Oxford’s Independent Film Scene
At OX, we like to think of ourselves as champions of all things “independent”. We have a near-sycophantic obsession with local produce and small-scale producers, craft distillers, up-and-coming artists and underground music. One aspect of Oxford’s independent culture that we have yet to shine our journalistic light on, however, is cinema, and for such a small city, Oxford punches well above its weight in terms of quality, non-blockbuster film screenings.
So why is ‘arthouse’ cinema so important? If anyone in Oxford has the authority to answer this question, it’s Clare Stimpson from the Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road.
The UPP first opened as the Oxford Picture Palace in 1911, closing during the war and reopening under the guidance of Bill Heine in 1976. Marketing manager Clare thinks that the benefits of independent cinemas like the UPP extend further than you might think:
“Independent filmmaking shines a light on the stories and voices that sometimes get lost in the fray of larger blockbusters”, Clare explained. “Here at the Ultimate Picture Palace, we try as much as possible to show a range of films from different countries and points of view in order to give our audiences a chance to see the breadth of films on offer from all over the world. As an independent business, we have complete control over what we show which means we can listen to our audiences as they come to the cinema and make sure we programme the films they want to see in our beautiful art deco auditorium.”
The second arthouse powerhouse hidden amongst the dreaming spires is the Phoenix in Jericho. Whilst not strictly independent (being part of the Picturehouse chain), it boasts enough spirit, charm and - most importantly of all - eclectic programming to earn its spurs as an indie cinema, and part of that 'badge' of hard-earned autonomy is its history - fascinating and titillating in equal measure.
It first opened its doors in 1913 and since then, over a period spanning more than a century, the Phoenix has changed ownership and name many times. However, significantly, when the lease was acquired by JR Poyntz in 1930 and sound equipment was installed, it began to establish its reputation as one of the most important art house cinemas in Britain outside of London. Poyntz regularly showed subtitled films which, not surprisingly, were especially popular with the University's foreign-language students, and indeed, this reputation was enhanced by the Poytz family's ownership of it for more than 40 years.
Up until 1970 that is, when it was sold and its single auditorium was split into two screens and renamed Studios One and Two. Subsequently, the film selection became more mainstream and - this is the 'titillating' part - adult films started to become a regular part of its programming.
Indeed, in 1976, Studio Two was renamed Studio X and briefly became a private club for more explicit adult fare, until in 1977 it was re-christened The Phoenix by new owners Contemporary Films, who started again showing arthouse films. Current manager David Williams, a delightfully unashamed cinema aficionado, is clearly a round man:
"I've worked in cinema for 16 years" he says, "across 18 different cinemas ranging from two screen locals to ten screen multiplexes, and in all that time I have never had the sheer pride that comes from being the General Manager of a cinema with the prestige and love of both its staff and customers". A fan, then?
"You know, the Phoenix is the only place in Oxford where you can watch a high budget Hollywood production one day and a ‘filmed on a shoestring budget’ film the next. It really has a diversity unmatched by bigger cinemas, and yet still is at the heart of the local community."
David, 34 - who incidentally lists his five favourite films of last year as 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens', 'Mad Max: Fury Road', 'The Lobster', 'Sicario' and 'The Martian' - says it was his first week at The Phoenix which truly set the bar.
"We had an issue with a projector that decided it didn't want to play the scheduled film,” he recalls. “I dutifully headed into the screen to tell the customers already sat down that we were having problems, expecting that I would be lynched… but they could not have been nicer. In fact, they were more interested in getting to know the new General Manager of the Phoenix than wondering why there was a delay in their film. As for the troublesome film that night, we're fortunate to be one of the few cinemas that still have a full time projectionist, so Mike, wizard that he is, worked his magic and we managed to get the film back on.”
With such a rich history and vibrant scene in our fine city, it would be a shame to let is pass you by. Have a look at the listings and get involved at uppcinema.com and picturehouses.com/cinema/Phoenix_Picturehouse
- Jack Rayner & Jeremy Smith
Related Articles: My Oxford: Bill Heine