Boutique Cinemas in London
The best unique cinemas in London: cinemas showing independent films, and the best places to watch new movies in London–away from the crowds
If multiplexes are taking in the lion’s share of profit, indie cinemas have always retained stalwart support from local cinephiles: now, with a growing fear of cultural sterility, from the so-called 'luxury' cinemas in London, the indies are beginning to thrive. With this in mind, we’ve rounded up London's best independent cinemas along with some unusual places to watch cinema in the capital.
The BFI Southbank
Hardly a shrinking violet in the cinema world, the British Film Institute on Southbank is something of an anomaly in our list. But as one of the best cinemas in London, the BFI is a must-visit for aspiring film professionals and film-fanatics alike. Every year it screens on an idiosyncratic mix of classic, independent and non-English language films as part of its carefully curated line-up of seasons and retrospectives. The BFI also hosts some of London’s biggest events (the London Film Festival being the pride of the brunch) ads well as Q&A sessions with some of the world’s top directors. And, if you fancy delving deeper into the history of film, any BFI member can go to the Mediatheque and explore the vast BFI national archive for free.
It may not be the most stylish grape in the bunch, but with its big screens, modernist décor and bar serving up delicious cocktails, Clapham’s Picturehouse a favourite among Clapham’s boho residents. With the great picturehouse deals on offer for membership (£55 a year), and its understated, anti-multiplex atmosphere, the Clapham Picturehouse epitomizes the relaxed vibe of the indie cinemas. Snug screens with reclining seats make it the perfect place to spend a Sunday afternoon – and drinks are, as ever, allowed into the screen.
Built in 1911 and originally called the Electric Pavilion, the Ritzy is one of London's oldest cinemas. Having survived the Blitz, and staving off a mooted demolition in the 1970s, Brixton's red-brick cinema retains many of its period features. Complete with arched ceiling, velvet seats, and a scarlet curtain that rises at the start of each viewing, the Ritzy is the perfect spot for cine-romantics. Famed for its relaxed vibe, the cinema hosts a rich lineup of local live acts, and houses two bars serving up local craft beer. It’s this community atmosphere, along with its eclectic blend of art-house, documentary and blockbuster, which makes The Ritzy a lasting symbol of Brixton's diversity.
‘Please allow me to introduce myself…’ drawls Mick Jagger – not that he needs to – before the opening credits of all Olympic Studio’s films. The Rolling Stones began their meteoric rise to Rock-n-Roll royalty on this very spot, which was an active recording studio until 2009. The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and David Bowie all graced the floors of the studio to create their legendary sounds – the Beatles All You Need is Love was recorded here. Olympic Studios re-opened last year as a stylish two-screen cinema and restaurant, replete with comfortable reclining seats sourced from Norway and an powerful Dolby sound-system, reminiscent of the cinema’s sonorous origins. Indeed, cinephiles are not permitted to forget its unique legacy: a film montage of the studio’s archived footage plays at the beginning of each screening, giving visitors a foot-tapping feel for its history. If that’s not enough to tempt you, the restaurant also serves up some delicious food. Look out Secret Cinema: London has a worthy competitor for quirky cinema experiences with the Olympic.
The Electric, Portobello Road
The Electric - located in the heart of Portobello – rarely closed its doors during a lengthy eighty year run, but its forunes took a turn for the worse in the 1990s and it was forced to close down completely in 1993. Luckily for Londoners, a group of architects, developers and local businessmen swooped to the rescue. After a whopping, two million pound re-development, new life was injected into the Electric, reviving it to become one of West London’s best independent cinemas. A combination of sumptuous red velvet seating (with front row beds!), gilded walls and old-school lamps give the cinema a wonderful, time-warped atmosphere.
Despite the plight of its Soho sibling, the Curzon Chelsea is going strong. In a recent skirmish with the Cadogan Estate, it managed to stave off plans for extensive commercial redevelopment – a victory that owed much to an enthusiastic community campaign to save it. Boasting one of the biggest screens in London, the Curzon is also well-loved for its retro façade – films are announced in red plastic lettering on its front – and its bustling bar.
