“Two screens is considered ‘ideal,’ but - not to blow my own horn - the one screen I program damn well. Two screens is actually bigger expectation,” says Claire Beswick, co-founder of The Living Room Cinema (LRC), which opened its second operation - with big expectation - in the town of Chipping Norton this summer. The single screen she is referring to is the first Living Room cinema in Liphook, which opened in April 2022 and has been an immense success since Day One, now joined by a two-screen sister site. So, what is different in ‘Chippy’?
The Living Room Cinema pitches itself as “Quality films in intimate surroundings. A welcoming home from home, at the heart of your community.” With boutique cinemas currently being very much in vogue, both in UK and abroad, LRC manages to set itself apart from others by not feeling like an Everyman/Curzon/Tivoli clone, instead having more of a 1 Hotels vib. There are plenty of plants everywhere, books on cinema and furniture that looks like it could be from a trendy home. But it is the engagement with the community that really sets it apart, demonstrating how small upmarket cinema can work in smaller towns and specifically not just catering to an ‘upmarket’ clientele.
The Living Room Cinema bar & cafe welcomes patrons.
From Hardware to Homeware
LRC Chipping Norton is situated in a seven-storey former hardware store, with eleven apartments of serviced accommodation on top, located along the town’s high street. Chipping Norton itself is a market town with a population of around 7,000, located in the picturesque Cotswold Hills, about half-way between Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon. It is famous for the Soho Farmhouse (where Margo Robbie likes to spa it with her friends) and celebrity residents such as the Beckhams and former PM David Cameron.
“Chippy feels like it never fulfilled its potential,” says Claire. “Everyone knows Soho Farmhouse, the Cotswolds, and the Bakehouse, which is very Instagram friendly.” But there is an odd mix of shops on the high street – with Quality Discount nestling next to designer plant shops. “Yes, there’s affluence and poverty, but also a middle ground. We wanted to do something for everyone, without losing our identity.”
Plans for LRC ‘Chippy’ began even before LRC Liphook had opened. The result is a delightful two-screen cinema, one with 40 seats (Screen 1 downstairs, screen size: 6m x 2.51m) and a second with 48 seats (the narrower Screen 2 upstairs, screen size: 4.81m x 2.6m). Both have loungers at the front, sofas in the back and regular seats between. Rather than a traditional cinema seat supplier, a contract furniture manufacturer called Derrys in Northern Ireland was used. For public areas, regular household furniture that was bought was re-upholstered and made fire-retardant, to comply with safety regulations.
Entrance to Screen 1 and Stairs to Screen 2
The design was made in-house with Claire’s business partner, award-winning film producer Nicole Carmen-Davis, who hails from this part of the country. There is a terrific attention to detail, which does not simply copy other art deco-inspired interior trends. Vintage pieces, such as a mid-century modern side table, were sourced from eBay. The ironmongery is the same as the brass on the handles and elsewhere. It has a bar and café that would not look out of place in a trendy London boutique hotel. There is also what is probably the most luxurious accessible toilet in any UK cinema.
No less attention was paid to the technology behind the scenes. Projectors are NEC NC1202L with a Dolby IMS3000, suspended from hush boxes in the ceiling. Processors were QSC DCP 300 with one MAG AOH-6800 Amplifier for each screen and MAG Audio speakers/subwoofers. Screens are Harkness and TMS by UniqueX. Claire & Co. had 11 weeks after taking over the shell of the building, with Sound Solutions doing the kit-out. "When you build a cinema, there are so many companies involved in the fit out at the end and it is crucial that they all gel. It's a small part of the industry, and you want a team that work well together,” Claire reflects. “I had a very positive experience with all of my fit out specialists in the first cinema and was keen to 'get the band back together', so to speak. Jordan [Bedding] and I had previously worked together at Curzon many years ago, and so it really was a no-brainer for me to pick up the phone to Cinema Next once again".
DCM supplies the cinema advertising, and the cinema will get Movie Transit later this year, which is already in place in Liphook. Rosie Mulford, the attentive Marketing and Membership Executive at LRC, also highlights the good relationship with POS and ticketing partner Admit One. “We have fast become one of their favourite clients,” Rosie says. “Demanding, sure, but we helped them develop their product. At first, we were the annoying women, but now we are not so much the problem child. They have developed new bits to have for us.” The staff are friendly and efficient in getting the right order to patrons in both the lobby and the auditoriums.
Loungers in Screen 1 of The Living Room Cinema in Chipping Norton
Local Coffee, JC IPA, and Rose by the Bottle
As with all boutique cinemas there is a big focus on F&B and given the ‘competition’ on the High Street, there is an understandable need to excel in what it must serve up for all the senses of the patrons. It is also here that the community engagement starts to shine through, not least as the cinema has rapidly become a destination, not just for films but also for those who just want a good cappuccino.
