EDIT, April 2018: I originally wrote this article in January 2017. I have since updated my age, the BFI’s modified £3 policy and the cinemas’ ticket prices, and added Genesis Cinema, the Peckhamplex and the two Empire cinemas, but the article is otherwise the same. I’ve kept the specificity of the films intact – it still gets the point across.
I’m 25, and my salary as I write is lower than the London median. I don’t yet pay rent, as I’m living with my parents for now, but even if I were paying £800 in rent monthly (I’ve made the calculations) I’d be able to go to the cinema over 100 times again next year, without skimping on food, drink or commuting, and still be in the black. How is that possible, since cinema tickets are about £13, or £6.50 even with a Meerkat deal?
Well, the BFI, the ICA, the Barbican and the Prince Charles Cinema are particularly attractive for under-26s, as might be seen from this chart, showing the distributions of venues/media in/on which I saw this year’s movies:
The BFI (closest Tube: Embankment/Waterloo) does an especially sweet deal: all tickets are £3 for under-26s. You can sign up online or in person to get a free 25-and-under card, which you can use to book or buy £3 tickets anytime for any film. It used to be that you could only get £3 tickets in person, up to 45 minutes before the film you wanted to see, but the BFI liberalised its policy in Spring 2018. Special screenings – a screening of Withnail & I followed by a Q&A with Bruce Robinson & Richard E. Grant, for instance – are also £3.
It’s not worth getting BFI membership if you’re under 26: it’ll run you at least £35 annually, and the tangible benefits – £9.15 tickets(!), no booking fees, the occasional members-only screening, some nominal discounts on BFI shop/bar products – are minimal. However, you might consider becoming a BFI member as a sort of charity donation; the institution is technically a charity.
The Barbican (closest Tube: Barbican) has a very attractive 14-25 scheme – if you fall in that age range, sign up to Young Barbican online for free, and all film tickets on Monday-Thursday are £5 – including new releases. You can even bring a +1 for the same price. The Barbican’s range of content is impressive: it has a great balance of new commercial hits (recently including Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and challenging arthouse movies (recently including Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and Pedro Costa’s Horse Money). In this sense it’s broader than the BFI, the Prince Charles and the ICA: the BFI and the ICA tend not to do mainstream movies, while the Prince Charles does, but usually with a bit of a time-lag. The Barbican also holds its own against the other three cinemas when it comes to promoting new indie films.
The ICA (closest Tube: Charing Cross) is a great place to catch new independent films, many of which are foreign or documentaries or both. Again, the deal for under-26s (and students) is great: £10 for a year’s basic (“Blue”) membership. So again, unless you don’t live in London, or visit the cinema infrequently, you’ve little to lose and lots to gain by plumping for a membership. You’d also get to see any screening on a Tuesday for £3 (bring a buddy for the same price!), and pay £7 for a film on any other day. There’s a free members’ screening every month, and these are often fantastic: recent great ones include Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Rosetta by the Dardenne brothers and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra. Not only does the ICA host a wide variety of new art exhibitions, it sometimes ties these into its films: its screening of Calypso Dreams, for instance, was accompanied by a colourful, free exhibition of British and West Indian calypso memorabilia.
The ICA screens movies from around the world, but European films predominate. This is as much to do with the London market as it is to do with the cinema itself: the ICA is part of Europa Cinemas, a cinema network and organisation which subsidises cinemas that screen a lot of European movies. Europa Cinemas is itself part of the EU-funded Creative Europe, and since the UK is now leaving the EU, that’s less money for UK producers and exhibitors.
The 2007-2013 period saw the MEDIA programme (the EU arts-and-culture funding programme that preceded Creative Europe) pump €100m into the UK. €44m of this was to help European distributors exhibit UK films, and €8.9m was to help British distributors exhibit films from the Continent. (So yet again, we see that England shot itself in the foot on 23 June, in terms of cultural enrichment but more in terms of its own films getting funding and exposure.) €5.8m was given to the 56 Europa Cinemas-affiliated cinemas across the UK. 15 of these cinemas are in London. You can see a full list of the 56 cinemas here.
