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Don't Let the Lights Go Out on the UPP

All photo credits: Ian Wallman
Photo credit: Ian Wallman

The Ultimate Picture Palace cinema has just launched a fundraising campaign to survive the current closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Oxford’s only independent cinema closed on March 16th to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and now needs public support if it is to re-open as planned on Friday 4th September. The much-loved venue is seeking to raise a minimum of £18,000 by selling limited edition gifts and experiences as well as receiving donations through its Crowdfunder website: We chatted to Micaela Tuckwell, General Manager, about why everyone should get involved in supporting this vital Oxford institution.

The UPP has a long history, being over 100 years (and two world wars) old - have you faced anything like this before?
Well, not exactly like this... but as your readers may know the UPP has had a rich history ever since Frank Stuart first opened its doors since 1911, including a fair few stops and starts! For example the Managing Director in 1917, Horace Froude, was called up to fight in WW1 and when his exemption from conscription was declined the cinema was closed for decades. It took Bill Heine (of Headington Shark fame) and Pablo Butcher to save the cinema in the 1970s from its previous use as a furniture warehouse. They restored the cinema to a glorious hub of wild late night screenings and bold programming, and since then it has enjoyed its spot as a gem in Oxford’s cultural crown.

Nevertheless, in recent history we have certainly not faced a challenge quite like the one today. Before the pandemic we had just enjoyed two very successful seasons with highly-anticipated new releases that our audiences loved like Little Women, Parasite and Bait. What’s more, we were on the cusp of launching an exciting community share offer campaign on April 17th where the public would have been invited to buy shares in our thriving business so that it could be fully community owned. Overnight all of these plans had to be put on hold.

The cost of closing has been catastrophic for the cinema’s finances - not to mention to our fantastic staff who rely on the business for their well-being and livelihoods. It has also had an impact on our dedicated team of volunteers and loyal customers who - overnight - no longer had their neighbourhood cinema to attend and enjoy. This story isn’t unique to us but sadly the same up and down the county; independent music venues, theatres and cinemas are on the brink of collapse. Everyone who I speak to who is involved in the film, arts and culture sectors is seriously worried about the future of the creative industries in this country and without support now - more of our arts spaces will be lost forever.

Do you think that the Oxford arts scene will change beyond recognition as a result of the pandemic?
I think that’s pretty much guaranteed. Creativity can thrive when limitations are in place, as we’ve already seen during lockdown. Watching artists and performers taking their craft online has been really intriguing and often inspiring, but I do worry about the venues and organisations that rely on getting people together in a physical space to interact with art. However, I have full confidence that the people of Oxford will rally around the industry. It’s so important that people who love the creative arts support those who champion them, especially during these difficult times.

What would July normally look like for the UPP?
Whilst July and August are normally our quietest months (as our people make the most of the good - well, sometimes good - weather) we still see our regular customers and entice them in with classic films, special film-themed partnership events with Science Oxford or Cowley Road Carnival, air-conditioning, and of course GnDs ice cream!

What influenced the decision to delay reopening until September?
There were a number of factors which helped us make the decision to delay reopening until September 4th.

Firstly, since closing our doors we have been working with the UK Cinema Association and Independent Cinema Office to understand what is needed to re-open our special and historic venue safely. It is clear to me that whilst it will be possible to open up to the public in a safe way, the nature of our building means that we need to put in place additional measures such as temporarily-rearranging the orientation of the bar, commissioning signage, and adapting ticketing systems. We need to get this right for our staff and customers, so rushing to open in July was not an option.

Secondly, as a result of the customer survey we sent out in May (thank you to the 1400+ people who responded!), it was clear to us that many feel that July is too early. A sizeable number of respondents (41%) said that the earliest they would consider returning to the cinema is August/September. Combined with the fact that, when we do eventually re-open, we will be functioning with a reduced capacity of 20-30%, it will not be financially viable for the cinema’s public programme to re-open until the autumn.

Our third reason for waiting until September relates to our programming. The independent cinema sector is less reliant on summer blockbusters as the larger multiplexes, and the UPP is no different. Seeing as we also show films 4-6 weeks after their initial release date, it doesn’t make sense to rush reopening when the new releases that interest our audiences aren’t yet available to us.

Please tell us some more about the rewards that are up for grabs in the Crowdfunder
Hopefully there will be something for everyone! We have worked with one of our favourite East Oxford designers at Nope Print Studio and they have created some stylish limited edition merchandise for us in bold art-deco inspired colours to complement the cinema’s heritage.

There will be hand-printed A3 posters, mugs, tea-towels and badge sets for you to show off your support for Oxford’s only independent cinema. For those who really want to splash out, some of the bigger ticket items include a discounted Private Hire of the cinema so that you and your family/friends can watch a film on our big screen, or even one of our special and very limited edition Golden Tickets, that will grant you and a guest entry to every single one of our screenings in 2021!

If you reach the target, are there still plans to launch a community ownership campaign in the future?
Absolutely. The current cinema owners (legal guardians of the estate of Becky Hallsmith, the previous owner) and the group of UPP supporters (the UPP Community Benefit Society) are still eager to go through with plans for a community ownership campaign but these are currently on pause until the cinema re-opens.

As well as contributing to the Crowdfunder, is there anything else people can do to help?
Tell more people about the Crowdfunder! Help spread the word to those who will want to help save the UPP. We’d also encourage people to follow us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook and sign up to our e-newsletter if they haven’t already. We’ll be documenting the progress of the campaign on those channels with #SavetheUPP, as well as on the blog section of our website.

How have you managed to stay connected with Oxford's film-loving community while you have been closed? What are you most looking forward to about reopening?
Even though our doors have been closed, our social media channels have been very much open and we’ve been eager to keep the conversation around cinema going. We’ve dedicated Fridays on our social media channels to our Friday Film Club - where we make film streaming recommendations based around a single theme. I would think that everyone has gone streaming mad during lockdown, and it’s a great way to discover new films. However, it doesn't quite compare to sitting in our auditorium with a cup of tea or a bottle of beer and watching something on the big screen surrounded by fellow film lovers. That’s what I’m most looking forward to!

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