Monday, 5 April 2010

Q&A with Uckfield Picture House owner Kevin Markwick

Kevin Markwick owns and runs the Uckfield Picture House in East Sussex (not related to the 'Picturehouse' chain). An impassioned cinephile, Kevin was interviewed by Francine Stock on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme in February and came across as a funny and interesting guy. I got in touch and he was nice enough to answer a few questions for this blog:

Has there ever been a single feature which has saved the cinema from going out of business during hard times?
There have been a few over the years that came in the nick of time. Whether they were solely responsible for saving the cinema may be an overstatement, but it might have been close without them. Mamma Mia I know saved a few smaller independents from disaster. Billy Elliot is one that springs to mind as being the cavalry.

Apart from Mama Mia and Avatar, both of which you mentioned on the radio, what have been the biggest success stories during your time managing the cinema?
Well, I’ve been here my whole life so I’ve pretty much seen everything huge since about 1968! Since my time totally in charge, the first Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Titanic etc stick out. The titles you would expect really. More bespoke to us if you like, Sense and Sensibility, Calendar Girls, Shakespeare in Love, Gosford Park.

Any notable disasters? Anything that you agreed to play for a few weeks and no one came at all?
There are always disasters. It’s the nature of the business that nothing is totally foreseeable. Out of the worst films of all time here, at least two of them star Adam Sandler so I now have a no Adam Sandler rule. He would have to be in a Merchant/Ivory production set in India during the Raj starring Judi Dench featuring Abba songs for me to change my mind.

I'm not familiar with Uckfield. Which cinemas are your nearest rivals and do you program your cinema to be distinct from them?
As the crow flies I think the nearest cinemas are East Grinstead and Burgess Hill. They don’t worry me, I just do my thing. I play more non mainstream product than them purely out of instinct. If they started doing more I still wouldn’t worry. I just try and make my cinema the best I can so that when people are looking where to go they choose us.

Besides your own, what is your favourite cinema, and why?

My fave cinema outside my own is the Arclight cinema in Hollywood. Although it’s a Multiplex they take great care over the picture and sound for every show. I have seen many films there and never once had a bad experience. Sound is always the right level and the picture is bright and in focus. Of course that is the least anyone should expect when going to the cinema but sadly too many multiplexes are letting the popcorn sellers run the box. They should teach them where the porthole is and what it’s for, i.e looking out of to see if the picture is correct.

Did your recent interview on Radio 4 have any impact on business that you noticed? Any new customers?
It got a very positive response and hopefully gave us some good publicity. Can’t say we have seen a massive spike in attendance but it can’t have done us any harm.

Are most of your customers regulars? What is the demographic?
We have a great number of regulars as well as new customers. We also lose a few now and then as you can’t please all the people all the time. We are having over 120,000 people through the door every year, quite remarkable for a little place like Uckfield. We draw from all over, I know people travel from Newhaven and Tunbridge Wells, which is nice. Our demographic is families and people over 25. We seem to miss the bit everyone wants, 18 – 25. They seem to think it’s better in the big towns. They are wrong of course, but what can I do? They come back eventually! This is why I don’t play Jason Statham movies.

You show quite a mix at your cinema ('A Single Man' and 'The Last Station' alongside 'Avatar' and 'Alice in Wonderland', for example). Do you try to make sure your three screens are all showing different sorts of movies? Or do you simply play the three biggest you can get hold of, regardless of what they are?
To explain in detail how the process works would take a while. Basically, biggest isn’t always best for us so the three most suitable for my audience would be a more appropriate description.

Finally, what has been your personal highlight at the cinema, both when you were younger and since you became the owner?
Personally one of the biggest thrills was the day I opened the third screen. It had taken many years and a lot of hard work to get it done and walking round the cinema that day with all three screens full felt pretty groovy. This was immediately followed by one of the worst sustained periods of business for about ten years so beware feeling smug, you’ll always fall flat on your face.

Thanks again to Kevin Markwick for that interview. A complete history of the cinema (which has been operating since 1920) can be read on its official website.

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