Exploding the frames of cinema in Bristol
After four years, Bristol's Cube, one of precious few full-time cinemas
and arts venues in the UK with a claim to the term 'Independence',
is flourishing. Former Cube programmer Ben Slater explores its development
and talks to some of the core team.
Amidst much argument about the beleaguered independent film exhibition
in the UK, 'art-house' cinemas continue to dominate both the
funding hand-outs and the policy documents. But as the multiplexes aggressively
seek to widen their audiences (securing exclusive runs on foreign-language
hits, teaming up with the British Film Institute), there is a real case
to be made that the future of alternative film exhibition lies not within
the cosy confines of regional film theatre, but in new kinds of cinema
spaces. Resisting easy definition, these are places where the traditional
frames and expectations of a film venue are subverted, adapted and re-invigorated.
These creative impulses go back as far as avant-garde cabaret in the 1920s,
from there into the free-form art movements of the '60s, resurfacing
in rave and club culture and further. In the context of Britain in the
'90s and beyond, the will to 'explode cinema' has mainly
come from groups of like-minded film makers frustrated not only by the
feature-film bias of mainstream exhibition, but the often stifling, formal
atmosphere of presentation. They wanted to create their own space, not
usually fixed to one venue, but nomadic, unpredictable. Crucially, they
demanded the freedom to screen work without it having to pass through
the networks, channels and barriers that centrally govern our culture.
In London in the mid '90s, alternative cinema collectives definitely
seemed to have their moment. Halloween Film Society, My Eyes My Eyes,
Omsk, Exploding Cinema, Kinokaze and more. They operated with little or
no funding, they took risks and they memorably heckled TV executives at
panels about 'independence' during the London Film Festival.
Although the frequency of events seemed to be dwindling by the late '90s,
their intentions still reverberated.
Club Rombus, a film screening collective based in Bristol circa 1997 had
specialised in intermittently putting live music to film in unusual and
audacious contexts. I'd heard they had simultaneously projected both
Murnau and Herzog's versions of Nosferatu side-by-side in an act
of vampiric experimentation. This led me to attend what for them must
have been a fairly 'straight' night involving an uncut 16mm
print of Borowcyk's juicy La Bete, a DJ and a very smoky community
centre. Later I experienced a far more momentous Rombus event, a band
called The Newts performing soundtracks to animations by the Russian master
Starewicz, after-hours, in a small, but much-loved second-run cinema called
The Arts Centre. This half-hidden venue, located down the end of a scruffy
corridor past a Chinese restaurant, had long ago been Bristol's main
centre for the arts, and its inviting auditorium with red velvet seating
remained virtually unchanged.
Nobody that night had an inkling that within 18 months, the husband and
wife team who had run the cinema for over a decade would disappear suddenly,
leaving a trail of debt, and allowing the lease to get snatched up by
the least likely 'cultural entrepreneurs' in Bristol. Kevin
Dennis and Hogge (erstwhile circus stilt-walkers and the main organisers
of Club Rombus) joined up with an ambitious film maker, Jack Davies and
local film net-worker and screenwriter Julian Holman, to form the key
team that would kickstart The Cube Cinema into existence.
Collectively they dreamed of the old Arts Centre transformed into a venue
that could move freely between the current second-run programme, cult
classics, new indies and the kind of mixed-media events that had made
Rombus so exciting. None of the London collectives ran a venue, even the
Brighton Cinematheque with its excellent film programme hires out a private
screening room. For good reasons most people wouldn't want to get
bogged down with property law and overheads - but for the Bristol group,
the freedom and rewards of having a venue to call your own were potentially
In October 1998, after six draining months of meetings, fund-raising and
cleaning-up, the Arts Centre re-opened under the name The Cube with a
screening of Chris Petit's 1979 London-to-Bristol road-movie Radio
On. The energy had gone West. The doors were open.
As the team soon discovered, organising monthly events in ad-hoc spaces
is a very different game from running a venue seven days a week. Audiences
went up and down, but mostly down. A pattern began to establish itself,
one-off events might sell-out, but any attempt at a normal film-run led
only to a trickle.
