There is something romantic and noble about 35mm purists who don’t just bemoan the film industry’s transition to digital but force their every muscle to keep swimming against the tide. The Close-Up Film Centre on Brick Lane has just opened for business with a John Cassavetes season screened entirely on film. The process of transforming from a cult video store (with a collection of world cinema organised by country) to a 40-seat cinema fitted with film and digital projectors, was an epic venture in terms of both fundraising and labour. But as of 1 July 2015, the cinema has landed.
Damien Sanville is the man who made this happen. He gave us a tour of the new premises which has a spritz of magic concealed from the casual street passer-by. A coffee shop flanked by shelves of DVDs holds the front space. But potter around and a pile of great round silver cans – the top one labelled The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – become visible in a small side room. The old way lives here. The cinema itself is tucked away too. In this clean and darkened environment, Sanville explained how his two and a half-year project was finally realised.
“You can’t run on one projector because most prints now are unique and therefore the distributors and archives don’t want any kind of manipulation of the film. Before – when many cinemas were equipped with just one 35mm projector – the film would arrive in the box in six or eight reels, depending on the length, and the job of the projectionist was to check it, but also splice it together into one big reel or put it on what is called a platter system and then run it through the projector.
“After the show, or after the season, they would then break the film again into smaller reels and send it back to the distributor. That is not possible any more. At the time, you had loads of prints in circulation, so it was fine if they get damaged. There was lot of manipulation with cutting or splicing. But that’s not possible any more because there are very, very few prints. For instance, Opening Night that we’re showing, we had to send it back because it was then travelling to Australia for a screening there. To be able to access those prints and to show them, you have to have a change over system where you actually put reel one on one projector, reel two on the second. Then once reel one is finished, it’s all synced and reel two starts and the projectionist exchanges reel one for three, etc. So there is a lot of work behind it, but at the same time there’s no manipulation, cutting, touching or splicing the actual films. Once the film has come through, it gets put back into the box and goes back to the distributor.”
“The guy I bought the projectors from told me that a few years back he did exactly the same set-up for the BFI and it was worth £60,000 – that’s just for two Kinotons. They used to be extremely expensive machines, but with the digital revolution and DCP being the main format at the moment, what happens is that most cinemas decided to chuck them out and make everything digital. There is this belief that digital can be just run through one computer and you press ‘play’ and pretty much anybody can do it, which is a myth on its own because there are a lot of adjustments and things to be looked after as in any kind of projections, regardless of the format. But for them it was just a matter of saving money on staff and also the convenience of receiving a box which is a digital file that you put straight into the machine.
“So what happened is that most cinemas started to chuck them out. Literally, just dumping the projectors. There are bin people who knew about it. It’s a small world once you’re in this circle. A lot of people talk, so you call X cinema and they say, ‘We’re going to get rid of that one very soon. Do you want to pick it up?’ There’s this guy who has this little company called Cinema Memories and he collects those projectors. We got everything for £2,500 and that’s including the PA and machines on the audio side that are already worth £2,000.”
“We had a lot of help from other cinemas, or other places or other people, who found equipment or had some spare equipment and kindly donated it to us. Also bargains and things, because even if we just had DCP, it would already be extremely expensive. A DCP projector, for instance, is the same scenario – we’re talking £10 to £20 to £30,000 and we got it for £3,500 because there were these lovely people in a cinema in Ipswich who were just getting rid of it. It was sitting there for a long time and they were not necessarily after the money, they just wanted to find a good home for it.”
“It’s really easy to get a programme together, anybody can do that, but then how do you make it happen in terms of finding the prints? Another complication is that it’s all good when the archive or the distributor has the print as well as the rights attached to it, but it’s quite common to have, for instance the print at the BFI and the rights have owned by somebody else. That can become also quite tricky and time-consuming. It’s still absolutely feasible. It’s not specialist work. It’s just a matter of finding out whether the print is available, first of all, and then who’s the right owner is. And that goes for DCP as well. Technically we’re just talking about the physicality of the print versus the DCP which is more common, but there are catalogues which are available, as well. They’re not necessarily up-to-date which is a bit of a pain. There is research involved but it’s not a big deal really. That’s just part of the work, I suppose.”
