Earlier this year, South London’s beautiful Ritzy cinema turned 100 years old, and it remains a key cultural hub, featuring a diverse selection of classic and contemporary cinema, special events and – recently – live music and comedy. A key factor in the cinema’s success has been the presence of director of programming Clare Binns, a Brixton veteran with a connection to the cinema that goes back over a quarter of a century. We sat down with Clare recently to discuss her career, her affinity with the local area, and her views on the growth of digital technology in cinema exhibition.
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PPH (in bold): Can you explain briefly what your role is at the Picturehouse?
Clare Binns (in regular): I’m what’s laughingly known as Director of Programming and Acquisitions, so I oversee the booking policy for the Picturehouse Cinema Group and we look after 20 cinemas in the UK which are ours and then we look after, programming-wise, about another 40 cinemas across the UK. So I sort of do all of that and then at the same time, we’ve recently gotten into distribution; so I’m heavily involved in the distribution and the picking up of films.
What might an average week entail for you?
Lots of discussions about films, lots of viewing films, lots of strategy. Where we play films, negotiating terms, talking to distributors, going to meetings, talking to film festivals. And also there’s a lot of people who want to work at Picturehouse, so trying to talk to them, encourage other filmmakers about all the new people who are coming through. It’s incredibly varied.
And do you enjoy doing the festival circuit?
Yeah, it’s great! The reason I do this job is to watch films. And it’s just the job’s gotten bigger and changed, but at the end of the day, it’s watching films that I like to do.
You go way back with the Brixton Ritzy and Brixton in general – how did you get started there?
My husband was working as an usher there, I think around 1979, and I was doing other jobs at the time, and I went in as an usher about 1980, and I’ve been involved ever since. So I’ve done everything there.
So how did your role develop?
I did front of house for six years, but I was a projectionist, I was a manager, started booking the cinemas, started being more involved with other cinemas – just with every transformation of the Ritzy, I’ve been the constant within the organisation. I always say that however many cinemas I program and however much I’m involved, the Ritzy is my template of what a good local cinema should be. You might not always get it right – there’s always more films and more events and other people who’ve got different views. But the fact is that my heart and soul is in the Ritzy and what it means for a local audience, and it’s what I base everything I do on. And I love booking it; I love being involved.
In terms of the path your career’s taken, do you think it’s unique? Do you think those days are gone?
I don’t think it’s unique; I think it’s much harder for people these days. The only qualification I’ve got is a swimming certificate and so I’ve done pretty well. And now most of the people that apply for jobs with me have got university degrees or they’ve been to film school. But I think if you’re hungry enough, if you’re keen enough, if you’re prepared to put in the hours… and you know, I used to do the cleaning at the Ritzy, I did the projection, I was there for the all-nighters and even now, I’m a 24-hour working kind of person. I think if you’re prepared to do that, you can still progress through the film industry. But I think it’s tough.
And do you feel it’s almost not working – it’s a passion, so it doesn’t feel like work?
Yeah, I am passionate about it and I’m incredibly lucky to have the job I have, but at the same time I take my job and what I do very seriously, and I don’t turn off from it – much to my children’s and husband’s annoyance! But you have to be passionate about it; it’s not something you can ever think “oh, I’ll just stop doing this for a couple days.”
What’s your biggest frustration about the job?
Well, there’s times when I wish we had more screens at the Ritzy, and there’s times when 5 screens are too much, because there’s not very good films out there. And you are judged as a programmer on what films you play. I don’t beat myself up too much because at the end of the day someone has to make the decision about what’s played in the cinema, and there’s all sorts of reasons why films get played. It can be frustrating that you can’t always get what you want in the cinema. It’s the best time to be booking; it’s better than I’ve ever seen it, because there’s a lot going on.
Is there something that sticks in your mind, as the ‘one that got away’?
Not really – I suppose it’s been fantastic to see how the Ritzy used to have beg and struggle to get films, and now I spend a lot of my time saying no, because everyone wants their film in there. So I have to work out, with the 13 or so films that are released each week, which are the ones that go in. And that’s why I sometimes get frustrated that there’s not enough screens to do everything in.