In the initial business plan, it was envisaged that the regular films
would subsidise more ambitious events, but the proliferation of commercial
screens in Bristol plus the presence of two well-established art-house
venues (Watershed and Arnolfini) had virtually eroded the second-run market
(hence the cinema's original closure). Only a few key films could
transcend this (Buena Vista Social Club, Amores Perros, Crouching Tiger,
et al). There was no clearly reliable source of income. After continued
fruitless attempts to chase the art-house mainstream The Cube was finally
liberated by that failure. Now it could experiment and take the wildest
chances, because there was nothing to lose.
It was an uphill struggle for the best part of a year. It went voluntary
(and continues to be) after only a few months. When it became painfully
obvious that it couldn't afford wages it returned to what it had
always been - a labour of pure love, passion and enthusiasm.
Gradually The Cube shaped up. Licenses to sell booze (and drink it in
the cinema) and to stage live music eventually came and opened up myriad
possibilities. Donated computer equipment revolutionised the office into
a hub of Linux-biased on-line creativity. Part and full-time volunteers
began to gather into an experienced and friendly workforce. Diverse audiences
were brought into the building, crossing between the farthest reaches
of the program. No matter how underground and alternative The Cube might
have felt, it always made everyone through the doors welcome - to come
in, hang out and get involved.
Bands and DJ's played, sometimes to old films, new films, their own
films or no films. People gave talks, workshops, readings, discussions.
Events turned into parties and vice versa. The Cube was still a cinema,
but its programme exploded in many different directions. Film was the
base-camp. The rest was up for grabs.
In August 2001 a fire in the corridor outside the venue forced its sudden
closure. Just as the momentum was really building, when word of its activities
was seriously beginning to filter out of the West Country to the rest
of the UK and beyond, a hefty dose of bad luck put everything on hold.
A more difficult period of closure followed. They were back to bureaucracy - lawyers,
landlords, insurers and builders. Men in suits and hard-hats were their
The core team had changed considerably since '98. Jack, Julian and
Kevin had all departed, none acrimoniously, but The Cube is dangerously
all-consuming. You had to make a clean break or you would struggle to
have any life outside of it. Among others, Hogge had been joined by Chris
'Chiz' Williams, a London music industry drop-out self-exiled
to Bristol, and sometime e-zine editor and artist 'The Lady'
Lucy, both of whom have an unwavering and somewhat delirious commitment
to the venue's success.
After they had given up announcing predicted opening dates because of
seemingly endless delays, the new entrance finally swung open to a refurbished
Cube in August 2002. It's not been long since the re-opening as I
write, but the audience-levels are healthy, and the programme itself is,
if anything, more wildly diverse, eclectic and genuinely exciting than
before. Cult music acts rub shoulders with cult films, anti-war activist
nights, art exhibitions, film-makers introducing their work and much assorted
What the future holds for The Cube has never been certain. Given the levels
of energy required to turn events around and keep things on track it has
always been impossible for the organisation to think much further than
a month ahead. The Cube has never chased the kind of long-term public
funding that could finance its infrastructure. To make the leap from a
voluntary organisation to a salaried workplace is difficult to contemplate
for a number of pragmatic and psychological reasons. But actually there
aren't any arts funding schemes for places like The Cube to sign
up to, and there seems to be no will to create them. While struggling
regional film theatres are forced to spend fortunes on branding consultants
and months drawing up applications for emergency grants, just so they
can keep bringing you the latest Loach and Kiarostami (and I'm certainly
not knocking that), The Cube continues to re-invent the possibilities
of a cinema venue every week on a shoestring. That's the cost of
An email conversation with Chiz, Lucy and Hogge of The Cube
Ben Slater: Initially, the primary objective and ethos of The Cube was
to be an alternative cinema. Since then 'Cinema' for The Cube
has become the basis for a much wider range of activities. Tell me about
this development, the factors and thinking behind that?
Chiz: This building has been used for Cinema - alternative, arty, small
and independent - for 30 years. It has been run by co-ops, a family
business, arts-funded bodies and used by musicians, fine-artists, pornographers,
video makers, poets and drama companies... most exploiting the Cinema
set-up to their own ends.
