Even with the advent of Apple TV, Netflix, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Google Play and any other streaming service that’s launched in the last five minutes, nothing has yet come along that can hold a candle to seeing a movie in a theatre and on the big screen. Luckily if you live in London, you’re positively spoiled for choice when it comes to cinemas. Of course there’s always the big chains – Odeon, VUE, Empire and the like – but the top London screening experiences come courtesy of smaller, independent boutique theatres. Here’s a list of the city’s best:
Why you should go: See a movie, be a part of history.
Hailed as London’s oldest purpose-built, still-in-operation cinema, The Phoenix (and its gorgeously simple vaulted ceilings) impressively dates all the way back to 1910. Thankfully the East Finchley institution was saved from demolition in 1985 by the creation of the community-run charity, The Phoenix Cinema Trust. Since then, the picture house has gained an impressive gang of passionate patrons including Maureen Lipman, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Michael Palin, Bill Paterson, Victoria Wood, film critic Mark Kermode and most recently, Oscar-nominated North Londoner Benedict Cumberbatch. The consistently top-notch programme of events, fundraisers and films on tap are clearly curated by hands-on film lovers for whom keeping the cinema a part of the community is clearly a top priority.
Why you should go: See a film, indulge yourself with top notch comfort and service!
Full disclosure, Everyman is my local cinema. I’m equidistant from their Hampstead (above) and Belsize Park locations and you can find me in both locations (though not at the same time as I’m not in possession of a time-turner) on a weekly basis. Filled with comfy, over-sized chairs and couches, in-seat food service and lobby lounges chill enough to spend time in even if you don’t fancy a night at the movies, Everyman is a growing independent boutique cinema chain whose programming straddles the line between the big new releases and smaller, must-see arthouse films.
Current London locations: Belsize Park, Hampstead, Maida Vale, Islington, Baker Street, Selfridges, Canary Wharf (new), and the iconic 100 year old Screen on the Green.
Why you should go: See a movie, unleash your inner cult film fan!
The above marquee doesn’t lie. From sing-alongs to marathons to PJ parties, the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square is London’s answer to Austin’s coveted Alamo Drafthouse. This is a cinema for film fanatics run by film fans. With a schedule jammed with enough cinematic goodies to make even the most dedicated movie watchers head spin, you can kick off your weekend with animated classic like The Secret of Nimh and end it with a Mean Girls “Bitch Along” or a 007 double bill. Not to be outdone, they also screen current indie flicks and documentaries so all your bases are covered in one location.
Why you should go: Go behind the scenes of your film with cast and crew Q&As!
Though the chain of indie cinemas screens the latest and greatest arthouse dramas and documentaries (and the occasional blockbuster), they also give film fans a chance to get inside the industry with frequent audience Q&A sessions. In the past, they have given filmmaking talent like Ryan Gosling, Viggo Mortensen, Tilda Swinton, Werner Herzog and others a platform to discuss their latest films and projects, with more events being scheduled all the time. Curzon also gives theatre and performing art fans the perfect venue to screen the latest NT Live, Met, Royal Opera and Ballet, and festival productions.
Current London locations: Bloomsbury, Chelsea, Mayfair, Mondrian, Richmond, Soho, Victoria, and Wimbledon
Why you should go: Put your feet up, snuggle down and treat yourself!
Frankly the films are almost superfluous to the atmosphere at Electric’s two London locations in Portobello Road and Shoreditch. Given the Electric represents the film exhibitor arm of the prestigious Soho House group, would you expect anything less? With the most comfortable seats known to man, cashmere throws to wrap yourself in and ottomans to rest your feet on, movie watching doesn’t get anymore indulgent and comfortable than this. With a good balance of arthouse flicks and blockbusters, there’s never a shortage of films to see either. And don’t think that because they’re run by a private members club that they are in any way stuffy or elitist. The service is exceptional and even comes with a tongue-firmly-in-cheek sense of humour, as can be seen in their star-studded cinema etiquette short.
Why you should go: A one-stop cinematic shop!
Both movie exhibitor and distributor, Picturehouse Entertainment knows what’s up, film wise. In addition to their distribution arm, they just happen to be the experts providing film programming services to other London cinematic hotspots, including the previously mentioned Phoenix Theatre. With 8 locations throughout London, including the brand new West End Picturehouse Central, they also have a number of handy cafes attached where you can catch a bite before heading into the cinema for a screening of the latest and greatest. Keep your eye on this chain, they look set to soon give Odeon and others a run for their money. Will they be able to keep that boutique feel though? So far, so good.
Current London locations: Brixton (above), Clapham, East Dulwich, Greenwich, Hackney, Notting Hill Gate, Stratford, the West End.
Why you should go: See a film, support a good cause!
The Kensal Green boutique cinema also happens to be London’s first social enterprise movie house. They are largely staffed by philanthropic, movie-loving volunteers and the cinema donates 100% of its profits to The Sustainability Institute, a South African charity dedicated to sustainable living in South Africa. So if you’re planning on taking in a film anyhow, why not kill two birds with one stone and donate to charity at the same time? With a slate of screenings that covers the latest Hollywood blockbusters, indie docs and live theatre, there’s never a shortage of choice here. Such a great idea, and very well executed.
Why you should go: For a private screening kind of feel!
A little off the beaten track, this cosy and intimate members cinema opened in 2010 and has been providing film fans with one specific service that makes the trip out to Loughborough Junction in South London worthwhile: Ad-free screenings. They offer a diverse programme of world cinema and indie flicks and have a bar and lounge worth visiting before the show. Feel like a nibble? You can order in pizza! You do have to be a member to watch films here but after that initial, manageable fee, you can take in as many films as you like without paying another pound. And though I don’t really know how they do this bit, your Oyster card functions as your membership card…so no need to make room in your wallet for yet another card. Bonus!
Why you should go: Indulge you inner film fan AND foodie.
Housed in the eponymous Olympic Recording Studios, the Barnes-located theatre not only has two screens that play everything from the latest releases to Hollywood’s best silver screen classics, but its on-site dining room boasts some truly scrumptious food. It makes for a nice change from the cafes and finger foods provided elsewhere, believe you me. Not that I’d ever suggest there was anything wrong with a hot dog or popcorn, given my propensity to order one of those (or occasionally both). But given its slightly suburban location, the Olympic seems to prove you don’t have to be in the heart of London to enjoy a brilliant night out for dinner and a movie.
Most of the above cinemas have membership schemes available. So if you find yourself a frequent visitor, check them out and get discounts on tickets, food and more.
But it’s summer, I hear you say. So why stay cooped up indoors when you could be outside, breathing in the occasionally fresh city air AND taking in a film? If that’s your attitude, be sure to check out one of London’s many outdoor cinema seasonal screenings: