By Helen Adkins | June 2012
The Director and owner of the UK’s oldest working cinema talks exclusively to Junsui Films about the lows and highs of the independent scene and tells us all about his feature documentary, THE LAST PROJECTIONIST…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background in the arts and how you came to own the UK’s oldest working picture house, The Electric Cinema, Birmingham.
Tom Lawes: I started out as a music composer and sound mixer and did a lot of stuff for TV, radio and film. I was also directing low budget horror films, until I joined SEGA and started working on their games.
That led me to set up a sound mixing business in a small terraced house in Birmingham (how the neighbours didn’t complain I’ll never know!) Then the Electric Cinema came up on the market. It was derelict, although it had still been in use only six months before, and felt like the perfect place to set up my studio in.
I also thought I’d be able to open up one of the screens and get the cinema going again even though I had no experience. I’d never worked in a cinema before or even in a place with a cash till. But I was an avid cinemagoer and I’d been to that cinema years before, I even kissed a girl in the back row.
When I bought it, The Electric was just a back street cinema which used to show adult films and family films at the same time, and films that were way off date. So, I took it over, although at first it was a complete failure. There was no footfall and everyone in Birmingham still assumed it was a porn cinema. So instead of developing the recording studio I was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time on it.
We had no money so I ended up doing everything from selling tickets to selling ice creams. I even taught myself to be a projectionist. After about nine months we started to get people coming back through the doors, then after three years we opened the second screen.
By then the studio had taken a back seat. I wanted to offer a different sort of viewing experience and although I didn’t know anything much about other independent cinemas at the time, I came up with the idea of putting sofas in there and was immediately told I was mad until I heard that the Everyman was doing it. I wanted to charge double (£10) and people told me that I just couldn’t do that in Birmingham. But I did anyway and the sofas sold out.
JF: So how did the concept for, The Last Projectionist evolve?
I had already thought about making a three part TV series on the history of cinema because no one had ever done anything like that before. I had started filming interviews, with people like my step-grandmother who had been to The Electric in 1917. I managed to find a few other people, like the organist Steve Tovey and a former owner of the cinema and porn film producer Barry Jacobs. I cut the interviews together and the BBC put it out with a voice over as a news item. It became the forth most watched BBC news item in the world. I realised then that there was some interest in it.
In 2008 I started to think about making something about projectionists when we went digital. I could see where it was going and that it was a skill that was going to die out eventually. Some of these guys have worked for these cinemas for 50 years and yet they never get any recognition.
A guy called Johnny Brook helped me collect them together. He was a projectionist who had helped me get The Electric together in the early days. He used to work for Jacey’s cinema and still used to come to The Electric in his lunch hour to watch the cartoons long ago. He was also one of the few people who had said, yes, you can do this when everyone else was being negative about the cinema in the beginning.
The interviews were all done in a day. I sat them down in a pub and laid the drinks on. The first hour we got nothing but then they all started to loosen up. They loved the film. I think they feel forgotten. Many have put in years of work for very low pay and still aren’t recognised. Audiences don’t see them. They’re just the people in the room at the back of the cinema, so this was nice for them, being able to put their views across.
JF: In the film, the Projectionists are very cynical about the future of the projectionist and the state of cinema on the whole. What’s your view?
They were all quite cynical about the future. In the long term being a projectionist will become a completely specialist job. From next year new 35mm prints will be phased out, which is earlier than expected, and from 2015 they will be completely stopped.
The smaller cinemas that are burying their head in the sand will just go under. What the projectionists fear is that the multiplexes, which are all computerised, will make mistakes. Aspect ratios won’t be checked, the sound is too loud. And there’s usually no one to fix it. If you go and complain, the managers just look at you like you’re mad. That’s what the industry has to be careful of.
At The Electric we always make sure that we sound check volume for each film in advance. We don’t rely on the sound always being the same. There are different audiences who want different sound levels for each genre.
But I think the cynicism of the Projectionists is contradicted by the conclusion. That was intentional. A few years ago little cinemas like ours were falling by the wayside. Now they are flourishing and the multiplexes are looking to the independents for ideas. They’re now trying to create a more personal experience but they just can’t match the individual style of the independent cinemas. I love that. It feels like such sweet revenge after they were responsible for so many closures of the smaller picture houses in the past.
JF: You wrote the music for the film?
It was wonderful writing the music for The Last Projectionist – a dream brief. For one thing, not having anyone to answer to, but also because I could write for all different styles. The ’70s porn times, the silent movie era, the orchestral pieces and disco for the ’80s. It was a fantastic project to be able to do. We might even put it out as a soundtrack.
JF: What reaction have you had to the documentary?
People have really responded to it. We went to Cannes and got an amazing reaction. Those market screenings can be brutal where people come in for ten minutes, fiddle around on their phones to find out when the next screening is and leave. But we had none of that. The festival circuit is very competitive these days but we were invited to one in Cambridge and won an award. We also won something at a film festival in New York.
Distribution is going well too. So far, we’ve got about 30 screens at cinemas like The Picture House, The Everyman and many other independent cinemas are calling up and booking it in. I think we’ll get about 50 screens, which is quite overwhelming.
JF: So what’s next for Tom Lawes? Any future projects you can tell us about?
We’re working on a film called Club Cinematica. It’s based on true events when the cinema was surrounded by the riots last year when we didn’t know whether to send the customers out into the streets or keep them inside with us.
The shops around us were completely gutted, there were people up on our roof and the police weren’t responding. We had to close the cinema down for three days and pile everything of any worth in the basement. It was quite scary, although the film is a comedy. It’ll be a sort of Breakfast Club crossed with Assault on Precinct 13.
The Last Projectionist is out now and reviewed here.