A chance posting led to a career in the cinema industry. Now pursuing other projects, Lyn Goleby reflects on how that happened and what it was like to be a start-up.
Serendipity and cinema
I began my career as a lawyer. I’d intended to be an oil and shipping lawyer, but ended up working in the film department – an example of the serendipity with which life journeys begin. I then joined Goldcrest, a film company famous for its heady rise and difficult fall in the 80s.
Being a very junior person within a company that gets into difficulties was a tremendous learning curve. If ever there was anything that taught me the importance of ensuring that all departments are aligned and that everybody’s going in the same direction, watching each other’s backs, pushing the company forward…it was that experience.
I went into public film financing, tried to be an independent film producer and then got involved with the independent production of three films. At about that time, I was approached by someone who became my business partner and he drew my attention to the Phoenix Cinema in Oxford, which was for sale. I helped organise the financing of the purchase. During this experience, it occurred to me that cinema was actually a very interesting business.
Picturehouse: an original start-up
Picturehouse was a long journey. We started with the Phoenix in 1989 and grew slowly in the early stages — expanding first to Clapham Picturehouse, and then to Exeter Picturehouse. The expansion did get faster: there were years where we did two or three cinemas per year, but never faster than that.
We wanted organic growth and I always targeted university cities because that was where arthouse had the best hope of thriving. That was in the early days of the out-of-town multiplexes, which presented a huge threat to the traditional town centre cinemas. We set up Picturehouse to counter that trend because we felt that it was important to preserve the old traditional cinemas.
As it turned out, we didn’t buy many traditional cinemas: we ended up converting other buildings into cinemas — an old snooker hall, a garage, a printing warehouse. We converted architecturally interesting buildings.
In the early days, it was a time-friendly business: I sewed the curtains for the first iteration of the restored Phoenix, literally making the masking for the screen. It was very hand-to-mouth, real start-up stuff. It was also very compatible with raising a family, which is one of the reasons it started slowly and steadily and then accelerated as life got easier and I could put more time in.
An independent brand
With Picturehouse, we were trying to build local cinemas, not a brand. Each local cinema had a different location and an individual financing package tailored to each project.
We carried on with that approach for the main period of the company’s growth. In the later stages, by the early 2000s, Picturehouse had a good reputation for its programming, its service and the sort of venues it was creating — which became brand-building.
We were bought by Cineworld in 2012, which brought Picturehouse a stock market listing. From there, I no longer had to project finance every cinema.
That peaked with Picturehouse Central: the conversion of an old Cineworld cinema, situated in the Trocadero in Piccadilly, which was assigned to Picturehouse as part of a property transaction. It had a chequered history and was known as a very difficult building.
It was a large investment for Cineworld — they put a lot of belief in us, in our ability to transform the old space into the new Picturehouse Central, which is something I’m very proud of. We brought whole areas into public use that were otherwise behind the scenes — we added parts of the neighbouring HMV property and created the entrance to the cinema on Windmill St. That whole area is developing well now and we were a big catalyst for that.
The project was a lot of fun, along with a huge amount of stress — the most complex thing we’d ever done. It brought together all our experience — it was on a big scale, right in the centre of London’s West End. Picturehouse Central won Best Cinema Award in the UK in 2017, just as I was leaving. That was a wonderful note to leave on.
Once a cinema becomes part of a chain, it becomes difficult to sustain independence: by nature, you have a larger central office, you’re processing things in a different way, decision- making can slow down…and that’s something you can see in companies all the time. We worked very hard to make each cinema feel independent and gave a huge amount of autonomy to the individual managers. Once you’re part of a larger organisation that is difficult to keep hold of.
Entrepreneurs and the British film industry
There is the odd independent cinema happening, as a one-off, but there aren’t many being individually created. There’s plenty of entrepreneurialism in the film industry generally, in distribution, production and exhibition. The multiplexes have such an oligopoly: together, the three multiplexes own 80% of the market.
My advice to entrepreneurs: when you begin, be very clear where you want to end up — both you personally and your company.
What’s your favourite film?
That’s never an easy question! I only own one cinema now, which means I can see a lot more films and concentrate on them, rather than being worried about operations. There are always films that I like because they remind me of a time in my life, such as Point Break. But then if you ask me on a more lyrical day, I would say Witness.
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