The fight is on to save a near-100-year-old cinema.

Mark Harrison (@MHarrison90

For many years, the Regent Cinema was the place to go to see the latest films in Redcar. Housed in an art deco building originally erected as a music hall in 1928, this classic picturehouse evolved into a more modern independent cinema, showing blockbuster releases in a more traditional, nostalgic setting than most multiplexes can match. In March 2018, when the local council unveiled plans to build a long-rumoured five-screen cinema on the nearby Redcar Bowl site, local supporters feared the worst for the 217-seater single-screen venue. Worse still, a routine condition survey of the building took place the following month and the cinema was forced to close until further notice. After a full structural survey revealed the extent of work required on the roof and the sea-facing back wall, the Regent’s supporters united in an effort to secure the council-owned building’s future as a cinema.

A screen by the sea

Originally named the New Pavilion, this former repertory theatre was converted into a cinema in 1965. After a period of being run by the Cleveland Cinema Co-operative, the Regent folded in 1991 due to competition with the multiplexes. But just a few years later, the cinema was re-opened as a family venture under the management of former volunteer projectionist Neil Bates. When the Regent returned in August 1992, the first screening was, fittingly, Batman Returns. Since then, Neil has put in more than 25 years managing the cinema, overseeing a range of milestones and modernisations along the way. In 2006, the filmmakers behind Atonement were drawn to its ideal seaside location. The Regent’s starring role in the dizzying Dunkirk tracking shot, which was shot on location at Redcar beach, cemented its place in film history.

The publicity that came with the film shoot revitalised interest in the cinema for tourists and moviegoers alike. In the following years, Neil successfully applied for funding to install digital projectors in the run-up to the Real-D 3D craze kicked off by James Cameron’s Avatar. The industry-wide conversion was a hectic time for independent cinemas, and this timely upgrade allowed the Regent to thrive. Despite new competition and an ever narrower cinematic window, screenings were regularly packed to the rafters at the point when the cinema closed. “It’s a shared experience,” Neil says of the ongoing debate over cinemas and home entertainment. “I believe that if you offer the big screen and the chance to sit down with other people and watch a film, people will always come back.”

Save our cinema

Rumours that the council were keen on a new multiplex began to circulate locally in 2013, following a seafront regeneration scheme that saw the Regent’s canopy taken down. When the multiplex project was finally announced in 2018, there were suspicions that the council might use planned structural surveys as an excuse to close down the cinema for good. Local film fan and Friends Of Redcar co-founder Natalie King had started the “Save The Regent Cinema” page on Facebook in 2014 and attracted 4,000 followers in under 48 hours. Having successfully campaigned to get council funding for vital renovations to the exterior, the group was galvanised by the news of the Regent’s closure. “I love the Regent,” Natalie says. “We all have special memories of it and it was important to me to do what I could to save it.”

From a 200-strong show of support outside the building to local tradesmen volunteering their services towards any repairs, the public made it well known that they wanted their traditional cinema over any new multiplex. Having followed plans closely since 2014, Councillor Neil Baldwin, an avowed “film dork”, worked with campaigners and with Redcar MP Anna Turley to try and secure further funding for the cinema if and when it was required. “The message that we got, loud and clear, is that ‘Redcar wants its traditional cinema’,” says Councillor Baldwin. “I always took the view that it wasn’t our place to force [the Regent] to close.” Following this massive show of public support, Redcar and Cleveland Council confirmed that the multiplex project had been cancelled. In a victory for the grassroots campaign, they have instead committed to investing in the community’s cinema of choice.

Making memories

For families in Redcar, the appeal of an affordable night out (tickets cost £3.50 for children and £4.50 for adults, with a £1.00 uplift for 3D films) only added to the charm of their local picture palace. By comparison, a trip to the nearest multiplex, eight miles away, costs upwards of £40 for a family of four before travel costs. Natalie and her two children eagerly await the return of the Regent, with cinema trips now a rare treat. “We were there every other week, on a school night or a weekend, and now it’s every couple of months.”

Convenience aside, it’s obvious that the memories attached to the Regent make it a valuable venue to its supporters. Natalie recalls crying with happiness at the ending of Disney’s Cinderella with her mother and crying at the sad bits of The Good Dinosaur with her son and daughter years later in the same cinema. Likewise, Councillor Baldwin remembers his neighbours taking him to see The Karate Kid Part II, and later taking his own family to see sci-fi favourites like Pacific Rim and Marvel Studios’ movies. The renovation will undoubtedly bring about greater changes to the building. Mixed-use theatre facilities and a second screen are among the possibilities being discussed, but for now it’s heartening to know that the Regent Cinema will stand for years to come.

As of 2019, the last two films on the Regent marquee were Peter Rabbit and Tomb Raider. When the cinema re-opens in 2021, maybe it will be in time for Batman to return again, in Matt Reeves’ forthcoming reboot. It’s been a bumpy road for the historic cinema, but it’s not hard to see why it’s so important to the town’s film fans.