In any case, unless the UK remains in Creative Europe (non-EU states may be members of the scheme), its exhibitors and distributors will receive a significant cut in European funding; even if it does remain, it’s unlikely that the deal will be as good as it’s been so far. You may see a proportional reduction in European films at the ICA, the BFI, the Barbican, and other Europa Cinemas before 2020.
For us cash-strapped young ’uns, the Prince Charles Cinema (closest Tube: Leicester Square) offers excellent value – but it isn’t age-discriminatory. Anyone can get an annual membership for £10, and a lifetime membership for £50 (which includes two free tickets worth up to £9, so in effect, lifetime membership will cost you £32 – an amazing deal). Unless you don’t live in London, or visit the cinema infrequently, it’d be silly not to plump for an annual membership at least.
For members, matinee screenings are £5, and though evening/weekend/Bank Holiday screenings for new films are £9.50, there are numerous £6 screenings of classics, often screened in 35mm film format. The cinema does 70mm screenings too. And every week, there’s a £1 screening. Occasionally these are new or newish, but usually they’re older, and frequently they’re brilliant. They’ve included Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and one of my 2016 top ten: McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Nestled in South Kensington – francophone central – is the Ciné Lumière, part of the UK’s Institut Français. Again, under-26s can get tickets for a fiver (and it’s free to sign up). As you can imagine, les films français predominate, though if you’re very much into your French films it’s worth noting that the Lumière screens some French movies (including kids’ films) not screened by London’s other cinemas. It also screens British indie films and foreign films that have made it fairly big here – Son of Saul, Embrace of the Serpent, Julieta.
2015 was a great year for London cinemas appearing out of nowhere. Blessed by a solid, varied programme but cursed by unfriendly ticket prices, the Regent Street Cinema (closest Tube: Oxford Circus) is one such cinema, noteworthy for its double-bills. Usually these pairings are fairly logical, and occasionally thrilling. They might comprise two by the same director (La Règle du jeu/La Grande Illusion; A Single Man/Nocturnal Animals) but are just as often simply emotionally assonant (Citizen Kane/Sweet Smell of Success). Sometimes the films happen to share a theme, but are pretty different beasts (the satire of All About Eve/Sullivan’s Travels).
Value-wise, it isn’t great – a double-bill is £16. Membership isn’t really worth it, especially if you’re under 26 – the flat rate is £40/year (£30 if you’re a student), but that only gets you £10 single tickets and £13 double-bill tickets. (Membership admittedly comes with two “free” tickets worth £10 each.) It might be worth the occasional double-bill, but unless you’re loaded, it won’t be one of your regular haunts. The screen is also surprisingly small: when I saw John Cassavetes’s Opening Night there, the screen couldn’t contain the whole image – hardly ideal.
Close-Up (closest Tube: Liverpool Street, or Shoreditch High Street on the Overground) was also established last year, and is a cinephile’s mecca. As well as being a cinema, Close-Up harbours a mind-boggling selection of films, books about film and books that inspired films, which “Library Members” (£10/month, or £8/month for students) can borrow for free (up to three items at a time). Cinema membership (£40/year, or £60/year for couples/twosomes) is different: you get film tickets for £6 (non-members pay £10), and the programming is wonderful. In January, for instance, is a fairly comprehensive Robert Altman retrospective (with a mixture of digital and 35mm screenings); Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour landmark Holocaust documentary Shoah (amazing value for £6); and various obscure experimental art films. The venue is also lovely – there’s a couch, an absurdly comfortable armchair, and a chessboard. The music’s usually great there too. Note: on the website, all film stills are black-and-white, regardless of whether the film itself is. Classic Shoreditch.
