Q&A: Shira MacLeod

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The director of Regent Street Cinema on the struggles of independent filmmakers, the appetite for Buster Keaton and the dying art of the projectionist

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili


Have you always worked in film?
No. I came to London to be a dancer when I was 17, and I worked in dance for about 12 years. But the dancing that I was doing was often in performance art projects, and those artists were starting to use film, so it all came together. I’ve also done a lot of photography. I do both things still: photography and dance. Once a dancer always a dancer.

Eventually I got a job at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, as the cinema director’s assistant. I mainly just put the posters up and ran around doing whatever was needed. Then the director died. Because I understood how the place worked, I was thrown in as a test and did okay in the first year, so ended up getting the job. I did that for 11 years. I suppose I fell into this by default: I hadn’t studied film, though I’d always been interested in it. I watched lots and lots of films all the time, but I didn’t know about the history. I’ve been learning as I’ve been doing.

How challenging is it running a repertory cinema?
The thing about Regent Street Cinema is we have a beautiful building, which is half the battle. And the fact that it’s the birthplace of British cinema—the first place the Lumière brothers showed their films—is important. We have our own niche. I have never pretended to be anything other than a repertory programmer, meaning that I show old films all the time and do a lot of foreign films. I don’t tend to screen the normal stuff that other cinemas are doing. I’ve stood my ground and luckily, I have a fantastic team of people who are all very passionate. It is now really beginning to work—the general public and the press are really liking us. By not wavering from what we want to do, just holding it, we’re doing okay.

Is projection a dying art?
Not here. I have this amazing place where I get to show 35mm and 16mm, which is kind of a dream for a programmer. We do old fashioned changeovers, so that when one reel runs out it passes on to another spool, so it’s quite a manual activity and means we need quite specialist projectionists. In a lot of cinemas, there is no projectionist—it’s the front of house manager just pushing buttons. We’re trying to preserve the craft.

What’s great is there’s actually a small revolution the other way. People like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are filming on 35mm again. There are lots of pop-up screenings of 35mm—Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square does that all the time. There’s a big surge of interest in it again.

Do you get a kick from being able to show very old films in their original format?
To screen an old 35mm in academy ratio, which is a square format, in a cinema like this is a very special experience—even just hearing the sound of the projector, it’s magical. I thought it would just be older people coming in, but really young people are coming to see Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, and it’s great fun. Everyone at the cinema is really keen on getting the highest standard of sound and picture we possibly can, because we have this amazing environment. We’ve got a really good 4k top-of-the-range projector to do the digital stuff. We have to make everything as good as possible. That’s the challenge.

Does changing the programme daily give you lots of freedom?
It’s a mixed bag. I’m trying to programme things that people want to see but are not likely to see elsewhere. I work with a lot of partners. Tonight, for example, Heavenly Films are providing this documentary about Joy Division. You can really sell something like that, because it’s a one-off screening. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I’ll screen a film and because it’s only on once, people miss it. It’s really hard, repertory cinema—it’s not a money-making thing. The most money is made in the bar. You have to get your wine list right!

So, how do you go about curating it?
Certain things I know will make money—music-based films, for example, always seem to. Then I’ll try to be a bit more experimental. And I want to show old films because of the environment. I’m quite freestyle about how I do things. If it feels right, I’ll do it. If it’s a disaster, I won’t do it again, but I’m quite open to experimental projects. We want to be as innovative as possible, so I’ve done quite a lot of mixed media things. I try to use the space effectively, too. There’s a lift shaft that we’ve put musicians in, we’ve taken away rows of seats. We showed Battleship Potemkin film and had a soundtrack by people who’d brought their own instruments. That could’ve gone really badly wrong, but it was really good.

