The Stoke Film Theatre is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. It opened its doors in September 1974, a time of great vitality in world cinema. With people like Michael Bay running amok, how well does contemporary cinema serve film fans?
Located in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, the Stoke Film Theatre has committed itself to showing a wide range of films to the public. It’s a great cultural jewel whose considerable patronage is of all ages. The Theatre’s schedule is split into three parts: Main Programme, Screen Monday and Screen Wednesday. The Main Programme comprises new films that are both obscure and wide releases. Tickets cost £6 or £5 for a concessions ticket. Screen Monday showings are free and vary in content, the latest Monday season is in tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Screen Wednesday, which is also free, is an outlet for the Staffordshire Film Archive, which was founded by Ray Johnson and is situated in Staffordshire University. (For details on what’s showing, visit their website.) Following Staffordshire University’s semesters, the Stoke Film Theatre closes in July and reopens in September.
Grace Jordan has worked with her husband John at the theatre in a voluntary capacity for 40 years. She said: ‘The Film Theatre evolved from The North Staffordshire Film Society in September 1974, it is a non-profit organisation run largely by volunteers, the only paid members being manager Alexandra Scott and administrator Gill Yates.
‘There are 8 teams of volunteers, each comprising 6 people. They run the front of house, managing ticket sales and running the bar. We also have several volunteer projectionists. To conform to industry standards, we had to equip the theatre with digital technology at the expense of around £50,000.
‘Our anniversary is in September, we plan to celebrate this with a collection of films that were shown back in 1974, however we haven’t decided what they are yet.’
Peter Hames has been a governor of the Stoke Film Theatre since 1974 and was also head programmer for over 30 years. Peter, who lives in Stone, was also involved in the creation of the film studies course at Staffordshire University. Peter said: ‘It is the function of the Film Theatre to provide a considerably wider range of films both in terms of country of origin and in terms of subject matter.’
Peter Hames has been a Film Theatre governor since 1974.
The Stoke Film Theatre is part of the Europa Cinemas Group, which is a theatre network that focuses on European cinema. It is a vast organisation comprising 1,182 cinemas and 3,194 screens in 682 cities in 69 countries. Europa’s objective is to provide ‘operational and financial support’ to cinemas like the Stoke Film Theatre that are committed to screening European films.
Peter said: ‘Originally the Film Theatre was set up in association with the British Film Institute, who advised on film availability and programme selection. We’ve also always had an advisory programming committee’
The booking of films is done through the Independent Cinema Office, who negotiate directly with film distributors. Peter said: ‘There have been occasional problems with distributors, but generally relations have been okay.’
Peter specialises in Slavic cinema, having written a book titled ‘Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition’. He is the Russian and Eastern European film programme advisor for the BFI London Film festival. When asked his favourite films, Peter named the five films he selected for Sight and Sound’s best films of all time in 2010: ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (UK), ‘The Searchers’ (US), ‘A Tale of Tales’ (Russian animation), ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (France), ‘Daisies’ (Czech). But like so many film fans, he finds such a small number just isn’t enough: ‘I estimate that I would have to select at least 60 with a claim to being representative of ‘the best of cinema’.
Volunteer Beth Walton said: ‘I have been a volunteer at the film theatre for two years now, but I have been an audience member for about eight. I work in the box office selling tickets and occasionally on the bar which is what all the volunteers (apart from the projectionists, who only project) do, but I also keep the Facebook page and Twitter feed up to date with what is going on, along with one other volunteer.
‘Updating these is really enjoyable, especially when we do fun things like the programme board that said ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’ and got re-posted by Kermode and Mayo, where it got well over 100 ‘likes’!
‘I have also been able to program a couple of our Screen Monday seasons. Every Monday night we show a film for free in seasons of four or five around a theme, usually an actor or director. Back in September we had Monday of the Dead which was really fun. I’ve met so many great people through volunteering at the Film Theatre and count a couple of them as some of my best friends’
Beth Walton has been a volunteer at the Stoke Film Theatre for two years.
When asked what her favourite films were, Beth said: ‘It is really hard to say what my favourite films are – the list depends on what I’ve been watching recently or what mood I’m in, but today it is: ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971), ‘If…'(1968), ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ (1960), ‘Cria Cuervos’ (1976), ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951).’
The Stoke Film Theatre was launched at a time of great invention and transgression in world cinema. The late 60s and 70s were dubbed ‘New Hollywood’, they introduced audiences to levels of realism that had been seldom seen. Sex, violence and counterculturalism proliferated with titles such as ‘The Wild Bunch’(1969), ‘Easy Rider’(1969), ‘Midnight Cowboy’(1969), ‘Bonnie and Clyde’(1967), ‘Deliverance’(1972), ‘A Clockwork Orange’(1971), ‘The Exorcist’(1973), ‘Taxi Driver’(1976) and many more.
Many complain that modern cinema has become excessively commercialised, with some of the harshest criticism levelled at confectionary prices. (Not a problem at the Stoke Film Theatre, they even sell alcohol too!) BBC film critic Mark Kermode has frequently criticised the ‘multiplex culture’, writing whole books about the issue. Scores would agree that the summer blockbuster, which began with the excellent ‘Jaws’ in 1975, has been steadily bastardised with many long, boring and incredibly loud films like ‘Transformers’ inexplicably managing to rake in the cash.
Peter Hames pointed out: ‘Commercial cinema is there to maximise profit and is therefore not going to experiment with unusual (or foreign language) cinema, this is where places like our theatre come in’
Of course, not everything at the Staffordshire multiplexes is directed by Michael Bay (the notoriously explosion-happy director responsible for tripe such as ‘Pearl Harbour’ and the ‘Transformer’ series), there are plenty of interesting films that receive wide releases. But the Stoke Film Theatre, which is a cultural jewel of not only Stoke but Staffordshire, hosts the largest breadth of world cinema in the area. It reassures any dissenting voices that there is still a wealth of interesting, original and challenging cinema being produced.The Theatre has done a sterling job showing the best of the past couple of years, with packed audiences for ‘The Hunt’, ‘Captain Phillips’, ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Nebraska’, ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘Rush’ and ‘Blue Jasmine’ to name only a few of just their main programme.
Compared to the music industry, cinema is in perfect health. Much like the shouty blockbusters of cinema, the nonsense that is chart music may obnoxiously steal the attention away from the proper artists, but are the proper artists comparable to the proper films like Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant ‘The Hunt’? I’m not sure they are. If you’re a fan of cinema who’s become disillusioned with the local multiplex, let me assure you that the Stoke Film Theatre is a place with like-minded patronage that go to the cinema to actually watch a film. Visit their website.