Sunday, November 2, 2014

The best independent cinemas in London

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As important as production and distribution are to the lifecycle of films, there is nothing more important to the magic of cinema culture than exhibition.  Everyone from the ardent cinéaste to the casual popcorn fan has a memory of seeing an amazing film in a cinema.  I have equally fond memories of seeing American Pie 2 on a packed opening night in the Odeon in Bournemouth as I do of seeing a obscure (and drunken) screening of Un Chien Andalou in a pop-up screening in Falmouth.  Having said that, the pleasures of watching a film in a cinema is often exponentially increased if you are watching in an establishment that cares about how the film is projected, the atmosphere is mellow and the other clientele are in the same frame of mind as you are.  

There is nothing inherently wrong with watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a noisy multiplex with a armful of nachos and a gallon of fizzy pop, but there is something special about watching an independent film in a cinema that cares about you.  So here is a rundown of some of the best independent cinemas in London:

•    BFI – Situated on the southbank, the National Film Theatre is the main location of two of London’s biggest film festivals: the London Film Festival and BFI Flare.  Housed in a building with a library, two great café/bars and a brilliant BFI shop, this is a great place to spend the afternoon watching matinées before another evening film.

•    Barbican – If you love concrete and brutalist skyscrapers then the barbican is an architectural heaven.  Once you wind yourself through the maze and reach the building itself then you find a gallery, theatre and 3 cinema screens that often have seasons and special events as well as showing big summer blockbusters too.

•    Genesis – The site of the Genesis in Mile End has been entertaining eastenders for 150 years and is one of the best blockbuster cinemas around.  Fully digital and 3D, if you want to see a mainstream film in an indie cinema then this is the one.  They also sofas with tables to enjoy a bottle of wine so it makes watching Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes a little more respectable.

•    Lexi – For the twee hipsters of London, the Lexi has to be the chicest and most bohemian of cinemas in the city.  Located in Kensal Rise and looking like a standard Georgian detached house, they give 100% of their profits to charity and still manage to play all of the current releases.

•    Phoenix – The Phoenix claims to be one of the oldest and longest running cinemas in the UK.  It is a charitable trust, which means that it is a truly independent cinema and has a habit of screening world cinema and having educational workshops from time to time to enrich the public’s film literacy.  They also pride themselves on their family values, so not many splattergore nights, but a lot of Kid’s Clubs…

•    Prince Charles – The Prince Charles on the other hand is very much aimed at adults and rowdy film fans.  Set in the heart of Leicester Square, they are famous for their all-night trilogy screenings, sing-a-longs and horror festivals.

•    Shortwave – The shortwave is a tiny 52 seat cinema with a focus on mature art house and independent films.  They often host live bands & Q+As with directors, as well as hosting short-film festivals.

•    Rich Mix – Rich Mix is a five-floor cinema, performing arts and gallery space with bars and event space that looks out over Bethnal Green.  They play a lot of mainstream films but also host indie & world cinema events such as their Youth Takeover season that is currently underway.  It’s not the most luxurious of cinemas but is perfectly cosy and has a warm atmosphere throughout.

•    Rio – The Rio is the best cinema in London to watch classic cinema and often hosts Q+A events with upcoming talent.  It recently teamed up with the East End Film Festival to show a host of world cinema films.

There are plenty of other good cinemas, especially the Curzon, Everyman, Soho House and PictureHouse chains dotted around the capital (avoid Odeons whenever possible), but for a truly independent experience then this is a simple checklist for any capital cinephile…  Over the next couple of months Crispy Sharp is going to be creating a video profile for each of these cinemas, as well as some of the other interesting places to watch films to celebrate the history of film exhibition in London.

If you have any thoughts about these cinemas and would like to get in touch, especially if you have an interesting story about particularly memorable visits, then please email us at 

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