In Conversation: Jon Barrenechea 2000-2010

In conversation series:
Interviewee:  Jon Barrenechea, General manager, Duke of York’s.
Interviewer: Christina Reading
Date of interview: 8 April 2010

Jon Barrenechea Audio

Jon is responsible for the operational running of the cinema, which takes in everything from projection to front of house.

Programming decisions are taken at City Screen’s Head Office, with Jon part of conversations about what will work in Brighton. He is responsible for programming special events such as music, comedy, repertory, late-night and classic screenings.

He gives an overview of the Duke of York’s in its centenary year:

“The key thing about the Duke of York’s audience is that it’s really wide-ranging – we have everything from seniors, university students, young professionals and children. We’ve done lots of different things and different things work – we’ve done mainstream Hollywood movies, independent foreign language films, gigs and comedy.”

Films and more
According to Jon, 550 films are released in the UK each year; the Duke of York’s  showed 300 of these in 2009, so “we do a pretty good job with a single screen”. Films shown are a mix of mainstream and alternative sub-titled foreign films. French films are the most widely shown, followed by German, Italian and Spanish films.

Today the Duke of York’s hosts many different events including music gigs (fifteen in 2009), comedy, the annual Eurovision party, a fixture on the calendar for many Brightonians, as well as showing live the Metropolitan Opera from New York, National Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet from Paris.

He reflects on the growth of non-film events:

“We’re changing fundamentally what people think of the venue as – we’re 90% cinema and always will be, but we also like to do things that are different and special, differentiate ourselves from the multiplexes.

The days of just doing films are past but I don’t think it’ll ever be a majority non-film, it will always be mostly a cinema. It’s important to make the venue still relevant in people’s lives. People watch films in many ways these days, from their phones to their 60” plasmas at home, so we have to offer an alternative to what they get at home.”

What makes the Duke of York’s unique
“Content is only half the game, you need to bring an atmosphere, a quality of service they can’t get elsewhere. It isn’t just about showing the films no-one else shows, it’s about showing films in an adult context, you can take your beer in, you don’t have to worry about kids on their phones throughout the movie. You can feel safe, there’s the commitment of the staff, so when you walk in everyone’s interested in what we do, which you might not find elsewhere. The history of the building, the quality of presentation, all those things go into making it.”

“We’re not like a London arthouse cinema, where you might have a real hardcore, where it’s all about the programming, the preservation of the culture, here we have to be more a home for everyone”

Part of appealing to a wider audience is connecting with the local community: according to a recent survey 56% of the audience walk to the cinema.

What the future holds

Jon summarises potential future expansion plans into the fire station next to the cinema:

“We’ve made it clear we want to buy the site next door, if a new site is found for the fire station. We’d love to take over the building, we have drawn up architectural plans which would include 4 / 5 extra screens, restaurant, bigger bar, office space, gallery space, which would allow us to do what we do now but a lot more of it, with a lot more flexibility.

With 4/5 screens we could give films a chance to find an audience, expand the alternative content programme to do all kinds of events, recreate what we do here, with that community vibe. It’s a huge project, it would become the biggest arthouse cinema in the country, a huge highlight for Brighton culturally and for arthouse cinema nationally”.

Splitting the screen is not an alternative, leaving a question mark over how much further the Duke of York’s can go without expansion:

“We can’t touch it, it’s a listed building. We have 110,000 admissions per year which is more than double the natural occupancy for a single screen cinema, we’ve hit the ceiling of what we can do, without being able to expand. But to be where we are, when single screen cinemas are an endangered species …”

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