The Lounge, Whiteleys
The new Lounge inside Whiteleys centre, Bayswater, is an Odeon like no other: at the forefront of a new venture by Odeon to fuse film watching with luxury dining, under-18s are banned and customers are treated to a sumptuous meal along with their cinematic experience. Visitors order from a menu created by Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais that is served directly to their seats. Putting aside the obvious challenges posed by fine dining in the dark (steak or fish make for far messier snacking than popcorn), this is an exciting new frontier for experiential eating. The Lounge is furnished with leather sofas and spacious leg-room, making it one of the most comfortable cinemas in London. Should you need a top-up, the seats are equipped with buttons to call waiting staff during the film. Luxury indeed.
The Barbican’s brutalist architecture might divide opinion, but its cinema – which often hosts film festivals and plays old classics – is definitely worth a visit. With frequent seasons on an eclectic range of topics and some exciting retrospectives. There is also a generous range of discounts for 16-25s: click here to find out more.
The Rich Mix
Rich Mix is more than just a cinema: it's a vibrant arts hub, just off Bethnal Green road, and it's loved by East London hipsters. Cinema is just one facet of its expansive repertoire that includes music, poetry, worships, dance, spoken word and free exhibitions. Events reflect the diversity of the local community: in March, for example, the 44th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence will be celebrated by an exhibition of exciting contemporary art from various corners of the globe. As a charity and social enterprise dedicated to widening access to the arts and nurturing new talent, the cinema’s events are often free and there is a discounted ticket scheme for The Rich Mix’s locals. Rich Mix brims with creative energy and is definitely one of the coolest cinemas in East London.
Dalston’s Rio Cinema has barely changed since its extensive remodeling by eccentric architect FR Bromige, during the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s. Bromige transformed the neo-classical picturehouse into the imposing Art Deco monument that stands today. Now a grade-two listed building, with jazzy pink and blue interior, the Rio is arguably the best independent cinema in East London. Choosing from an arresting selection of art-house, classic and blockbuster films to show on its single screen, the Rio also hosts a string of thought-provoking festivals. Tickets are cheaper than most, at £10 for adult and £8 concessions, this East London gem is definitely worth a look-in.
The Electric Cinema, Shoreditch
Nestled beneath an Aubin & Wills store in Shoreditch, the Electric Cinema is one of London’s hidden gems. This intimate, forty-five seat screen is a relatively new arrival on the capital’s indie cine-scene but has been steadily building a loyal following. This is probably London’s cosiest cinema: the audience can collapse on to its comfy couches and can wrap up in tweed or cashmere blankets if required. Drinks are available at a small bar. But be sure to get there early – this tiny boutique cinema fills up quickly!
Stepney Green’s quirky arthouse cinema Genesis is home to both mainstream blockbusters and indie hits. First built on in 1848 it's been a pub, a music hall and a theatre, which played host to such greats as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. Renovated to include the new 'Studio 5' boutique, it invites luxury customers as well as being a great fit for locals. The upstairs bar Paragon, which harps back to its time as a theatre, also draws crowds – from the artisan bakery Rinkoff’s to its delicious range hot-dogs, all for a reasonable price, it’s a relaxing spot for London cinephiles. Its film selections are eclectic and very reasonably priced – even the Studio, which boasts forty sofas and armchairs, decked out with blankets and footstools, as well as table service from an in-screen bar. Luxury and relaxed join forces in this iconic and historic venue.
Screen on the Green, Islington
This historic cinema is a favourite in well-heeled Islington. These days, it’s renowned for its retro red-neon façade, relaxed ambience and great bar, but in the 1970s it was the scene of raucous punk rebellion. It was here, in August 1976, that the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Buzzocks performed the famous ‘Midnight Special’; a year later, Sid Vicious’s arrival on the scene as a Sex Pistol was also marked with a gig at the very same Screen on the Green. A 2009 refurb harked back to these music roots: a stage was installed in front of the screen and the cinema was made more amenable to live music. Now a hotspot for Islington’s yummy mummies, this is our pick for North Londoners seeking a special cinema experience.
For those on a quest for things to do in Finchley, we suggest looking no further than the Phoenix cinema. One of Britain’s oldest continuously operating, purpose-built cinemas, the Phoenix is a beloved feature of North London life. Visitors can watch foreign, independent films and live ballet screenings in a splendid art deco theatre, complete with a stunning vaulted ceiling. A tiny café serving up simple but tasty food completes this great outfit.
