The Plaza cinema on Merseyside hosts our free monthly film screenings for older people in the Crosby area. We caught up with the cinema’s Arts and Education Director, Christine Physick, who told us more about the flicks and friends screenings, the history of cinema and their place in the community.

How did the flicks and friends screenings come about?

I think a lot of older people have a history of going to the cinema and flicks and friends was a way of rekindling that. The monthly film screenings, which began in January 2017, offer older people somewhere warm and welcoming, where they can enjoy a film and catch up with others.

The first film we put on for the Re-engage flicks and friends audience was ‘Save the Cinema’, a film about a community who came together, in a story similar to our own. It's important to choose the right film for each audience. This year's screenings have also included Operation Mincemeat and Downton Abbey.

Flicks and friends is extremely popular and there were 150 older people at the April screening. I expect that number to rise as more older people start to build in confidence about venturing out after the lockdowns. These screenings are free for older people to attend thanks to Re-engage.

What are the main benefits of a community cinema?

It's important that our selection of films, documentaries and events cater for different parts of the community. This includes having a mixture of mainstream and art house films, along with specialist programming for autism and dementia sensitive screenings.

Thanks in part to the community cinema volunteers, we are able to keep the ticket and snack prices as low as possible for the general public, which is one of our key objectives. For example, each weekend there is a family matinee and the cost of a ticket is £2.60. This means you can bring a family of four, watch a film, each have a drink and some popcorn and have change from £20.00.

Our Film and Creative Media Project, which we run during the summer holidays, gives local disadvantaged young people aged 13 – 19 an opportunity to work with filmmakers, make-up artists, set designers and graphic designers. They make their own films, which we show at the cinema at the end of the programme. Thanks to funding from grants and trusts, we are able to offer this special opportunity for free.

Like Re-engage, you are also reliant on wonderful volunteers who help to run the community cinema

We have around 50 volunteers, from teenagers to those in their 70s and a lot of them are long-term volunteers. I think it’s one of those places that once you’re hooked, you never leave. It’s a varied group which includes retired people, school and college students who are working towards their Duke of Edinburgh awards and those who are unemployed. By volunteering at the cinema, they gain experience of working with the public and other skills to include in job applications.

We also work with young people with additional needs. It is wonderful to see their confidence build and some of them train to help at the box office, which includes handling money.

It is a big part of being a community cinema and I was honoured to receive the Lady Doris and Sir Sydney Samuelson award at the International Moving Image Society ceremony for making film accessible to people with disabilities. It’s a recognition that we push the boundaries and make the cinema as welcoming and as inclusive as we can.

It is interesting to hear about the range in ages of your volunteers, as we strongly support and celebrate the relationships between people across the generations.

I think it sets them up really well. I have noticed that our younger volunteers are more confident as a result of having the opportunity to speak with adults of different genders, ages and outlooks.

There are a lot of negative representations of the younger generation but I think our older volunteers have enjoyed working alongside them. We did a little documentary on this subject a few years ago called ‘Talking ‘bout My Generation,’ where we spoke to people from different age groups about the challenges they face and pre-conceptions they might have about each other. They worked together on the project and it was really interesting.

It's a very impressive building, what is the history of the cinema?

There has been a cinema on this site now since September 1939, which is quite an achievement. However, it was rather an inauspicious start, as it opened and closed on the same day because of the regulations introduced at the outbreak of war. Thankfully, the government realised that cinemas were a key part of keeping public morale high and so it opened again a couple of weeks later.

Up until the 1960s there were 20 cinemas within a three-mile radius of the Plaza but this is the only one left. I think it helps that apparently 10,000 people are within walking distance of us, the bus stop is right outside and we’re just two minutes’ walk from the train station.

However, there have been times when the cinema has been under threat, most notably in late 1995, when rumours started to circulate that it was going to be closed. In response, a local youth wrote a letter to the press highlighting the impact the closure would have on young people, who would have nothing to do and nowhere to meet. This galvanized the community, led by our now Chair of Trustees, Janet Dunn, who received the British Empire Medal for her services to the community back in 2017. There were over 100,000 signatures on the petition to the council calling for the cinema to be saved and eventually we were able to acquire the cinema as a community building.

It was in a dreadful state at the start but we were fortunate to have assistance from a group of local traders known as TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More). They volunteered their time and our fundraising helped pay for materials. In a fortnight the place was transformed, with new flooring and everything repainted - it was like somebody had waved a magic wand. It’s one of those buildings which has something special about it and I'm proud to show people around. However, there is always more to do and so the refurbishment is an ongoing project.

I think one of the reasons why flicks and friends is so popular is because the Art Deco glamour and splendour takes our audiences back to their younger days and what cinemas used to look like.

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