The concept behind Cube programming has, to me, always been based around
an idea of cinema as a cultural centre. The diversity of our programme
has developed with gaining legal licenses and the continuous exploration
and development of our cinema space. It is strengthened and developed
by a strong sense of the history/future of projected visual images but
chiefly due to the enormous interests of the revolving Cube team. It's
a more broadly "Cinematic" programme - we can now entertain
multi-format screenings, talks, live music, computer workshops and theatre
in the same month all twisted around a backbone of films.
Although we reject a lot of possible programme content, we try a lot of
ideas out of curiosity and the need to bring in the money as well as to
constantly re-define what The Cube is about. The growth of activities
within the space over the last 4 years has been fast and furious and there
is a daily discussion about this: to keep on experimenting but to remain
recognisably and unfathomably The Cube Cinema.
Hogge: It was always in my mind that many kinds of stage- or screen-based
activities would be possible because of the nature of the physical set-up.
Early on we were working with the established practice of the site, namely
cinema, so as to keep as much of the loyal audience as possible and to
acclimatise ourselves with the new environment. I don't think we
have lost our focus on films, but we have shifted so much into other types
BS: What's your relationship with the funded 'independent'
cinemas and art-spaces? Has it changed since you began?
C: I have become less envious of funded Cinemas. They sometimes work in
worse conditions and with little creative input from the staff, and are
just as unstable. However, I visit some venues that have a more consistent,
steady income-stream and still wish we could achieve this, but feel it
best to avoid core funding and develop new ways that will allow us to
The way we work off other independent cinemas' more locked programmes
is by working on the fly, turning around ideas into actual practice very
quickly, leaving us able to respond to current tastes and events with
speed. Likewise we collaborate with them by sharing films and ideas, often
proving there is a substantial audience for marginal subject matter. Our
mutant cinema team is often brought in to programme and assist funded
film spaces to provide a live cinematic event, to re-work their ideas
BS: Is there a danger that once it becomes a free-for-all, that the programme
loses coherence, too many hybrid events splits the audience? I'm
interested to hear you talk about your audiences.
C: I think most of us have a strong perception of what The Cube programme
is. It tries to pick up and programme what people may have missed out
on, is ignored by other cinemas/media, or needs quietly celebrating.
People are not as constrained as some people like to think. I remember
an argument that went "we should show no normal films" (i.e.
those held by a regular distributor) because the more marginal/cult film/video
received bigger crowds and it was not politically correct (to show the
'normal' films). However the same activists and artists that
came to the marginal stuff would come to see Crouching Tiger or Buena
Vista Social Club. People enjoy our diversity as much as we do.
Lucy: I like the comparison to fanzines... to think of The Cube as a live
cinema fanzine with some of the volunteers being contributing editors.
We have a strong idea of what the programme is. Though I think this is
too sub-conscious sometimes, not discussed enough.
H: I'm not sure anyone knows how coherency (in the programme) is
actually achieved, if indeed it is. A recent volunteer said she liked
the programme because of its apparent absence of coherency; as if in this
was a sheer openness and range which could at any point turn into something
specific and specialised. Careful examination of early programmes will
show terrible programming experiments, but those were necessary to learn.
I'd say we had only just reached a plateau in smoothing out content-coherency-contexts
and then the fire happened.
Also, something in the nature of The Cube has helped form a cult following.
Partly due to it being run by people on the dole who can be reached and
talked to about ideas and anything, but mainly because the programme speaks
a kind of colloquial street language, which says that people are having
fun while contributing to the culture. In this respect it's entirely
true that the people organising events are engineering their own entertainment.
I always hated it when an event wasn't attended by the originator
of the idea - which seems fanatical now. I felt very personally about
the ownership of ideas.
C: We need to achieve higher audiences though and that will be the next
challenge but I don't think it will simply come by showing successfully
'popular' material. We are very much a commercial venture. If
we don't achieve the audience figures and income we need to sustain
the operation we will have to close. Pre-fire our audience figures were
up. An audience had found us and more importantly we had developed a (varied)
audience. We have become more popular and more diverse.
H: Part of this development is probing and seeing what people will and
won't come to. It's interesting to imagine that much more experimentation
is yet to come. For lots of people The Cube is a discovery...
4 Princess Row
Bristol B52 8NQ
Info: 0117 907 4190