In the 112 years since its inception, the Electric Cinema in Birmingham has gone down in cinematic history. When it opened in 1909, it showed silent films with piano accompaniment, newsreels and cartoons in the 1930s, adult films in the 1960s, and blockbusters in the 1980s.
But the Covid pandemic nearly marked the end of what is believed to be the UK’s oldest operating cinema when its owners decided to sell after more than a year of continuous closure.
“It was the biggest existential crisis the industry has ever faced. The only time cinemas were forced by law to close was the first two weeks of World War II. So being closed for 10 months it was horrible,” said Kevin Markwick, the cinema’s new owner, who brought the theater back to life by opening its doors on Friday for the first time since the pandemic began.
Markwick, who also owns an independent cinema in East Sussex, was approached last year by the previous owners to see if he would consider saving the venue. It was his first time visiting Birmingham, but he took one look at the traditional cinema with its art deco facade and decided to buy it. “There is so much potential here. We can build something really special,” he said.
When he broke the news on social media, he was overwhelmed by the response from people who feared the cinema was gone forever, and early screenings on Friday quickly sold out.
A lot of work has been done behind the scenes to get the cinema back to working order, including replacing all digital cinema equipment – “It doesn’t like being turned off”, Markwick said – and bringing the 35 projector back to life. mm vintage.
He plans to further upgrade the venue and enhance its classic aesthetic, including installing curtains in front of the screen.
“I want it to be an old-school movie experience,” he said. “It is important to maintain this legacy, this direct line from Charlie Chaplin to Errol Flynn via Marilyn Monroe, Rex Harrison, Arnold Schwarzenegger, until today.”
The first film on the program is Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, followed by an eclectic lineup including Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and one of Markwick’s favorite films, Billy Wilder’s 1960 romantic comedy The Apartment.
“I want to program it with a mixture of mainstream films, art house films, old films. Basically, I want to make it a go-to place for moviegoers in Birmingham,” he said.
When the Electric opened on December 27, 1909, it was Birmingham’s first cinema and showed mainly American silent films before adding sound in 1930. Much of the original building was rebuilt in 1937 and it reopened as a rolling information hall, the Tatler.
The cinema was rebranded again in the 1960s as Jacey, showing mainly cartoons, and began showing adult films late in the decade to combat declining audiences. It passed through various owners throughout the 1980s, before returning to the Electric in 1993.
While the pandemic has been difficult for the film industry, Markwick is convinced that the success of blockbusters such as No Time to Die and Spider-Man’s Last Deal shows that the appetite for cinema is stronger than ever. .
“We’ve been hit hard during the pandemic by being forced to shut down and studios have been rushing in with indecent haste to release, leaving us feeling like abandoned lovers,” he said. “There was always this slight concern that we were let down by the film distributors, but obviously they realized which side their bread is buttered on.”
After a hectic few months preparing the cinema for the return of audiences, Markwick said he was looking forward to seeing a full house for the first screening.
“I am as comfortable in a cinema as in my own front room. I grew up around movies and so did my kids,” said Markwick, whose daughter Katie will run the venue full-time. “Like me, she started working as an usher from around 16 years old. We love movies and know all about it and hopefully we know what we’re doing.