Kilburn theatre-cum-cinema The Tricycle houses a luxury, 300-seat space that screens the best British art-house films along with mainstream blockbusters. It also plays host to a number of festivals and special Q&A screenings, with this single screen venue, off the unassuming high road in Kilburn seeing a surprisingly large number of famous faces walk through its doors. Recent highlights include directors such as Mike Leigh and actors Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy, to name but a few. The on-site theatre also boasts some impressive performances – it's definitely a venue you want to keep your eye on.
The Prince Charles cinema
Located less than 100 metres from London's biggest cinema location, The Prince Charles is arguably the best place in London to watch cult films. Bigger than the standard indie picturehouse, this private cinema in London hub Leicester Square can afford to show an incredible range of old classics and the best in contemporary film, and its frequent retrospective seasons are a favourite among loyal regulars. Hidden down a side-street from the Vue, and with only two screens, the PCC is an unassuming venue, but its retro-feel draws nostalgia from London's film buffs. It's also famously Quentin Tarantino’s favourite UK cinema – he described it as ‘everything an independent movie theatre should be. For lovers of quality films, this is Mecca’. A gem among Leicester Square's huge, generic cineplexes, The Prince Charles is definitely worth a stop-in.
Curzon Bloomsbury and Bertha DocHous
The new Curzon Bloomsbury (formerly the iconic Renoir) has just opened, and aims to bring high quality, arthouse and independent films back to mainstream cinema audiences, with what they term a 'more European approach' and a flexibility with programming that will allow them to keep their films in house for longer. Aside from the programming, the interior too is impressive: designer Takero Shimazaki has converted the fifty year old, grade-two listed space into this new, state-of-the-art venue, which combines the original brutalist architecture with what he describes as 'a more tactile, material, Italian and Sicilian villa'. With soft, delicate pink light cast on concrete around the new three floor stairwell, the venue plays on the original features of what he defines as 'architecture with gravitas.' The interiors are monotone, black, and as Tak puts it, 'quite severe', but in this way, the new cinema continues to channel the modernist feel of the old Renoir: fans of the iconic space will be pleased to hear that the neon RENOIR sign is still there, gleaming along the back wall of the new cinema's main screen.
The Curzon Bloomsbury also, excitingly, houses the new Bertha DocHouse, the first cinema screen in the UK dedicated to documentary. With an eclectic schedule of master-classes, seasons and festivals to complement screenings of cutting-edge contemporary docs, the DocHouse hopes to become an international centre for documentaries as well a as a hangout for documentary aficionados: with a personal viewing area, visitors can watch hundreds of films from the DocHouse archive for free. Add to this the five new screens, showing a diverse range of films, and the new Curzon Bloomsbury promises to be one of the most interesting cinemas in London to date.
The outrage that greeted the story that the controversial Crossrail 2–in line to bulldoze large swathes of town and country–had set its sights on the Curzon Soho marked the support for London's historic cinema. Though neither the most beautiful, nor the oldest of London’s independent cinemas, the Curzon Soho was nonetheless voted its favourite. The cinema has a reputation for screening challenging and unusual films, as well as hosting Q&As with top directors and actors (Isabelle Huppert made a recent appearance) and tempting customers with the delectable baked goods. Unsurprisingly, news of Crossrail 2’s potential incursions into such hallowed territory incensed Soho locals, and the petition to save the cinema from being razed has already gathered 25,000 votes. Hopefully it’s here to stay, but just in case, we’d recommend catching a film there as soon as you can.
The Curzon Victoria
This latest addition to the cinema scene already has some interesting things line-ups for 2015. This new Curzon is truly the definition of the boutique – tucked away in the basement of a glass-fronted building it looks more like a private member’s bar than cinema. Stylishly lit and with spacious seats housed in intimate, comfortable screens, the cinema still seems to remain relatively unknown to locals, so it’s the perfect place to snuggle away on a Sunday evening. Tickets aren’t cheap, but if you like to watch your films in style without bumping elbows with the world and his wife, then this is definitely for you.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall is one of London's true gems. With an incredible range of programming, from retrospective seasons to brand new releases, and frequent screenings of cult classics, the ICA is much more than a cinema. The institute regularly hosts exhibitions, talks and Q&As on a huge range of topics. Concessional membership is a steal, and the institute always has a packed line-up of members events, and discounted screenings. The venue also has a stylish reading room and café bar for those who want some peace from Piccadilly's crowds.