The Picturehouse is a chain, essentially, but it’s still very independent in spirit. How proud of that are you of that status in the face of Cineworlds and Odeons that don’t necessarily offer that experience?
I actually think, yes, Picturehouse is an independent company, but to me, it’s what we do, and if we were owned by Microsoft or whoever, the people at Picturehouse all care passionately about film and cinema and what we do. So I think it’s more how you deliver something – and if McDonalds or anyone else delivers anything that’s good and people are excited about it, you don’t criticise that. So I think it’s really about the people that are involved and the passion for what they do. I just think it’s because of who we are here, and it’s not just me – it’s everyone who’s in the fold with Picturehouse.
Do you think that’s there’s an ethos that informs that, that everybody who works at Picturehouse is on the same page?
Yeah, I guess that’s it. And going into distribution, and the sorts of films we’re picking up and what we’re doing – that’s all very exciting. And everyone likes the job – we all like the job; but there’s days when you get frustrated and tired, with any job.
What’s your favourite memory at the Ritzy?
Well, recently, having Harry Belafonte at the cinema was magnificent – because to go into the screen and having a standing ovation from a typical Ritzy audience where it was different ages, races, creeds, colours, politics – everybody. You looked at that audience, where else would you get an audience like this? And it was incredibly moving. But you know, there’s been lots of fantastic things along the way, and we’re talking about having been involved for 30 years. Some of the gay pride stuff we’ve done over the years, Quentin Tarantino coming, I could just go on and on. I think it’s the staff who make that venue, it’s the building, it’s Brixton – it’s everything about it. So I feel just great that I can still be a part of it.
In your opinion, why is film important?
Because I think film can do so many things on so many levels – it can entertain, it can make you think. Visually, it gives you something that no one else can… it’s a sharing thing. You can be in your row in the auditorium and feel good, you can be with a full house and experience something like no other. It’s a medium that does not get the recognition like literature or music, but really, I don’t care – I know how important it is. And I know that when you sit in an auditorium like I did at the Ritzy watching The Blair Witch Project with a full house and the gasps and roars and boos. I think film is to me, one of the greatest that there is in life.
And what is it that makes Brixton so special?
I think the Ritzy is part of why Brixton is so fantastic. I’ve lived in Brixton since I was 19 and I’m 57 now – and I love it, I’ve always loved it. It’s changed hugely, and you know, I was in the Ritzy when the ‘81 riots took place. I’ve been there all the way through it and I think what I like about it is this mix. It’s a real mix of everybody – rich, poor, young, old, black, white – and that to me is where I feel comfortable and where I think it’s a true reflection of what this country can be. And it has had some difficult problems and there have been some times when the police have behaved badly, when no money was there, and all the companies suffered. And that’s why I say that after the riots, the fact that Marks and Spencers stayed, and all the other chains left – I’ve seen it grown up. And now I find it remarkable, what’s going on. But I hope it continues to be the liberal, tolerant and exciting place that it’s always been.
What are your views on the current state of exhibition? Do lament the decline of 35mm or are you positive about the future of digital?
I think that 35mm is great, but I think digital has opened a door and we can never go back. For me, it’s allowed me much more flexibility. We can do so many different things that we could never do before. And when you see a 35mm print, it’s great! But if you want to come to the cinema and see a film looking beautiful as the day it was locked, then digital is the way. If you wanted to see Dark Knight in the third week of release, you would see crackles and bumps and jumps and all the rest of it. So I think for the viewer, it’s a really good experiences. And I think for me as a programmer, it allows me to do lots of things I couldn’t do before.
What are your top three films of all time?
Well, I can sort of give you the three I can think of now. I would say Eraserhead, I like very much. Which Fred Astaire would I pick? Top Hat. And… I should pick one from recently… Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.
What advice would you give to a young person looking to get into programming?
Be prepared to work hard, not give up, and realise you have to pay your dues. Don’t give up, but you have to keep going and be prepared to do a lot of shit along the way.
You can follow Clare Binns on Twitter @ClareLBinns. Visit the Ritzy Cinema homepage here. A version of this interview originally appeared in the Brixton Bugle newspaper.