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Cinema was once an important piece of Blackpool’s allure of affordable glamour, with 17 movie theatres operating in the town at its peak. Now, almost a year after the final Odeon has gone dark, the local council has opened a nine-screen multiplex of its own.

Look up. That’s the thing that most Blackpool locals intuitively do. Not just because of the 518 feet of steel that towers above us, but because it is above street level and behind modern facades that much of what remains of the town’s former position as a world entertainment capital remains.

At its peak in the 1930s, Blackpool’s numerous theatres and picture houses could seat more than 60,000 people. The town boasted around 17 cinemas. But Blackpool has been without a mainstream cinema since June last year, when the Odeon on Rigby Road switched off its projectors for the final time. From this weekend, Blackpool locals looked up again. This time at a 10.85m (35ft)-high IMAX screen as Backlot Cinema opened in the town centre.

“The IMAX is a big draw for me,” says Ryan Mulholland, a ‘massive film buff’ who remembers going to the ABC on Church Street as a child and says the town has missed having a mainstream cinema in the centre.

“We’re waiting to go and see Dune: Part Two at Backlot because the massive screen is a huge draw for a film like that. It has also scheduled an awards programme, with all this year’s Oscar noms, which is cool. I’d be up for going to see one or two of them again.”

He’s pleased too, that Backlot isn’t part of a big chain. Located in the council-owned Houndshill Shopping Centre’s new extension, the £21m multiplex development includes nine screens – one of which is IMAX – 850 seats and the Backlot Diner. Some £5m of the funding came from the government’s COVID-19 Getting Building Fund, but the remaining balance has been paid for by council borrowing. It’s part of wider regeneration happening in Blackpool, which is seeking to grow its economy by £1bn by 2030 and make an example of itself for levelling up.

I don’t think £16 for an IMAX is outrageous, it’s probably justified, but it will be prohibitive for some.

“For the town centre to prosper we must continue to provide new reasons to attract residents and visitors, whilst extending visit time into the evening – creating entertainment and leisure choices the whole family can enjoy,” Mark Smith, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for levelling up, tells The Blackpool Lead.

“A destination for premium entertainment and events is a key part of a much wider plan to regenerate Blackpool town centre, with aims to boost the economy, create more local jobs and provide more things to see and do for locals and visitors alike.”

The arrival of Backlot stands to create 100 jobs and has provided work for 260 construction workers during the build on brownfield land. It’s also projected to bring 1.2m shoppers into the Houndshill.

Locals have raised concerns about parking – a perennial problem in Blackpool – in the already busy Houndshill car park, and pricing. An adult IMAX ticket to see Dune: Part Two is £16 and a child’s, £12. A normal cinema ticket at Backlot is £11, and £7 for a child.

“I wonder whether families will go because the Vue in Cleveleys is only five or six quid, the Island in St Anne’s is only five or six quid. I’m not sure how well it will do because of that,” says Mulholland. “I don’t think £16 for an IMAX is outrageous, it’s probably justified, but it will be prohibitive for some.

“For me, I’ll see special films there but if it’s a choice between seeing a romcom there or at Vue I’d probably still go to Vue because of pricing.”

One of the key reasons cinema was an important piece of Blackpool’s entertainment heritage speaks to the town’s wider role as an escape for the working classes.

“It was affordable glamour,” says Catherine Mugonyi, founding director and programmer of Blackpool Film Festival – formerly the Winter Gardens Film Festival. “It was a way that people could afford to live it up for a couple of hours – escape, and be a part of Hollywood or something completely different.

“When you think of the decor and the architecture of these picture palaces, it was somewhere you could go to dream and step out of the ordinary. People have very fond memories of visits to the cinema because it was a special place.

The former art deco Odeon cinema building on Dickson Road – now home to Funny Girls

“Effort had been put into the entire experience – from when you walk in the front door, as if you’re walking down a red carpet, into a foyer with fantastic chandeliers and sumptuous materials. These were things you would expect to see in high-end places. It was as though you were going to the Savoy Hotel and when would you get a chance to do that? Instead, you could live the high life at your local art deco cinema.”

Going to the pictures, Mulholland and Mugonyi agree, marks landmark moments in our lives. First films. First tastes of freedom as teenagers allowed to go with friends. First dates. For Mulholland’s generation, as teenagers, a trip to the Odeon on Rigby Road and a pizza at Frankie & Benny’s opposite was the standard first first date. In giving couples uninterrupted time and space, and something to talk about, Mugonyi says the cinema is “date night personified – many a love story must have started that way”. And many a bad date story too, perhaps.

Catherine Bass’s first date was The Odeon on Dickson Road in 1967, when she was 13.

“It was with a schoolboy. We got to the ticket office and, with no notice, I had to buy my own,” she says. “I never met him again. My bus was out front.”