To cap off the 2015 births, an absolute gem: Deptford Cinema (closest Tube: Deptford Bridge, on the DLR line). It’s a not-for-profit cinema, entirely volunteer-run, with all proceeds reinvested into keeping the venue afloat and optimising its programme – an eclectic one, thanks to the cinema being supported by various European national institutes. All tickets are £6 (£4.50 for concessions, including literally anyone who lives in Brockley, Lewisham Central or New Cross). As far as the excellence of the programming is concerned, I’ll let the website’s “Seasons” page do the talking for me. The biggest perk: you can have a say in what gets screened there. Every Sunday at 11am, there’s a volunteers’ meeting at the cinema, making programming a hands-on delight (though it helps to be a regular-ish attendee). The downside of all this is that the cinema is very much a “local”, and will be a lengthy commute for most.
The Peckhamplex (closest Tube: Peckham Rye, on the Thameslink) would appear to be a lengthy commute too – but it’s actually pretty accessible thanks to the Thameslink, which is directly connected to Victoria, London Bridge, Clapham Junction and Dalston Junction (not to mention West Croydon, Dartford and Sevenoaks). All tickets, no matter how old you are, are £4.99 (£5.99 for 3D movies). Being a multiplex, it screens fairly mainstream fare (there’s not much other than blockbusters and Oscar contenders), but it also caters to Peckham’s artsier denizens and multicultural crowd: the documentary Being Blacker, for instance, was screened and followed by a Q&A with Blacker Dread and Molly Dineen. A few weeks ago the cinema also hosted a free under-26s-only screening of Black Panther, followed by a genuinely inspirational Q&A with four black Brits working in the film industry in various capacities, from director to stuntwoman.
If you head to the five-screen Genesis Cinema (closest Tube: Stepney Green) on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, tickets for all films (except those in Studios 4 and 5) are £5. But prices rise sharply on Thursdays, to £8.50, and they’re £10 for the rest of the week. For students it’s a fiver for Monday to Wednesday, and £7.50 for the rest of the week. Alongside the standard Hollywood multiplex fare, there’s a variety of interesting screenings, mostly one-offs that tend to be first-runs rather than repertory (i.e. old film) screenings. These are often part of “seasons” or wider strands, like Anime April or the East End Film Festival, that Genesis is participating in. Occasionally these one-offs are free – I saw Liu Jian’s Have A Nice Day at the Genesis a few weeks ago. (Admittedly this was free only for MUBI members, but there are screenings that are free for everyone. Don’t expect these to be particularly well known films, though.)
Studios 4 and 5 are plush 40-seaters that offer sofas, armchairs, blankets and foot-stalls; tickets for these screens are £9, £12 or £14.50 depending on the day of the week. The Genesis generally screens from digital, though it does host occasional 35mm “special screenings”. Membership isn’t worth it unless you plan to see one film per week there: it’s £20/month (£240/year!), which gives you free access to the films in Screens 1-3.
A niche note: if you’re interested in silent cinema, Kennington Bioscope, part of The Cinema Museum (closest Tube: Elephant & Castle/Kennington), offers very affordable tickets for silent delights, but also for non-silent art films and low-key film festivals. It also runs a fantastically well-thought-through and considerate volunteers’ scheme, in a range of fields including archiving and front-of-house work.
And finally: if you permit me to briefly shill for a standard multiplex, I recommend the Empire Haymarket (closest Tube: Piccadilly Circus) and the Empire Walthamstow (closest Tube: Walthamstow Central), but for Tuesdays only, when all tickets are £3.95 (or £4.95 for 3D screenings). Presumably Empire is trying to undercut cinemas that host Meerkat Movies; in any case, this is a competitive price, though doesn’t apply to the fancier stuff (e.g. the “Impact” screens, which are larger and have more seats, or the Luxury/VIP seats). Don’t expect inspiring programming: it’s what you’d expect from a Vue, a Cineworld etc. (Hollywood stuff, Oscar-worthy films and live theatre and opera screenings).