The director’s view on 20 years of City Screen as Tony Clarke looks at past, present and future of cinema-going in York

Buena Vista Social Club: tonight’s choice of film to mark 20 years of City Screen, York

JANUARY 7 2020 marks 20 years since City Screen, York, opened on its riverside site in Coney Street.

General manager Tony Clarke and associate general manager Cath Sharp have been there since the opening, and to mark the anniversary they have selected Buena Vista Social Club for a special show at 8.30pm tonight.

Tony says: “Wim Wenders’ film about ageing Cuban musicians has probably best stood the test of time, and so we’d like to show it again on our 20th anniversary and offer the screening free to Picturehouse members.” Please note, tickets are available to members only in person at the City Screen box office.

Ahead of tonight’s 20th anniversary screening, Tony Clarke looks back on two decades of City Screen. Charles Hutchinson asks the questions.

What are your first memories of City Screen opening in Coney Street, Tony?

“As with many regeneration projects like this, the construction works ran behind schedule – in a major way. We opened the doors without power to some parts of the building; we had to run extension cables from the parts of the building that did have power.

“When I started working at City Screen – which was mid-December 1999, so nearly a month before opening – the riverside bar was just a concrete floor. It was impressive to see how quickly this area was fitted out in a week or so.”

What were City Screen’s objectives at that time?

“They are not that dissimilar to our objectives today. They have always been to give customers the best cinematic experience by showing a broad range of films in auditoriums that are comfortable and where the presentation matters.

“Our range of films encompasses quality mainstream, independent, arthouse and foreign language. We have always considered cinema-going to be a social event, so we offer great drinks and food in our cafe bar for pre-show or post-show get-togethers.”

What have been City Screen’s principal achievements over the past 20 years?

“We’ve built loyal and trusting audiences through our membership scheme and established City Screen as a cultural hub right in the city centre.”

The Buena Vista Social Club musicians playing in Amsterdam in April 1998

How has City Screen changed over those 20 years and do you think its role has changed within the York cinema scene?

“As a cinema, City Screen has changed with the shift in the industry to digital filmmaking and exhibition. Celluloid film has been succeeded by digital: we no longer use 35mm film and mechanical projectors; we now play ‘content’ in high definition from computer files, servers and digital projectors.

“This change in technology has enabled us to diversify our programme and screen productions live from the New York Metropolitan Opera or the National Theatre via satellite.”

What else?

“As a business, our cafe bar has grown in popularity with our food menu, dishes made fresh and to order, plus the range of drinks – not only barista-made coffee but the wines and beers.

“We’d always set out – and this is the ethos of Picturehouse as a company – to be a neighbourhood cinema with our roots firmly in the communities of York. I think we’ve achieved that.

“Our programming has expanded, not only with what is called alternative content, opera and theatre shows broadcast into the auditoriums, but also with new community-orientated programme strands such as Toddler Time, Big Scream, Autism-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly screenings.”

Where does arthouse cinema fit into film programming in 2020? Would you like there to be more arthouse screenings at City Screen?

“A fundamental aspect of Picturehouse’s programming and vision is to show arthouse films and this will continue to be the case at City Screen.

“There are particular programming strands where arthouse films are featured, such as the Discover strand, and we’ll be continuing to build audiences for this kind of cinema, which doesn’t always get the exposure it deserves.

How have cinema-going tastes and habits changed over the past 20 years?

“There are always technological changes that affect cinema-going tastes and habits – digital being the one I mentioned and the effect that has had on our programme with alternative content and the like.

“There are other technological innovations for experiencing cinema such as 3D, 4DX: innovations less appropriate to the City Screen experience, it’s fair to say. “There’s certainly an appetite for the big ‘tentpole’ event titles such as Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars and the latest James Bond, but always a very busy period around the awards season in the first few months of the year too. Last year, for example, saw the release of The Favourite and Green Book and this time Little Women and 1917.”

Before Sunset: City Screen director Tony Clarke’s favourite film of the past 20 years

City Screen is about so much more than showing films: question-and-answer sessions; satellite screenings of ballet, theatre, opera and exhibition openings in London; food and drink; exhibitions in the bar and the first-floor corridor; The Basement programme of music and comedy. Discuss…

“As you say, City Screen is so much more than showing films. We have a lot of cultural activity going on in the venue, whether this involves directors discussing their films and work in Q&A sessions, either in person or via a live satellite feed; live broadcasts of theatre and opera shows taking place in London or New York; an ongoing programme of art exhibitions in the bar or on the second floor that features the work of local artists and community groups,; plus a curated programme of performing arts events in the 100-capacity Basement with lots of comedy, music and cabaret.”

What has been your favourite film from the past 20 years?

“I know it’s part of a trilogy, but I’m going to choose Before Sunset [Richard Linklater’s 2004 sequel to his 1995 romantic drama Before Sunrise, again starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke].”

What makes for a good cinema-visit experience in 2020?

“A venue with a relaxing atmosphere, where friendly and passionate staff work, where the auditoriums are comfortable, and where the quality of the picture and sound are second to none.”

How do you see cinema and cinemas progressing over the next decade?

“The next decade will be interesting in how film, TV and on-demand streaming services in the home will affect cinema exhibition and cinema-going.

“Cinemas have always adapted and developed, so that they retain something different and unique about their experience for customers. It’s an event and a night out to go to the cinema to see a film rather than watch at home – I suppose cinema and cinemas will progress along these lines.”

York enters 2020 with four cinemas – City Screen, Everyman, Vue and Cineworld – all in very good, ultramodern order. Can a city of York’s size embrace that number of cinemas, and what does it say about the popularity of film-going that we now have that many?

“Four cinemas in York does mean there will be increased competition between them all. York has a regional draw so will attract cinema customers from further afield, but most likely to those venues outside of town with car parking, so Cineworld and Vue Cinema are certainly popular in York.”

What distinguishes City Screen from the others?

“The programme is more diverse and curated to audiences, it has a wonderful city-centre location on the river with great views, and the staff and the quality of service are great too, which all offers a unique experience for customers.”

Will there be further celebrations of City Screen’s 20th anniversary?

Yes, they will continue throughout 2020 with more special events once the ‘Oscar season’ is over, so keep an eye out for those too.”