Her next cinema date was more successful. She had met Philip two days earlier, on the 27th February 1976 in the 007 nightclub on Water Street. They’d already had a first proper date a day later, at the newly opened Number 3 wine bar. On the third day he took her to The Palladium cinema on Waterloo Road to see the epic drama Papillon.

“The film was really moving,” she says. “At the interval, he disappeared. I assumed for choc ices, but no – tea in proper cups and saucers and Kit Kats. He took me home in his car and we sat outside for about two hours, chatting.”

Caught up in the romance of the date, Bass felt moved to spontaneously propose.

“I said to him, ‘You don’t have to say yes but if you say no you have to buy me a present’. Well, we’d only been going out for two days! He said, ‘I won’t say yes but I won’t say no. Instead I’ll take you out to tea’.”

But by 1978 they were married.

Catherine and Philip Bass on their wedding day in 1978

“Here we are, still married in 2024. After we retired more than 10 years ago we used to go to The Odeon on Rigby Road every Monday at 2pm. Philip made sandwiches and we bought a coffee. Now we go to The Vue at Cleveleys. The last film we saw was [1970s war classic] Waterloo. We’re looking forward to the new one opening in town.”

The earliest purpose-built cinemas in Blackpool appeared between 1904 and 1906 but the Cinematograph Act of 1909 prompted an explosion in cinema construction. By the outbreak of WWI Blackpool had more than a dozen.

The remnants of some of these grand picture palaces can still be seen when you look up in the town. The Royal Pavilion Cinema on Rigby Road, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, opened in 1909 and is the earliest surviving cinema building in Blackpool. In more recent decades it’s been the home of the Crazy Scots Bar but last week was placed on the market for £750,000. The great curved gable of the grade II-listed Central Picture Theatre on Central Drive is earmarked as the site of a new artisan food hall in the ‘heritage quarter’ of the new £300m Blackpool Central development. The former Odeon Cinema on Dickson Road is now home to Funny Girls, and the Princess Electric Cinema on Springfield Road is now the Old Electric Theatre.

The Regent Cinema on Church Street is the only heritage cinema still in use, after local businessman Rick Taylor restored it in 2016.

The Regent is the only heritage cinema still in use in town

“It was a derelict snooker hall when I bought it. Half the roof was missing, it was a real mess,” says Taylor, who eventually restored what Blackpool Gazette called “undoubtedly one of the most conspicuous buildings in Blackpool” when it opened in 1921. The ornamental neo-grec building with a three-storey domed tower now houses an antiques centre across three floors and is one of Blackpool’s quirkiest places to explore on a wet afternoon.

“I had no idea what I was going to do when I bought the building. I just took a punt,” Taylor admits, adding that it’s turned out alright. “We cracked on with the antiques, that went well, then we had this rake left and it only lent itself to cinema. You can’t do anything else because it’s not level so it was a case of, right, let’s do that. We had no idea if it would work or not but fortunately it has.”

The Regent Cinema hosts a weekend programme of classic cinema alongside live theatre screenings filmed in the West End. In March it has screened the 1987 black comedy Withnail & I, the 1979 cult classic Quadrophenia and, from National Theatre Live, playwright Simon Stephens’s radical new version of Chekhov – Vanya, starring Fleabag’s Andrew Scott. In April it will show the original Ghostbusters and the Sam Mendes directed play, The Motive and the Cue. In May it will be screening Eurovision.

“I love showing the ‘80s films because I was a kid then so you want to bring your kids to see it on the big screen. They come along and go, ‘yeah dad, alright’,” laughs Taylor. “Compared to a new release they’re so rubbish but it’s in your heart and you remember good times in that era so that’s what we try to recreate.”

Cinema here is a fraction of what it was. It’s great that they can build something new and fancy but to keep something old going is also really important.

As well as latest Hollywood releases, the council says Backlot intends to host “independent gems, event cinema and big screen classics”. Taylor hopes they go light on the classics – which he has worked hard to bring to Blackpool audiences and funded from his own pocket.

“We’re all a little bit nervous but also excited to have more cinema in the area,” he says. “Cinema here is a fraction of what it was. It’s great that they can build something new and fancy but to keep something old going is also really important.

“We wish them every success. We love anything to do with cinema and to have the multiplex here will be great. We just hope we can co-exist because there is room for us both”.

Taylor’s nervousness is no doubt in part, too, due to the general decline of cinema. As far back as 1996 American critic Susan Sontag described cinema’s 100 years in the shape of a life cycle – “an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline”. Back then Blackpool still had two town centre cinemas – the ABC and the Odeon. The new one on Rigby Road would open two years later. But audiences, Sontag said, were already waning.

“Ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, are astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative film-making.”

In the first quarter of 2023, figures from the British Film Institute (BFI) revealed cinema admissions were the lowest since 2014, when they first began recording them.

