Small Pleasures: Sam Meech on A Small Cinema
We all hate the multiplex, its strange odours, its soulless architecture, its noisy patrons and their volcano acne. But what's a film-lover to do? Sam Meech, creator of A Small Cinema, has a solution
Somewhere between entering through a gravel car park filled with Ford Zodiacs and their quiffed mod owners and eating birthday cake with complete strangers at the end of the screening, it occurs to you that A Small Cinema is no ordinary picture house. Based at Moston Miners Community Arts and Music Centre, it’s like a bricks and mortar equivalent of a Terence Davis film: a collision of working-class Northwest with the rich romanticism of the golden age of cinema.
I arrive late for the Sunday matinee. Appropriately it’s American Graffiti, one of the great movies about nostalgia. The neon lights of the cinema’s bar are fading as Bill Haley begins to wail Rock Around the Clock. Settling down in the front row, it becomes clear this is no ad hoc cinema with patio chairs and an out-of-focus image projected on a bed sheet. The screen is superior to that of most arts spaces, and it’s comfier too – the raked red velvet seats were reclaimed from the Plaza, Liverpool.
The driving force behind this nifty community screening room is Re-dock artist Sam Meech. His inspiration: Berlin. “While looking in a listings mag for some cultural stuff to do I was amazed to find 50-odd cinemas, several of which were in walking distance,’” says the Liverpudlian of his visit to the German capital. “All were showing one or two films and all the programmes were unique.”
"My experience of cinema has always been big places, multiplexes. I was just astonished that this kind of facility existed on a small scale” – Sam Meech
From this smorgasbord of cinema he chose a Townes Van Zandt doc screening two minutes away through a little courtyard and up some steps. “I opened the door on to this landing,” recalls Meech, “and there was a guy there, with a bar, selling tickets. ‘What do you want to see?’ I said, ‘The documentary.’ He gave me a beer and a ticket, a couple more people joined, and then the same guy led us through to this thirty-seater auditorium with a lovely screen and red velvet curtains down the side. My experience of cinema has always been big places, multiplexes. I was just astonished that this kind of facility existed on a small scale.”
When he returned to Liverpool a friend approached him to work on an installation featuring several artists’ videos. Meech incorporated the small-scale exhibition form he sampled in Berlin into the project. “I decided that rather then a gallery event, where people might sort of stand around and chat, I’d try to create a cinema. But I also wanted to encourage people to behave in a certain way: to come on time, to enjoy the experience of sitting down to watch some films and to really engage with them.” Some frills – velvet banquet chairs, a screen built from plywood, people dressed as ushers, popcorn, paper tickets – were added to create a kind of “theatre of small experiences.” A Small Cinema was born.
Over the next few years, with the help of some funding, similar popup events were staged in several communities around Liverpool – in luncheon clubs, primary schools and then eventually a shopfront on Bold Street in the city centre. Despite the wealth of spaces available in the Northwest, however, the politics of getting hold of them proved tricky. “Whole sections of town centres might be privately owned, so for people running cultural activities to get access to these places, even though they’re empty, there are a lot of barriers to go through just to speak to the agent, who's likely to then say ‘[the owners] aren’t interested because it’s not going to make them a profit.’” These problems of access for the pop-up events has been balanced with A Small Cinema finding a permanent home in the 70-seater independent screening space in Moston.
Meech compares attending A Small Cinema, and other indie film screenings, to ethical shopping; it's like choosing your local greengrocer over Tesco. “There’s something happening with cinema where the market’s shrunk, you’ve got a few giants," he tells me, "but in a weird way that kind of breeds people to come up with more creative solutions for sharing films. As someone who does your shopping or goes to see a film, you’ve got a choice and you should try and make yourself aware of all the choices on offer.”
The solution to the monotony of the multiplex is clear: support your local retailer.
Moston Small Cinema - Building Begins