Independent local institution platforms the best of film

“We’re very much focussed on the quality of film and that whole cinema experience.” From innocuous beginnings as a film club, offering locals the latest releases after the city’s last big screen had closed down, Chichester Cinema At New Park has grown into an institution in its own right. After two decades there, Walter Francisco has recently taken on the role of programmer, and tells me he’s determined to carry on their tradition of showing new and compelling works. “For example, there are lots of great films which come out on streaming, but a lot of cinemas choose not to stream them. But we choose to show them, because we still believe in sitting in that communal experience with a much nigger screen with sounds all around you. But, even before the screening, you can be sitting in the café with a glass of wine or a coffee, just chatting to people who’ve made that effort.”

Moving from his previous role running day-to-day operations as the cinema’s director, Francisco has replaced Roger Gibson – who established everything back in 1979, as well as organising Chichester International Film Festival. It started as a small film club at Chichester College, where Gibson taught. After five years, it moved to the city’s New Park Community Centre, just by the cathedral and city walls. “At that stage, we were screening 16mm films. Very soon after, we got our first 35mm projector.” Over the next two decades the cinema became more and more popular, until a multiplex opened nearby in 2003. While there might be local competition, the two venues seem to serve very different audiences. “We’re a single screen cinema, so we have to be a lot more selective about what we show. We do pride ourselves on being able to show what we consider to be the best in cinema, whether that’s from the UK, the US or any country, but are critically acclaimed or important.”

Like most modern cinemas, New Park offers the latest releases in digital format, but there’s still a space for screenings in 35mm. While many big studios seem disinterested in distributing works on film stock, there’s plenty of champions for the analogue format. Directors like Christopher Nolan are resisting the pressure to abandon a practice which has been developed and understood for over 100 years. Arguably, film stock still looks superior on large screens, and is often cheaper and faster for production companies to work with. “When Oppenheimer came out, we made a point of showing it on 35mm. There’s always something amazing when you see a film in 35mm. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but there is a kind of warmth. Like when you put a record on, why does that feel different to a CD or streaming?”

The advent of digital has also seen many multiplexes dispense with someone ensuring the best possible screening experience. “When digital came in, most cinemas got rid of their day-to-day projectionists. The managers now put the films into a playlist and press ‘play’. We really appreciate what our projectionists do for us, which is make sure everything is in focus, that it sounds good. They are technicians by trade. They can obviously do all the digital stuff as well.” This love, care and attention has seen New Park build up a sizable and loyal following. This audience seems more than willing to embrace the cinema’s varied programme. As we’re talking, Francisco tells me they’re about to screen Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves. This quite dark comic romance, in Finnish with English subtitles, has sold-out the venue at 4pm in the afternoon. 

This idea of a cinema which has built up a community around itself, just by offering a genuine alternative, echoes the recent release of Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s landmark documentary, Scala!!!. This bastion of late night cinema, in London’s King’s Cross, would show everything from cult classics to experimental strangeness, often blurring the lines between absolute filth and high art. Obviously, audiences in Chichester may not be so receptive to Hong Kong slasher films, but the ethos between New Park and Scala remain quite similar.

Both recognise cater for audiences who recognise that films can’t be valued purely through their budget or the number of screens hosting them. There’s plenty of inspiration and entertainment to be found just beyond the boundary of the mainstream. It comes as little surprise that the anarchic London cinema was a favourite hangout of Roger Gibson during its heyday. So, naturally, New Park will soon be showing the documentary “Normally, I write the copy for our films on the website. But I asked him to write something about his memories of going there. I think it’s going to really touch home with what our customers love about coming to a cinema like ours. Scala had a certain X-factor. We have something similar. We’re quirky, unique and we just want to show the best work we can. I imagine Scala had the same sort of lifeblood to it.”

It’s not that all the works shown by New Park are defiantly niche or in a foreign language.  Despite being part of the colossal Marvel Cinematic Universe and produced by Disney (often a byword for vanilla and resolutely commercial), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was exactly the kind of adventurous release the cinemas loves to embrace. A poignant exploration of guilt, grief and tradition, action and Afrofuturism collided to create a genuine cultural moment. “That was a film which we probably wouldn’t show because it’s your superhero thing which people would love to see at their local multiplex. But it was an important film. Oppenheimer was also very much our kind of thing. It’s interesting. It’s quality. And an excuse to show something on 35mm!” 

When the cinema moved to the New Park Community Centre, the building was just a Victorian school hall. It’s developed into a main auditorium seating 120, with 30 in the Studio, while still retaining all the venue’s original, quirky architectural features. In 2014, when digital was being rolled out across the country, they organised fundraising to add a new projector. It started off really well, with most of the money raised within three months. Then a famous British actor, who didn’t want to be named at the time (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning is all I’m going to say), saw the story in a local paper and wrote out a cheque for the remainder. “We got digital in no time, and that changed how we run. We can show live performances from New York and the National Theatre.” 

It shows the love New Park receives from locals. As part of repaying some of that back, they run a range of community and education activities, along with a broad range of charity work. It works with several local schools, staging free talks around what is on curriculum, covering everything from Shakespeare to Jekyll & Hyde. Working with organisations like The Apuldram Centre, a charity for adults with learning disabilities, they also seek to overcome various barriers to participation. “We have kids who might face difficulties accessing the cinema, whether they might make some noise or have a bigger wheelchair than usual. We put beanbags down and they have a brilliant time. We’re proud of the work we do with them.” Elsewhere, the film experience is enhanced with talks and discussions around latest releases. “We had the Native American Experience on Film recently. If you do a talk on that somewhere else, you might get 20 people in there. We’re very proud of that.” Other upcoming talks include a discussion on Studio Ghibli stalwart, Hayao Miyazaki, as he releases his final work, The Boy And The Heron, as well as a talk on director Sofia Coppola ahead of her biopic, Priscilla.

Come August, New Park will be hosting the Chichester International Film Festival. Now in its 32nd year this brings together 15 days of premieres,  new releases and outdoor screenings. But currently, everything is concentrated on a programme accompanying awards season. New Park will be offering all the hotly tipped contenders in the Golden Globes and the Oscars. “Because some of these came out in July, when people might be on holiday, they might not have been able to see some of the films. So, it gives them another chance.”

Originally growing up in Sydney, Francisco came to England in 2003. Looking for work, he’d seen New Park advertising for a box office manager. His wife recalled once sitting on orange plastic chairs at the venue to watch The Exorcist. “I looked at the films they were showing, and instantly thought: ‘Yeah, this is for me.’ I got the job, and the rest is history.” He describes his time there as a “20-year apprenticeship”,  but says part of the cinema’s success is due to people’s feeling about the centre where it resides. “When we started, they were thinking of demolishing and building flats. People were willing to stand in front of bulldozers. During Covid, we got so many people donating money to us, which got us through. I think people love the fact that we’re independent and very human. They come to us and can speak to people who love film. If it’s their first time, we show them around. We try and make a point of being friendly to people and show the best films we can. You put that together with a quirky building and people want to be part of it.” 

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