There were 26 million cinema tickets sold in the UK in that period – 6 per cent lower than the same period in 2022, 27 per cent less than 2020, and 30 per cent less than 2019.

“Cinemas generally are not in their heyday because of the choice we have at home,” says Mugonyi. “There’s a multi-billion dollar industry designed to keep you consuming video on demand. A lot of research and a lot of money has gone into keeping people in their houses and not coming out to cinemas.”

To lure people out of their cosy confines, she says, cinemas must diversify and have added value.

Blackpool Film Festival in 2023. Photo: Claire Walmsley Griffiths

“Financial offers and incentives are, of course, the easy one, but they also need to offer something you wouldn’t always expect in terms of the programme. We’ve seen more things like in-person introductions and Q&As, or live cinema from the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House. But even then you can’t just play it and they will come. A lot of work goes into developing audiences for that and I think that’s something that’s quite indicative of wider Fylde Coast film culture. People assume that if you put something fancy on the audience will turn up.”

As a council-owned cinema, Backlot seems keen to promote a community ethos. It intends to “actively contribute to the thriving external community around Blackpool” and is keen to host community events, education and outreach programmes.

The council says Backlot has been designed to create a “unique arts and entertainment hub” for both the local community and Blackpool visitors. “It will be the new place in town to host events, from corporate conferences and birthday parties to comedy nights, live gaming tournaments and local community meet ups,” it says.

For a start they have partnered with Blackpool Film Festival, which is relaunching this year after nine years as the Winter Garden Film Festival.

“One of the big reasons for moving from Winter Gardens Film Festival to Blackpool Film Festival is that we want to involve more fringe venues and get more people showing film in their spaces as part of the wider programme throughout the year,” says Mugonyi.

The film festival’s aims hold true to the principles it was founded on as a community cinema group in 2011. It aimed to fill a gap in the existing film offer in Blackpool, offering affordable films, room for discussion about films and screening diverse cinema from independent and art house, to shorts, documentary, locally made and foreign language productions.

Backlot will be a primary venue for Blackpool Film Festival in 2024 and a soft launch event will take place there on the last Friday in April. On the Saturday, arts venue Aunty Social will then host a discussion with music video producer David Wilson, who has worked with artists including Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, David Guetta, Royal Blood and Tame Impala. The event will be a collaboration with multi-arts festival Queer Amusements, and Wilson will discuss working in the industry as a queer artist. Back at Backlot on the Sunday, there will be a work in progress showcase by Blackpool School of Art film students, giving them an opportunity to see their own projects on the big screen.

“We often hear about the cultural brain drain of people moving away from Blackpool in order to access opportunity,” says Mugonyi. “Let’s start here. Let’s show them they have opportunity on their doorstep and that people appreciate it. Overwhelmingly, over the last nine years of the film festival, people have shown up for Blackpool film. They’ve been really supportive of Blackpool producers, directors, and people working in the film industry.”

Since 2021, Mugonyi has also brought the BFI Film Club to Blackpool. Young people aged 12-15 learn how to make films with help from industry professionals, trying their hand at things like scriptwriting, filming on location, cinematography and video editing before screening their creations to friends and family.

BFI Film Club participants. Photo: Claire Walmsley Griffiths

“The young people have really enjoyed learning about the film industry from people living in Blackpool who are doing great things on incredibly well-known work. We can say, ‘this is what you can do, this is where you can go. And we’re pulling together an audience that supports you. You don’t have to leave and it’s cheaper to make work here’.”

The main film festival programme will follow in September and before then Mugonyi is planning on providing training, work and volunteer opportunities in audience development and programming for local people. It’s vital, she has learned, to include audiences in decision making.

“You have to involve people in programming and audience development decisions. You can’t think for people. You can’t just do things for and to people. It’s got to be with them and they have to have some agency in terms of who makes those decisions about what happens.

“There’s a lot of thinking around permission in cultural venues. Who decides what culture is? Who decides what’s high or low or quality culture? Once you start shifting who has the power to make those decisions, that’s when really interesting stuff happens.”

Mulholland, who is as inclined to watch Oppenheimer on the IMAX as he is to watch a live Wurlitzer accompaniment to Hindle Wakes at the film festival, feels the opening of Backlot will be good for the town, and he’s really hoping it works.

“I’m a massive advocate of the cinema. You can’t pause it to get up and go to the toilet, get a snack, make a brew. I love film, but at the best of times, if I sit at home, I can’t say I never check my phone. At the cinema it’s so ingrained into me that you can’t do that. You commit to it, you sink into it, and you end up enjoying it more.

“You get absorbed in the sights and the sounds while sitting there in the dark, and the IMAX is an extension of that because it’s neigh on overwhelming. It’s the ceremony of going – you have to make the effort. It’s an event.”

This article was originally published in The Blackpool Lead. Sign up to their newsletter here.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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