Photo Credits: Geograph

The Little Theatre: Cinema, History, and Community

Tucked in a cosy corner of St Michael’s Place, the Little Theatre may be the lesser known movie house amongst students of Bath.  It was founded by a family in the 1930s and has retained its quaint charm and air of quality, but, with only three screens, faces stiff competition from the more mainstream Odeon and luxurious Tivoli. We sent our resident cinema-goer, Elie Breton De Loys, to learn more about what it has to offer and why it should not be overlooked.

Elie: First of all, could you tell me a bit about the history of The Little Theatre?

Mason: It was opened in 1936 as a theatre by Peter King and his wife and they then decided to turn it into a cinema. It became a newsreel cinema. Then, in 1939, that’s when it became a standard cinema and we opened with Oh Mr. Porter. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength; it was just the downstairs screen, then in the 80’s they upgraded upstairs (which used to be the changing area for the theatre) that became Screen 2. We’ve still kept our charm for 80 years.

E: Could you perhaps assess the importance of a small community cinema like this in an area like Bath?

M: So, if you have a look at where Picturehouse cinemas are based outside of London, you have them in high end cities. They’re in Bath, Oxford, Henley, Southampton etc. What we offer, the community really loves it. How we do our marketing, we do it all in the house whereas you’ll find other big chains it will come from head office. You’ll see the likes and the shares on our Facebook pages, and it’s all done by us in house. A lot of our marketing is also getting out and about and doing press releases of anything that’s coming up where you wouldn’t get that elsewhere.

E: I assume you have loads of locals that have subscriptions here that come very often to this cinema? Maybe the elderly?

M: We’ve got our membership schemes which we don’t make any money off, they get free tickets and it keeps them coming back as they get discounts every time, so they really do benefit from it. Also, this place has been here for over 80 years now- we have just celebrated our 80th birthday last month- so people have grown up with The Little Theatre and that’s why they keep coming back. They know what we do, and they love what we do. Their children keep coming back too.

E: Bath relies a lot on its two universities. Are you satisfied with the number of students who come, or do you think there is still a lack of student participation when it comes to indie cinemas/films?

M: I think students will tend to go to the Odeon and Tivoli because they offer the type of films they want to see. However, we do have a great connection with the Film Society at Bath Uni and also at Bath Spa. We do offer Slackers Club screening which are free screenings of films as previews, usually a week before they’ve come out, sometimes up to a month before they’ve come out.

E: Odeon is obviously your biggest competition in town. How do you think you can compete with the range of movies they show and what do you think makes you different from a franchise like them?

M: You know that we are not independent. So, we’re owned by Picturehouse and their ethos is we’re a community-based cinema and we offer something different. So, we will not show the latest blockbusters like Star Wars, we will not show your typical rom-coms and student-type films. We go for high-end quality movies, obviously it depends on what’s out that week. You might not get a great film out, so you’ll have to settle for something else. We show a lot of foreign language films and we do a lot of different community films such as our dementia-friendly, autism-friendly, big screen (which is parent and babies only) on a Wednesday morning, Tuesday and Thursday is Silver Screen. We also have Toddler Time and Kids’ Club as well, which you don’t get at your generic Odeon cinema.

E: What about the Tivoli? Have you seen any changes since the opening of that cinema in Bath? It’s quite a niche market, I believe.

M: It’s high end, luxury. What they’ve done is amazing and it’s very similar to what Everyman do: luxury sofas and you get your food served to your seat. Quite expensive as well for the tickets. They obviously opened up with Mary Poppins Returns in December and they tried a little bit of everything to see what their market is. They’re still working out what is their niche, but they have been doing pretty well in competition with the Odeon and we have sort of been left on our own because we’re not going to compete with those two and getting the blockbusters in – it would split the viewers three ways. They leave us to do what we do, and we leave them to do what they do best: the blockbusters don’t work for us.

E: I suppose Netflix is another possible competitor  for you. It’s recently tried to do high quality cinema with pictures like Okja or Roma that went on to win three Oscars. How do you defend a cinema against the offer of Netflix at home?

M: Films should be watched at a cinema. And that’s it, really. Simple as that. You’re sort of dimming down the film if you’re releasing it on those platforms as you can only watch content on a television, which feels like the same as watching BBC One on a Tuesday Night. There is nothing special or epic about that.

E: To finish, what would you say to students that aren’t particularly motivated to come to town or watch indie movies? What would you say to them?

M: Come get a student membership at The Little Theatre, they are £25/year: you get two free tickets and 25% off your food and drink. If you don’t want to do that, come along to our free Slackers Club screening because it’s free to sign up, they’re every month and it’s a free film! Students love free things.

E: Of course we do! Thank you!

Elie Breton des Loÿs

Elie is Bath Time's 2021/22 Editor-in-Chief (Online). He was previously the Lifestyle Editor for 2019/20 and is still our resident cinema-goer, best known for witty and informative film reviews.

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