An ode to Exeter Picturehouse

I first went to Exeter Picturehouse in the middle of 2000. I was a moody 17-year-old who had become partially fixated by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I knew Sofia Coppola had made a movie of it and I was desperate to see it. But it was something of an ‘indie’ movie (I was by no means a film buff or whatever at this time). My one-horse hometown did have a cinema – the kind with ushers and ice cream tray people – but this definitely wasn’t on their radar. Ditto the Odeon that shared Exeter’s viewing audience (this was before we had Vue, or Studio 74). But, hey, there was this Other Place. The Picturehouse.

I gathered my friends, convinced them this was something we should do (“Scary Movie will still be on next weekend guys”) and we paid a visit to this smaller, (then) indie cinema.

I’ve been going with regularity ever since.

It’s a small place. Two screens. Bar upstairs. The Virgin Suicides was good. Different to the teen movies we’d experienced. I’ve written about my affection for it already. The visit showed me that there was this other cinema, while the place itself had a cerebral energy. I felt like what was shown there was considered, curated. Like I’d found a potential treasure trove that might keep replenishing itself.

In 2002, after I’d finished at college and my friends had dispersed to other cities, I became a bit of a lone wolf. Still living outside of the city, I would bus in on my free evenings when I didn’t have work and check out whatever was on. I saw Donnie Darko. I saw Punch-Drunk Love. I saw Adaptation. I saw Secretary. Films about outsiders and weirdos that were personal and creative and energised.

By 2006 I was living in Exeter and had steered myself into an obsession with film, picking over the works of the usual gateway directors. Kubrick. The Coen Brothers. Lynch. Lynch especially (did you check the name of this website?). I went to see INLAND EMPIRE THREE TIMES in one week when Exeter Picturehouse had it. That’s gluttony for punishment.

And while the films themselves were a big part of the draw, the place itself had started meaning something to me. I recognised some of the staff, chatted with a few (though always felt that shady worry that I was one of those customers – I’ve worked in retail and there’s a complex relationship of amity and concern that you sometimes get for ‘regulars’).

By 2010 I was part of a new circle of friends. Those precious, comfortable, enduring connections. Some of the most important people in my life I met over a drink and a slice of cake in that bar. My friends and I started regularly attending the Picturehouse Film Quiz, which took place fortnightly on a Sunday. Through this I got an even greater sense of the community that existed there. Not only through the other teams, but through realising that the staff themselves were friends with one another; bonded. And that other groups used the place to socialise. A knitting circle remained a common fixture during those alternating Sundays. The place hosted live music, broadened its food range by adding a pizza oven, showcased more than just the latest movies. I saw Stewart Lee perform stand-up in Screen 1, one time. I attended birthday parties there. There was a mini ecosystem happening, I noticed. Something precious.

I became friends proper with some of the staff and would enjoy time with them away from the cinema. The Duke of Ted podcast (currently on hiatus) grew out of such a bond. But that place was the connective tissue. Our nexus. Even as the fledgling chain was bought by Cineworld and the programming started to noticeably change, this sense of community remained in place. A huge part of that was down to the people who worked there and the atmosphere that they nurtured. ‘More than a job’ is a phrase I’ve seen used and applied to the cinema. From Lizi’s decorating to Hazel’s drawings. Creativity was allowed to flourish and give the place personality. By this point I had started this blog, was seeing films weekly, and Exeter Picturehouse had become my favourite place to visit in town. A home away from home in the most comfortable and comforting sense.

And while the weekly listings started to tilt more and more in line with the multiplex choices (a sometimes sad but understandable decision as competition intensified), Picturehouse continued strands which prioritised and celebrated the curious. Discover Tuesday, for instance, introduced me to diverse new favourites, from the experimental Post Tenebras Lux from Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas to Abbas Kiarostami’s Japanese adventure Like Someone in Love – unique films that I remember as much for where and when I saw them as for their incomparable content. Films are magical, but the right venue can make them special and our experience of them personal. Something that everyday streaming at home will never replicate.

I hate writing about Exeter Picturehouse in the past tense. Lockdown felt like an interval, it felt temporary. The new closure – until who knows when – feels far more tentative, more subject to chance. I’m worried. My friends have lost their jobs and Exeter has lost a little hub of connectivity. Independent film will continue to exist, with new titles still arriving with frequency online via BFI, Curzon or MUBI. Studio 74 at the Phoenix Arts Centre now shoulders an even greater responsibility to keep this torch burning in the Picturehouse’s absence, but with Covid cases now soaring, who knows how long this can remain viable or responsible in a time of unprecedented (and seemingly unending) crisis.

I look forward, with sometimes faltering optimism, to thinking and speaking about Exeter Picturehouse in the present tense again. Cineworld’s statement about it’s decision to close insists that it wasn’t made lightly. I hope that’s true. The manner in which the news broke was clumsy and undignified. I look forward to a time when such errors can be rectified. And there’s a broader conversation to be had about how this happened; the current, precarious state of a studio system unwisely reliant on mega-returns from grotesquely over-budgeted tentpole pictures (the Marvelisation of movies, as I’ve come to think of it). That’s all for a different think-piece, perhaps. This piece is about a place that, independent or not, became an intrinsic part of my love of cinema. Had meaning. A place that was more than just a set of numbers on a ledger to many, many people; that I dearly hope shifts again, from a place that was to a place that is once more. I’m hoping this is an intermission rather than the end of an era.

In the meantime, it will be missed.

It will be missed.

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