Article: Ultimate Picture Palace’s life in a third national lockdown

As cinemas all around the country remain shut in a third national lockdown, Marketing & Events Manager Tom Jowett of Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace talks about what the staff of the independent cinema have been doing to continue engaging with their audience.

In what might be the most disappointing trilogy since those Star Wars prequels, the third instalment of UK lockdown measures is taking its toll on cinemas up and down the country. From massive multiplexes to modest community screens, another prolonged intermission was not what we had in mind, but not unsurprising given the surge in infections during the winter. So while the lights are down and our projectors sit idle, the industry waits for it to become safe again to re-open. Ascertaining when that might be is a suspenseful proposition which is sadly devoid of any thrills – again, a bit like those Star Wars prequels.

We at the The Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford’s only independent cinema, have been thinking of ways to productively fill our days which would usually be spent dreaming up new programmes, selling tickets, and welcoming customers to our cinema. Luckily, there’s plenty to be getting on with. The UPP have been grateful recipients of a generous grant courtesy of Department for Culture, Media, and Sport’s Culture Recovery Fund administered by BFI, which has meant that we’ve been able to keep the majority of staff members working their contracted hours during lockdown. We have taken advantage of the furlough scheme in the past, but not having to do so this time has allowed us to look long-term.

The elephant in the room for many cinemas over the last few years has been the rise and rise of online streaming, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this. Big studios such as Warner Bros and Disney were quick to delay releases or pivot them (sometimes exclusively) to online on-demand platforms. Luckily, there has been a steady trickle of independent film releases for smaller cinemas such as ourselves to keep audiences sated. The inescapable truth, however, is that the arrow of progress points in one direction.

Partnership potential

Independent distributors such as Modern Films and Dogwoof have been partnering with venues to provide audiences with VOD content, while splitting rental revenues with individual cinemas. We are immensely thankful to these distributors that they have allowed us to engage audiences and provide them with new releases to watch at home, while at the same time supporting us financially through sales. It is a business model which may be here to stay.

Having a dormant venue has also allowed us to press on with odd-jobs around the building which we wouldn’t usually have time for. Decluttering office spaces and projection rooms has unearthed all sorts of intriguing discoveries. We’ve found printed programmes from decades ago, an eclectic archive of old quad posters (which we now have rotating on display outside the cinema), and – most strange of all – a full-size model kestrel. A prop from a previous screening of Kes? Who knows!

A different kind of future

Most importantly of all, however, this time has allowed us to start planning for our upcoming campaign to become a community-owned cinema. Since 2018, The Ultimate Picture Palace has been operating under the estate of our previous owner Becky Hallsmith who sadly passed away after seven years at the helm.

It was her inherent wish that the UPP should become a community-owned business. A committee of local film-lovers was assembled in 2019 and, after months of hard work, were ready to launch in May 2020. Of course, COVID-19 had other plans. After even more hard work, the committee is now back on track and getting excited as we prepare to launch the share offer in Spring 2021. This will allow locals (and non-locals) who love the UPP to purchase community shares in the business, ensuring a bight future for Oxford’s last independent cinema.

The future of cinema may seem perilous right now, especially with venues struggling to make ends meet and studios (now more than ever) looking at a model in which VOD trumps traditional exhibition. However, the desire for shared and social cultural experiences remains strong. The eventual re-opening of museums, theatres, and live music venues will be essential in helping us get back to living culturally enriched “normal” lives again. I fully anticipate that cinemas will have a huge part to play in that healing process for communities all around the UK.

The Ultimate Picture Palace is a locally owned independent cinema just off East Oxford’s Cowley Road with a single screen cosy auditorium. They screen a mix of independent, mainstream, foreign-language and classic films.

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