Robert Kenny holds up his BAFTA and grins.
The self-confessed film buff has good reason to be cheerful. As Director of Cinema Development for the Curzon group of art house cinemas, he has been trying to open a picture house in Oxford for years. With the redevelopment of the Westgate, he has finally been able to do that – and has come to the city to invite fellow cinema lovers to see the results.
“It’s great isn’t it,” says the man, whose task it is to find and build new venues.
“Film is at the core of what we do, but this is also a great spot for a night out, and it looks more like a smart bar than a cinema.”
And the BAFTA? The iconic mask was awarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to the Curzon for its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. It is well deserved by a company which strives to support independent films alongside the latest blockbusters. As if to prove the point, it has just screened a series of BAFTA-nominated shorts, representing the best of British short filmmaking and talent.
The proudly independent Curzon group has a history stretching back to 1934, when it opened its first cinema in Mayfair. More than 80 years on, it has 15 cinemas, distribution label Curzon Artificial Eye and video-on-demand platform Curzon Home Cinema.
Its venue in the Westgate bills itself as ‘Oxford’s finest cinematic experience’. It features five screens over two floors, and is the first cinema in the UK to incorporate Virtual Reality into its programming with the Curzon VR Screen, offering a fully immersive experience with 360 degree swivel chairs and state of the art Samsung Gear headsets.
Alongside the new digital technology, it also features a vintage 35mm projector, to allow purists to enjoy new and classic analogue films in all their glitchy glory.
As a welcome antidote to the usual overpriced popcorn, hotdogs and fizzy drinks, there is a cafe-bar with a Moroccan-themed menu, a pizzeria and an evening cocktail bar to enjoy a
drink before and after the film. And if you enjoy a tipple during the film, you can take in a craft beer or good glass of wine in a proper glass rather than the usual plastic cup. This is cinema-going for grown-ups.
“Oxford is the ideal location for us,” says Robert, in his lilting Merseyside accent.
“It the perfect demographic and there’s already a knowledge of Curzon’s Artificial Eye, which distributes the highest grossing foreign language films in the UK.
“We looked at a couple of places in Oxford before, including the former Regal (now the Christian Life Centre) in Cowley Road, a few years ago, but nothing came up until this.”
He said the Westgate’s developers were keen on the upmarket art house brand. “It is aimed at the affluent and city sophisticates, and they wanted more than a multiplex,” he says.
And while Curzon’s trademark art house films will be screened, so will new releases.
“What we do is really great films,” he says. “What distinguishes us from the Odeons is that we’ll show documentaries and 20 per cent of what we show are our own films. But people will still be able to see the big releases – last week we had Darkest Hour, Early Man, Coco, Phantom Thread, Downsizing and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
“There is a blurring of lines as to what independent art house cinemas show and what multiplexes show,” Robert adds.
“We are keen to not be seen as elitist.”
The new cinema presents stiff competition to the existing independents – the Phoenix Picture House in Jericho and Ultimate Picture Palace in East Oxford, as well as the two Odeon sites in the city centre.
“I honestly think we can all survive,” says Robert. “We are hoping to grow the market not cannibalise it. The Phoenix has a loyal membership audience and the UPP has survived all these years. We screen our shows in those cinemas anyway so we want to help them survive.”
And the movie buff, who says he was switched on to the magic of cinema by watching the 1974 classic Zulu, adds: “The magic of cinema nowadays is you can lose yourself. It’s like reading a book.
“And there’s a sense of occasion. You can be sitting next to a stranger but laughing at the same joke. That’s very powerful.”
* Curzon Oxford is in the Westgate, Queen Street, curzoncinemas.com/oxford.
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