After years of being consigned to the outer circles of London, Picturehouse, following their acquisition by the Cineworld chain, are now in the business of operating a central London multiscreen venue. After years of renovation, the new Central Picturehouse, built on the bones of part of the Trocadero that housed the old Cineworld, is now open.
The cinema is certainly more inviting than the former Cineworld, its aesthetic more in line with the refined anti-multiplex bourgeois vibe that Picturehouse has perfected as its brand (and it is easy to be cynical about that, this is after all a multiplex in its own way and is owned by a multiplex chain). The grand old columns and elegant brick exterior of this part of the block ooze grandeur. The odd escalator entrance to the Cineworld that sat near Great Windmill Street on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue is gone, replaced by a more welcoming and massive entrance on Great Windmill Street itself that screams 'arrival'.
Unlike the Cineworld, the entrance does not lead to a path upstairs, instead it opens up to a large, airy and air conditioned cafe bar area. Gone are the pinks, purples and carpets of the former interiors, in their place are wide airy spaces, exposed brick and pipes, tiled floors, and bespoke-type beverage and nibble providers. Its very New York deli-ish with its cake and coffee smorgasbord, spidery and abstract murals on the walls (illustrations from artist Patrick Vale decorating the wall to the right, documenting the history of cinema from camera obscura to Jurassic Park) and pastel furniture, but the space is welcome given many older Picturehouses like the Ritzy often are at crush depth with people. It works as a nice retreat from the bustle of the outside; there is free wifi and plenty of seating, so it certainly works as a networking zone. This kind of entrance and huddling space, in addition to the seven screens above, also gives Picturehouse a suitable central venue to host film festivals and other events, so no surprise that in addition to London Film Festival, Sundance London announced recently that they'll be moving their annual event here from the far more distant O2.
There are ATMs and retro-styled film listing boards displayed in the cafe; the automated machines were not working at the time of this visit but presumably will help keep ticket queues down at peak times. The big staircase on the left of the cafe space goes up to the ticketing floor proper with three ticket booths, and a comfortably spacious public bar off to the left. All of floor 1 is decked out similarly as below, with some arty spotlight installations, big windows overlooking Shaftesbury avenue, and swish all-timber flooring. There are more cakes up here too, you basically run right into a donut and artisan pastry stand at the top of the stairs. They really want you to eat cake here.
Though pleasing, the first floor bar is for the plebs: members are promised an exclusive bar and roof terrace on the upper floors, but these won't be open until later in summer (though the company has extended Founder Members benefits for an extra three months presumably to compensate for new signees not being able to flaunt their extras yet-more on the membership below).
Visitors who remember the old Cineworld will be back on more familiar turf when they start the journey up to the screens on the upper levels, which exist in the same locations as before and are still accessed by elevators. Pleasingly, Picturehouse kept and restored the old restaurant friezes for use along the upper level elevator passageways. The screens themselves, 4k digital, are of wraparound design and certainly do the business. The seats are comfortable and there is plenty of legroom in the mid row areas- given this writer stands at over 6 foot that does make a real difference to a viewing experience. Screen 1 is Picturehouse’s jewel in the crown though, and will play host to film premieres and big-name Q&As. It is that cinema that packs the 70mm film and digital 4K DCP video projection capabilities plus a Dolby Atmos sound system.
When it comes to the programming, there are seven screens to fill, and diversity has been promised to be a locked-in feature under the guidance of programmer Clare Binns. Quality blockbusters to independent, classic, foreign-language and art-house films are expected. There will a core programming strand dedicated to championing documentaries (Alex Gibney's Going Clear was playing at the time of visit), as well as live broadcasts of art productions. Picturehouse Cinemas’ regular strands, including Discover Tuesdays and Vintage Sundays, will come to Central with discounted concessionary tickets available (£8 for a standard ticket, £6 for Picturehouse Members and as cheap as a fiver for Central Members) which, as you'll see below, is a blessing given what you'll pay for new feature films.
The downside: none of this luxury is cheap. Peak prices for regular films start at Adult £18.00, Picturehouse Central Member £15.00, and basic Picturehouse Members are at £16.00.
Matinees- starting before 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday and all day Monday take things down to a more manageable Adult £13.00, Picturehouse Central Member £10.00, and basic Picturehouse Member £11.00.
For all the hard-to-resist glamour and technical sophistication of this cinema, it is really a members venue with prices like this, and you should hoard those free sign-up tickets for peak time big films (assuming you do, thats £72 worth of peak time tickets). The best position to be in is to apply as a student or retiree as the membership fees are lower but you'll still get the same benefits, meaning it will more than pay for itself for the first year if you use all your free tickets on peak time showings. Outside of this, all day Mondays and before 5pm other days as a member get ticket prices down to the more manageable £11-10 region and are the best bet if you are not flush with cash, but want this to be your regular venue and to get as much use out of the membership as you can.
Unsurprisingly Picturehouse are pushing membership as the best way to experience it all. There is currently running a 'Founder Members' scheme which operates like a kind of upgraded version of basic membership if you sign up as one of the first 2000 new members. Central Picturehouse membership seems to operate a little differently from other Picturehouse memberships- you get more off the central venue tickets if this is your 'home cinema' even though all the cinemas share most core membership benefits.
Founder Members get the following additional benefits:
- Membership: Valid for one year from the date the cinema opens, plus an extra three months free. Expires September 2016
- Your name in the fabric of the building
- Exclusive Founder Members’ card
- Invitations to exclusive first look screenings including previews.
- Start benefiting from your Membership straight away at other Picturehouse Cinemas and with local and national partners.
- Exclusive Founder Member prizes to be won including Premiere Tickets and access to Film Festivals
This is on top of Basic Central Membership features:
- Free film tickets that can be used at all Picturehouse Cinemas (four for Individual Members, eight for Member plus One).
- Up to £3 discount on tickets at Picturehouse Central.
- Up to £2 discount on tickets at all other Picturehouse Cinemas.
- Access to the Picturehouse Central Members’ Bar and Roof Terrace with up to 3 guests (current day cinema ticket required).
- Members’ priority booking for selected films and events.
- 10% off food and drinks at all Picturehouse Cinemas.
- One free Jameson and 20% off Jameson all year round.
- No booking fees.
- National partner discounts and benefits
- Individual Membership: Standard £75, Retired £65, Student £50
- Member plus One: Standard £140, Retired £120.
You can read more here at the Picturehouse blog, which takes you through some of the history of the building and the renovation. Time Out was one of several outlets that got a tour of the building by Picturehouse's Clare Binns, which you can read here.