An Institution: Rio Cinema
An Institution is a new Route series profiling some of the country's leading Arts and Culture establishments.
At the centre of Kingsland High Street in Dalston stands one of the foremost independent cinemas in London, the Rio. During its century plus long history the building has witnessed remarkable change whilst evolving in order to remain an interesting place to watch film in amongst an ever shifting cultural, technological and social landscape.
In 1909, what is now Rio Cinema was an auctioneer’s shop run by a businesswoman called Clara Ludski. She converted it into a cinema when film was a gimmick and the concept of moving image was a lot lest familiar than our current acceptance of the GIF for example. They were usually four or five minute long clips of trains pulling into stations or workers leaving factories met with amazement by primitive cinema audiences.
By the mid 20’s as film making had started to establish its narrative form and the medium’s popularity as a leisure pastime boomed, Hackney was home to around 60 cinemas. Hard to believe now as Rio has been the only cinema in Dalston since the nearby Ace Cinema closed back in 1984.
Over the years it’s been a silent cinema, a repertory cinema, a continental art house cinema, a cartoon and news theatre and in the 1970s it became a burlesque live striptease adult porno cinema and then a Bollywoord cinema with local residents turning it into charity in 1979.
One by one Hackney's cinemas closed but Rio’s steadfast embracement of adaptation, driven by the passionate, knowledgeable people who run it has kept it relevant and well attended to this day.
One of those people is Andrew Woodyatt, the venue’s current Marketing Manager, who recounts some of the moments that showcase the venue's forward thinking agenda.
“It’s got this very amazing heritage, and through the 80s and 90s it was very much one of the cutting edge independent cinemas in London. It really supported a lot of London filmmakers, small groups, a lot of film festivals started here like Turkish Film Festival and Kurdish Film Festival. We still support the Sex Workers Film Festival, Fringe Festival, East End Film Festival, London Feminist Film Festival and Fashion and Film."
The ethos has been established for many years. Andrew goes on.
"The aim was that it would represent the community and show a very diverse programme of films and the people who ran it were the people who ran the Centerprise Bookshop over the road which was the home of radical, grassroots community led organisations in Hackney. So anything that was counter-culture was over there.
A lot of those groups came over to the Rio and started using this pretty much as a very large community centre. So down here in the basement was a VHS screening room and London’s first women only cinema space, out of which grew the London Feminist Film Festival. Upstairs they were very much focused on kids' education and literacy, supporting independent film, and live music."
Despite the looming evidence of gentrification, Hackney's diverse cultural make up can still be seen on its streets which feeds into Rio's current programming.
"The amazing thing about Hackney is that the community is so diverse in terms of age, gender, religion and race. Every film we’ve shown has either a broad audience or a specific audience and we’ve got that audience within our catchment area so it’s just a case of making sure that we show enough stuff that we try to cover everyone within the community.
Also, we are very conscious of the fact that although the East End is a bustling, thriving kind of scene, there’s a huge amount of poverty and low income families in the area so we make sure that our admission prices don’t exclude anyone."
There's a monthly over 60s social club where clientele receive free tea, coffee, biscuits and cakes, arriving well before the 2pm start time to sit around, chat and discuss everything from the weekly happenings to memories in the building they've cherished for many years.
"One of our regular customers who comes in was an usherette here during its days as a burlesque porn theatre. She’d sit in the little usherette seat at the back of the auditorium and back in those days it was a smoking cinema, so when male customers would try to put their hand on her knee so she’d keep a lit cigarette handy and jab them if they came a bit too close!"
As ever though, Rio is looking towards the future which is why they've launched the three fold Rio Generation project in order to raise funds. Part one is to restore the building's frontage.
"We want restore the outside of the building because so many people are like, 'oh the Rio is a bit scruffy', but they’ve never been inside. When they do get inside it’s actually really stunning, so the outside needs to live up to that."
