1 Apr 2011

A working life: the cinema projectionist

Kevin Markwick spent his childhood in the small-town Sussex cinema his father bought in 1964. Now he owns and runs it.

By Mark King for The Guardian, Saturday 18 September 2010
I follow Kevin Markwick along a corridor lined with boxes of popcorn to his office while he does an impression of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. "These aren't the droids you're looking for," he recites, sounding uncannily like the late actor. Markwick is a great mimic, quoting lines from classic movies with near-perfect accuracy.

His office is much like any other, except for the constant roar of movies playing in ear-splitting Dolby Digital next door. Today, it's an early afternoon showing of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, making my chest boom as we chat happily about film.

Markwick owns the independent Picture House cinema in Uckfield, a sleepy town in East Sussex about 10 minutes from Lewes with a population of around 14,000. An hour and a quarter from London by train, Uckfield isn't exactly isolated but has a small-town feel and an anonymity to it, despite last month's flooding that brought it to national prominence.

The Picture House (not to be confused with the Picturehouse Cinemas chain) adds a lot to the town's charm. Built during the first world war, it was first used as a garrison theatre for troops stationed in the area before launching as a cinema proper in 1920.

Kevin Markwick was a baby when his father bought the Picture House in 1964, but remembers it being refurbished in 1967 to reduce the seating from 500 to 305 for comfort, and again in late 1978.

"We'd been struggling as a single-screen cinema in the late 70s," he says. "So my father converted it into two screens, which saved the business. He was great at that, he really had an eye for knowing how things would look."

By his own admission, Markwick was "terrible" at school. He failed his O-levels so did not get to study drama at college in Lewes, as he had hoped. Instead he went to London at the age of 16 and worked in the Hammersmith Odeon as a projectionist. "I was too young to be in London. I had no friends and nothing to spend my money on. I was miserable. So I moved back to Uckfield and started again at the Picture House, which I'd grown up in."

Without formal training, Markwick learned all about cinema "through osmosis". Salesman, usher, projectionist – his father taught him all he needed to know, though many of those abilities are disappearing as technology renders much of the old magic obsolete.

"I learned when we had dual projection, when each reel of film lasted 20 minutes and you had to get the next one ready while the last one finished and do the changeover seamlessly."

Film is still used, though many predict its imminent demise. We walk into the projection room for Screen One and I study the movie Inception in its raw state, a giant reel of film formed from eight smaller reels Markwick had to stitch together to create the movie.

He has had his fair share of disasters over the years, especially when he was younger. "Wrong reels, wrong films, reels in the wrong order, film that has got stuck and burned through, I've had it all," he laughs. I wonder if it will be the same for tomorrow's projectionists, who will have little more to do than press a button to start a film screening.

Markwick holds up a section of Inception (a series of stills that will be transformed into a thing of wonder when played at 24 frames a second) and tells me film has not been made from nitrate since around 1950. Before then, nitrate film often caused devastating fires; nitrate was so flammable that the film, along with the projector and projectionist, used to be cased in a giant tin box in case it caught fire.

"That's why we still call it the projection box or 'the box' today." He still gets in the box occasionally, but Markwick employs 25 staff (mostly part-time) including projectionists, leaving him with more time to manage the business.

His father died in 1994, leaving Kevin to run the cinema. "Owning your own cinema requires a heavy dose of creative thinking and second guessing what your customers might want to see. No amount of formal training is going to give you that, you have to learn on the job," he says.

This requires dedication and a certain amount of blind tenacity, according to Markwick. "Obviously any business qualification is good, but a working knowledge of exhibition and a love of movies is essential. You can start, say, front of house, and work up through the ranks for a big chain if you have the passion and natural skill. But learning the technology side will also give you an edge – not least because you can run the show if your projectionist falls ill. In my case, I think I'm good at it and there's not many things you're good at in life which you enjoy and can make money from."

At the end of the 1990s Markwick mimicked his father's ambitions by knocking out the back of the cinema and building a third screen, something that was to save the business once again. That said, the Picture House is coming off the back of the worst June and July since 1996, with average weekly admissions dropping from 2,500 to around 350, hit by a lethal combination of the World Cup, a series of rubbish films on release and hot weather.

"These things even out," he explains. "But we are vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of business and it's particularly tough if distributors get heavy-handed and demand that credit is repaid within two weeks. In most businesses you get 30 days from the point of invoice, but in the film business things are changing. It's very corporate these days."

Markwick says that in bad months "the tank empties quickly" because it costs the same to open the cinema for a handful of people as it does for a sell-out. This is perhaps why he recently applied for, and was granted, a licence to sell alcohol; he already sells the usual staples such as popcorn, soft drinks, sweets, tea and coffee. "I'd also like to find the space to open a bar/café," he says as we stand in front of the pick 'n' mix section, trying to imagine where a bar would fit into the Picture House's tiny foyer.

I visit on a Monday, which is "hold-over day", when owners and programmers decide what films will play for a week from the following Friday. Schedules are tweaked to take into account new and existing films, what played well last week and what might play well in the coming week, and whether a film needs to play once, twice or three times a day. Markwick needs to keep distributors happy too.

He receives calls from Lionsgate, Warner Bros and Sony, chatting with humour to executives who ring to ensure (in some cases insist) that their films continue to appear at the Picture House. It's a balancing act for Markwick, who needs to stick to his contractual agreements even if a film has tanked. "You get used to films dying," he says. "That's why we have multiple screens. Half the time it's knowing what to leave out."

The week I visit he's juggling Salt and The Expendables (which under-performed), Toy Story 3 and Inception (which did well), along with the forthcoming The Girl Who Played With Fire and a spare matinee slot which could see Shrek Forever After (3D) play again.

"It's difficult because you have to think about when people might want to watch a film, the age group and the particular tastes of people in Uckfield."

On the final point he has branched out to screen live events for locals, such as a live broadcast of the Traverse Theatre's Impossible Things Before Breakfast from the Edinburgh Festival and performances from Glyndebourne.

In his office I spy books such as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey on his shelves, as well as surprises such as The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels. A book entitled Your Screenplay Sucks! betrays Markwick's creative bent. He has written and directed two movies: a feature-length film, Neil's Party, in 2005, and a 14-minute short film, Lullaby, made two years ago.

He screens Lullaby for me, which was filmed in two days and cost £30,000 to make, with funding coming from "everywhere". The short is a hugely affecting monologue from actress Haydn Gwynne on loss and grief, beautifully shot on 35mm film. At the end I'm visibly moved and notice him wiping his eyes. I ask him what was his inspiration. "It's a personal story," he says quietly. "Some of the most memorable movies ever made come from the heart."

Markwick is not afraid of the future, despite the continued onslaught from movie downloads, Blu-Ray players, video games and thousands of other industry death-knells. He has installed Dolby Digital sound, Xpand 3D, digital projectors and has enthusiastically embraced the internet, chatting to local film fans via his website as well as posting regular updates on Twitter.

"It's about reinventing ourselves, keeping the cinema up to the standard that people want so they continue to come," he says. "I might be constantly updating it, but this place is so familiar to me. It's become my home."

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