 lumen 4K digital projector’ and ‘5.1 Martin Audio speak setup’, which Google assures me is top of the range.
Since October, there have only been five screenings due to Covid restrictions. “Early in the pandemic, it was frustrating and scary,” Toby says. “It was frustrating to see how the government treated the film industry as badly as they did.” He points to the hypocrisy of allowing people to sit in packed restaurants but ruling that sitting socially distanced in a cinema with a mask on was unsafe.
“It was just frustrating to see the facts not being the guiding light during the decision-making process for the government,” Toby says. But now, things are looking more positive. The Picture House is due to reopen on 17 May and Toby already has plans for future events and screenings.
“We’re going to have action hero Saturdays. Thursday is our horror night,” he says. Toby is also keen to bring in new programmers and indie film makers – “basically any local creative that needs a space to put their stuff forward can come to us.”
Accessibility is high on Toby’s agenda. “Communities are made up of all sorts of different people with different requirements and it’s our responsibility to cater towards that,” he says. The Picture House is currently working with local groups to ensure that the programme is accessible for autistic and deaf audiences. The old venue had no accessible entrance, but now the backdoor of the cinema is flush with the street.
“Cinemas are inherently community spaces, but you can always push it for more,” Toby says. He wants to have retro gaming nights, post-film discussions and Q&As, using the space for more than just watching films.
It’s this experience of going to the cinema which means Toby isn’t worried about the rise of streaming services like Netflix or Disney+. “The biggest example I have is John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, that film’s been out for almost 40 years now. If you want to watch it online, it’s on Amazon for £3.49, but we sold out the screening at Halloween. People wanted to see gross monsters on the big screen,” he laughs.
We end by talking about the future, not just of the Picture House but cinemas more broadly in a post-Covid world. “They’re becoming a lot more flexible, understanding that there’s going to be cancellations [and] being open to having to move things around,” Toby says. “But in terms of the actual experience of going to watch a film, you’re still going to sit in a dark room, [with] loudspeakers and a big screen.”
Chapeltown Picture House reopens on Monday 17 May and you can buy tickets through their website.
If you are an independent filmmaker or creative in Manchester, the Picture House wants to hear from you.