How do you find what are often quite obscure films?
A lot of them find me. A lot of people I work with here I worked with for years in Riverside. Distributors invite me out to screenings. I’m very lucky like that. I can’t watch everything, but I try to see as much as I can so that I can have an opinion. Sometimes you have to choose: do I screen this? I really hate this film, but I should screen it because I know there’s an audience for it. I have to think it through. I fall asleep with my laptop on my bed every night. It really doesn’t ever stop.

You screen live theatre productions, too.
Streaming National Theatre live is brilliant in here, because it used to be a theatre. People really enjoy it because of the environment. We did Ian McKellen’s King Lear recently, which was amazing. People go and get ice cream like they do in the theatre. I was initially very anti it, to be honest—I thought it was just going to be rubbish, but it’s really well shot, you’re totally drawn into the characters. It’s quite riveting and people clap at the end. The National Theatre productions are so creative anyway, the staging is always stunning. People can come and see things they couldn’t otherwise get into. It’s fun. Kids really like it. They think it’s posh.

Have changes in the way people consume media affected film?
It has definitely affected the overall quality—all the best scripts are on TV at the moment. As a cinema, you have to work a bit harder to provide something that’s not online, not on YouTube or Netflix: you have to have an introduction, some kind of Q&A, you have to screen things that can’t be streamed on a laptop. What we’re trying to do is capture the romance of cinema, the escape of cinema, the whole experience. We don’t have any ads, we just do three trailers, and the film starts two minutes after the time we say it will. It really is purely about the films, which I think people like. You can bring your drinks in, it’s unreserved seats, and hopefully all the staff are the kind of people you can chat away to. Sometimes cinemas can be quite cold and a bit intimidating, but people are coming here on their own, getting a cup of coffee and watching a film after work. It’s quite sweet when you see it.

What are the current prospects for independent filmmakers?
It’s an absolute nightmare. They might be able to make a film more cheaply than before, but still no one will screen it. Once you’ve done the festivals, what do you do with it then? You need a distributor. You need money to advertise your film. You need posters, a trailer. It costs a lot of money. As a cinema, why would you support a new British film, if you don’t know how much money it’s going to make? It’s so much easier to put on A Star is Born. I love A Star is Born, by the way, I think it’s brilliant, but it’s so much safer to keep playing it than to risk a new filmmaker who’s got no track record.

We’re trying to be a place to preview new British films, because most West End cinemas won’t. This is a great place to premier a film. When you have the red carpet on Regent Street, everyone stops. One of our biggest success stories has been a documentary about the designer John Simons. The premier was here, and every time we’ve screened it, it’s sold out. There’s an absolute cult following. It’s a great story: his shop is the only place these guys can buy their mod stuff; they’re crying over their shoes, they’re so excited. It just goes to show that if you can get the word out about your film, and there’s enough interest, we can keep screening it and you can make money from it. It is possible.

How does the connection with the University of Westminster work?
They’re my bosses, effectively. We do all the degree shows for the film students. There are different strands of programming. One of the most successful ones is this ‘psychology at the movies’ thing. The psychology department suggest films to me, I get them in, then they screen them and do an accompanying talk. There was a brilliant one where they did Black Swan, and brought in a ballet dancer, a psychologist and a psychiatrist. It really worked.

What are the genres that particularly excite you?
I’m a documentary person—I think real life is always much more exciting than fiction. I’ve also been very lucky to have seen films from different eras. I would much, much rather watch a Robert Mitchum film than most new releases. The difficulty with me is, I’ve not seen all the obvious things—The Breakfast Club, I’ve never seen that! But I will have seen a really obscure thing from Estonia. Mainstream cult cinema? No. Obscure, subtitled, odd? Yes.

What is it about film as a way of storytelling that captivates people?
I think a good film gives you space to think. It’s a different language—it’s a visual language. There are always words, but I think the visuals have to play a big part. The reading experience is very different—they have different ways of communicating. I think Gone Girl the book was amazing, I think Gone Girl the film was amazing, and I don’t actually know which one I think was better. They’re both really exciting in their own way.