Perhaps most importantly, part two of the plan is to navigate the business model constraints of being a single screen cinema by installing a second screen in the basement.
"Even though it’s going to be about 30-35 seats, it means we’ll have a space for community groups to use as well as film societies, young filmmakers, film schools who want to put on evenings of shorts and there are so many filmmakers in the area who produce documentaries about community life but have no way of showing it to an audience"
In its current state the building is 102 years old, made when things were built to last but it of course comes with all the problems you'd expect to mount up over time so part three is to improve the general facilities.
"We want to gradually replace all the lights with LEDs so it’s a lot more sustainable, improve the toilets and just make it easier to navigate around the building for example lighting in the auditorium, particularly for young kids, families and older people who struggle a bit in the dark.
The three stages are being actioned in order to improve the cinema going experience and also help to foster creativity within the confines of the industry itself.
"You know, you go into a commercial multiplex and it’s really about showing the latest product and getting as many people through the cinema as quickly as possible and selling them as much sugary drinks and fatty foods as possible, then getting them out of the building and getting the next 2,000 people in to watch the next blockbuster. It’s kind of like a factory production line whereas coming here hopefully is something different in terms of what you actually take away at the end of it."
The idea of adding a second screen helping Rio to become an established home for the community within Hackney and creative networks further afield is a commendable aim against a governmental climate actively dissuading people from doing so, within an an industry increasingly afraid to take risks.
"My worry is that you’re seeing a lot of mainstream film making. Experimental films aren't being made and distributors don’t want to take a risk on that type of film. I teach at the two big London film schools and what you see is a lot of technically very good film making but it’s rare to see something that is original or in anyway experimental. Kids should be given the inspiration to go out and make that kind of stuff."
The problem Andrew points out is of an industry eating itself. The big budget blockbusters are squeezing the rest out. They make such overwhelming financial sense to the major studios on a global scale that investing in unestablished directors who regard of that kind of success as a consequence of good work rather than think tank, hive mind planning is seen as a fools errand. How will this plot development play with the 18-25s in our South East Asian market? That kind of thing.
Take a moment to consider that a film from celebrated director Jim Jarmusch, Paterson, starring much loved actor of the moment Adam Driver grossed some $328 million less that the widely derided Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Where does that leave modern cinema and how can you compete when distributors insist their film be shown in something like eight out of ten screens of a national multiplex chain?
"In terms of running a cinema, I’d love to support interesting film making. Part of what we want to do with the second screen is to get young film makers down here, show films and have discussion about it afterwards about why this stuff isn’t being made. Was it merely because everyone had better drugs in the 70s and 80s?" Andrew quips.
"We want to give people the space to show their films and then encourage them to go out with their camera and record something."
This is all during a time where the digital revolution has democratised the process, simultaneously making it easier to create and distribute content but harder to receive a financial return on it as we move further and further away from those inaugural blrrps of dial up tone that set the 'why would I pay for that' world we currently live in into motion.
Andrew says, "It’s getting kids to experience real cinema to sit in an auditorium for an hour and a half and watch a film but then be able to go to school and talk about what they’ve seen on screen and learn something from it."
While a home to create these types of experimental counter-cultural art is one piece of the puzzle that can, albeit it challengingly, be put into place by a relatively small community of professional enthusiasts, beyond that the social backdrop of such dramatic changes industrywide is seemingly out of one's direct control.
"Maybe we’re just waiting for something to kick against." Andrew says.
Think of Thatcher era punk or the hardcore movement that spilled out of Reagan's America.
"With people, young people in particularl becoming more politicised and more cynical about the government and their parents’ generation maybe we will actually see reaction against that which will produce interest art, music and film. I hope so."
Will today's modern political talking points May and Trump be the catalyst? Difficult to say. What we can say with a degree of certainty though is that institutions such as Rio Cinema will fight hard to ensure new generations of talent are encouraged to create, experiment and adapt for another century.
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