“At the moment we are only trying to work with the prints that are available in the UK. When it comes to international shipping for prints, it’s extremely expensive, to say the least. At the moment we’re just trying to have a simple programme that is also based on the films that are available at, for instance, at companies like BFI, Park Circus and contemporary films. Once we all get used to the whole cinema coordination and management and we’re a little bit more on top of things, we’ll become a lot more adventurous in terms of sourcing prints which are in America, Europe, Japan, etc. That will imply, because of the cost, contacting embassies and culture centres, to get some punctual funding to be able to ship those prints. For that we need some time.”
“If I was presented initially with the entire thing – the plans and the money involved – I would not have gone down this route. It’s financed privately, mostly by knocking on doors of friends, family, banks and things like that. It was always gradual in the sense that the overall figure was very very high, but each time it was a step at a time so it was like 20k there or 30k there. In total its cost about a quarter of a million – probably a little bit more. I lost track at some point. We’re still struggling to catch up with a lot of loans and things everywhere. It was worth it. Now it’s there. It’s a matter of the next chapter which is about bringing people in and seeing these films.”
“Kickstarter failed because we didn’t reach our target which was probably rather ambitious. I think that it failed in the sense that it was very abstract for a lot of people. They thought, ‘What is this thing of a cinema coming from the guys who run this video shop on Brick Lane?’ They didn’t have a good insight into the scale of what we were actually doing. But then we ran a campaign on our website and we raised about £8-10K. The Kickstarter being everything or nothing, we lost. There was a lot of support but we didn’t reach our target. It was a lot of work but it was a very interesting experience. I’ve learnt a lot. What is the impact of social media? How does it translate into actions?”
“On Twitter everyone was retweeting thinking they were doing the good deed but actually this didn’t translate to a donation. If we had £1 per tweet we would have reached out target, no problem. It’s the same with the programme. You see all this buzz and noise on social media – a lot of people talking about it, a lot of people saying, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ but it doesn’t necessarily translate to ticket sales and people coming to the cinema. The whole operation was possible because of the landlady and my friend, Gwendolyn Leick, who gave us carte blanche in relation to the works and radically transforming the premises. She’s also given us a 99 year lease, so we’re here to stay. It’s really solid. If it was not for her generosity and the uniqueness of her way of facilitating those kind of things. It would have not happened, period. Rent-wise and from every perspective. I tend to call her the Peggy Guggenheim of independent cinema.”
“I tend to compare that to painting, right. What would be the point of going to see a Turner – a beautiful picture of a Turner. It’s exactly the same. DCP is extraordinary in terms of the technology and the quality but it’s comparing an oil panting with a fantastic picture of the painting for simple reasons that – I’m not going to go extensively into the descriptions why – but one of the most important examples is: with film the blacks are created by the obstruction of light, whereas in digital the blacks are created by light going through a spectrum of colours so black is still made of light. Another thing is that film, as you know, is made of 24 frames per second which means that you have a little strip of black in between each image. You can’t perceive it, it’s not possible – but it creates rhythm, it creates an imperceptible rhythm which is lost with digital. There’s no frames as such. There’s a beam light and that’s that.
“So there’s all these elements that makes film, film: its texture, how it feels, its fabric and this can be only experienced once one is watching the film. People coming here watching the John Cassavetes films were absolutely amazed by the fact that it was 35mm, and they could tell. There is this myth as well when you talk to anyone in general, they’re going to say, ‘Well, I couldn’t tell the difference between DCP or digital and 35’ it’s like, ‘Yeah, you could.’ If we were to screen the two films side-by-side it would be so obvious it would be almost like watching a colour film versus a black and white film. There’s this obviousness or contrast. It’s a complete different medium all together. I think that is being gradually lost in terms of the understanding because people are just used to seeing DCP. Most cinemas if not all cinemas now are equipped with DCP.”
Published 9 Jul 2015
A cinema in Liverpool is challenging audiences to sit through a Groundhog Day marathon next month.
The director of The Duke of Burgundy recalls finding solace in one of London’s most famous art-house cinemas.