The best of Dorset in words and pictures

By the community, for the community

Gillingham Community Cinema is just a year old but is already a successful and important feature of the town, as John Newth has been finding out.

The cinema has a fire-safety limited capacity of 60 patrons, but at least fewer patrons means more legroom

The cinema has a fire-safety limited capacity of 60 patrons, but at least fewer patrons means more legroom

The Methodist church is one of Gillingham’s most notable buildings, its distinctive spire standing out as a landmark on the High Street, close to the Town Bridge that John Constable famously painted. Opposite the church is a furniture store which occupies the site which until some fifty years ago was the home of Gillingham’s cinema. Since that cinema closed there had been little opportunity for people in the town to enjoy regular showing of films until October last year, when Gillingham Community Cinema opened in the hall of the Methodist church.
The idea for the venture was born in the middle of 2012, when a projector and screen were installed in the church itself, the gift of a generous benefactor. This was in keeping with the trend for churches to project onto a screen the words of hymns and Bible readings and even PowerPoint presentations by more digitally-minded preachers. As one of the organists at the church, Gordon Amery welcomed this development because, he says, congregations sing much better with their eyes up, looking at a screen, than when their heads are buried in hymn-books. As a film buff, Gordon was also excited by the idea of showing films on the equipment: faith-oriented films, certainly, but also more wide-ranging productions to which a wider public would want to come. Reactions to his proposal varied, and he dropped it out of respect for the views of those members of the congregation who were uncomfortable with the idea of the main church space being used to show secular films.

In an era where church buildings are often underused, Gillingham's Community Cinema brings visitors into the building and keeps audiences in contact with one another

In an era where church buildings are often underused, Gillingham’s Community Cinema brings visitors into the building and keeps audiences in contact with one another

Nevertheless, Gordon was determined to pursue what he was sure was the seed of a good idea, and he turned his attention to the hall which is part of the same group of buildings as the main church. There was only one problem: all the projection equipment was in the church and could not be moved, so he effectively had to start again from scratch. This meant buying all the relevant equipment, at a cost of several thousand pounds. The Methodist church was prepared to make a contribution, both out of its responsibility to the community at large and because it would bring people into the church buildings. Then Gordon had the brainwave of approaching the Town Council who, in his words, ‘bit my hand off’. The Council’s willingness to match the Methodist church’s grant was understandable in view of their aim to keep as many active facilities in Gillingham as possible, and to provide entertainment for those who say that there is not enough to do in the town, especially in the evenings.
Not only did the Town Council become an enthusiastic partner, they made it plain to Gordon Amery that he should not cut corners on the equipment but do it properly or not at all, on the principle of ‘only the best for Gillingham’. Mindful of this attitude and with the resources to put it into practice, the Community Cinema was able to buy a four-metre retractable screen, an HD projector and seven speakers and a sub-woofer that create a Dolby Surround Sound system that is remarkable for a church hall. It was also necessary to erect curtains – the hall had none previously – that would provide a complete blackout. The existing plastic moulded chairs were a problem but there was enough money to buy much more comfortable padded seats that do not produce ‘numb bum syndrome’ after they have been sat in for a couple of hours. The auditorium holds 60: fire regulations have restricted it to rather fewer than the organisers had originally hoped, but at least it means plenty of leg-room.

Not your average-looking cinema

Not your average-looking cinema

The hard work and investment paid off in October last year, when Gillingham Community Cinema staged two showings of its first film, The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. This might be seen as fairly typical of the mainstream film that appeals to the cinema’s primary audience; productions such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are almost guaranteed a sell-out, and by popular request, Mamma Mia is the film for December. But the organisers are conscious of their obligation to all sections of the community and of the dangers of being hide-bound, so titles like The Hobbit and Pompeii have also figured on the programme. As yet, it is proving harder to attract the younger members of the community, despite films chosen with them in mind and vigorous promotion on Facebook, in the Western Gazette, in the Blackmore Vale Magazine and around the town.
Given its origins and its locale, the organisation is careful about its choice of films. ‘PG’ and ‘12A’ tend to predominate among the classifications, although Twelve Years a Slave is a ‘15’ and was shown this summer, and so is The Railway Man, to be screened in November. ‘I can’t imagine that we would ever show a film classified “18”,’ says Gordon Amery. Films are submitted for the minister’s approval, which so far has never been withheld.
For the most part, films are shown once a month at 7 pm on a Saturday night. If a film is heavily over-subscribed, there is an extra screening at 2 pm. Occasionally, a children’s film will be shown in the afternoon and a different one in the evening; for example, there will be an extra day in December with The Lego Movie followed by – it is hoped, if licence problems can be sorted out – Quartet.

The cinema shows a range of films for all the family

The cinema shows a range of films for all the family

The church has a public performance licence anyway, but under copyright law, a separate licence has to be obtained for the showing of each film. This can be done for individual films, but the easiest way is to belong, as Gillingham Community Cinema does, to an organisation called Filmbank. They take care of all the legalities in return for a subscription and a fee per film. Filmbank will also supply the disks which drive the projector, although it is often as economical simply to go out and buy the disk, using Filmbank only for the licence. However, Filmbank often have access to a film before it is generally released on disk: Pompeii, for example, was premiered in cinemas only in May and was shown in Gillingham in October, well before its general release through video hire shops.
Blu-Ray disks are used in preference to DVDs. The Great Gatsby was shown on DVD and Gordon Amery still cringes at the memory: ‘On the big screen the image was pixellated and the movement jerky, but then again, I was probably the only person who noticed!’
More often than not, the auditorium is full for a screening. Ticket prices are currently £4 for adults and £1 for children; they are intentionally kept as low as possible, in keeping with the concept that the venture is a facility for the whole community. Most films just about break even and contribute something to the fund that is being built up to meet the replacement of equipment and other expenditure as it becomes necessary. As you arrive, there is a presentation playing on a continuous loop, acknowledging sponsors and other supporters. This is followed by a brief introduction and welcome, including information about the intermission. During the intermission, as well as before the show, ices, popcorn, sweets and soft drinks are sold. Some commercial cinemas make more profit from the sale of refreshments than they do from ticket sales, and these extras provide important income for Gillingham Community Cinema, too. A possible source of revenue in future is the hire of the hall and equipment to companies and schools for presentations.

Organisers promote the cinema through as many different media as possible; there is a website (www.filmatgmc.org.uk) (image: Terry Fisher Photography)her

Organisers promote the cinema through as many different media as possible; there is a website (www.filmatgmc.org.uk) (image: Terry Fisher Photography)her

The whole operation is run by a committee of five, who choose the films, organise the finances and so on, and they are supported by a team of helpers. Initially the organisers came exclusively from the Methodist congregation, but now there is more involvement of other members of the community. Everyone is a volunteer, either still in full-time employment or busy with other aspects of their lives. It is this, along with a realistic view of the likely demand, that limits Gillingham Community Cinema to one film in most months.
Apart from the occasional film at Shaftesbury Arts Centre, the nearest cinemas to Gillingham are in Yeovil, Salisbury and Frome. Not only are these all at least half an hour’s drive away, a family of four could easily spend £50 on travel, tickets and refreshments. The equivalent at Gillingham Community Cinema is £15. This financial advantage should mean that its future looks bright, which is good news for the town, and no more than the team behind the venture deserves for their prudence and hard work. ◗

Dorset Directory