“Coffee trade is growing,” Claire acknowledges. “We are working with Stow Town Coffee, a local coffee supplier that roasts and grinds its own coffee, run by a husband-and-wife team.” This is just one example of the local business community engagement. “We work with local suppliers whenever we can,” says Claire.” Yes, we have Jimmy’s Popcorn, but we try to support local.” This includes a famous local celeb.
Selling as well as coffee is the Hawkstone IPA beer and cider, from the farm of local petrol-head-turned-farmer Jeremy Clarkson. LRC also designs its own cocktails, such as the Chippy & The City (aka Cosmopolitan), as well as popular classics such as Espresso Martinis and Old Fashioned. There are movie-themed cocktails, such as "Top Gun: Maverick’s" ‘Maverick’ and ‘Iceman,’ the latter proving so popular it stayed on the menu even after the film. For Halloween there was a red "Rocky Horror Picture Show" cocktail. There was a popular Barbitini and Pink Pina Colada, as well as pink Mocktails for teenage Barbie fans. Claire reveals that the cinema sold more bottles than glasses of rosé wine for this summer’s big hit, but as far as film-and-food pairings, she was not a fan herself of last summer’s Elvis hotdog. But pizzas are planned for when the LRC Chipping Norton expands its food offerings.
Screen 1 of The Living Room Cinema Chipping Norton
Community, community, community
In a sign of how quickly LRC put itself on the Chipping Norton map, some local pubs already offer pre-theatre/cinema menus. Far from seeing this as F&B competition, Claire says “we want to work with them.” Claire & Co. could have taken the easy route of leaning into the ‘Chipping Norton set’ of celebrities. But “that’s not who we are,” Claire affirms.
“We’ve created something for the community, not for those with second homes in Chipping Norton.” They realised that the town had lots of people who had moved out of London and missed not having the ‘London experience,’ in terms of things they can do. “But there are lots of locals who don’t go to the South of France. We wanted to provide a great experience to the local community,” Claire says with a passion that is clearly born out of the experience with her first cinema.
“We have the regulars in Liphook,” sha says. “We realised early on that this is why we do it. There is a guy who comes in every single day and has a latte. We calculated that he spent over £1,000 per year on coffee. He was a cinema member who sponsored a seat in memory of his late wife.” When the year was up, and he still had not used all his free tickets - members get four free tickets and a £1.25 discount after that – Claire urged him to use it to see what was on before they expired. The film playing was "Magic Mike 2". “He came out after 20 minutes, saying “That was the worst film I ever saw.”” But he still comes back for coffee, and they have gifted him a new free membership.
Screen 2 of The Living Room Cinema in Chipping Norton
Then there is a lady who has a severely autistic, non-verbal son. She comes to screenings most weekends, not for the special autistic-friendly screening, but instead sees the same movie with her son. She had been gifted a premium membership anonymously by a friend, Claire revealed. “She runs her own business. She’s seen "Mission: Impossible" four times. ‘This is the only time I get to sit down and not think about my life.’”. The man and the woman were just two of the locals invited to the first birthday celebration of LRC Liphook, rather than just the cinema’s shareholders.
Film programming at LRC ‘Chippy’ skews mainstream, “while we find our feet,” and as there is “lots of training of audiences to be done.” But there are initiatives such as Living Room Presents, a strand of curated films once every other week. This has included "The Last Rider" by Dogwood (“near full” screening), Mark Cousin’s Alfred Hitchcock documentary and "Squaring the Circle". LRC is also trying to incorporate films such as the Korean drama "Past Lives" into their mainstream programming.
There is the Little Living Room £5 kids’ club screening, which has been showing Disney 100th anniversary titles. There is the ‘In Conversation With’ series, with talent connected with a particular film. While this has included famous names such as Julian Fellowes and Asif Kapadia, Claire shares that some of the biggest draws have been films without a famous name, such as the producer and co-director of the “Lancaster” documentary. “Conversation between audiences is great but to have a real connection with the subject [of the film] means you don’t have people coming off the street to watch them, but ones genuinely interested in the subject,” tells Claire. “We had someone whose grandfather was a Lancaster bomber pilot. It’s like a self-help group.”
And while two screens compared to one means more flexibility in programming, Claire also notes that it also involves twice as much cleaning.
Come for the coffee - stay for the films.
The Next Living Room Cinema(s)
The Living Room Cinema is clearly a success by having struck a chord with the local communities in which the first two are deeply embedded. So is there a formula and how far can it be replicated, by them or others. “The aim is not to compete with Everyman,” says Claire, but to target “towns with no purpose-built cinema.” LRC is looking at towns, particularly market towns, that do not have a cinema within a 20-minute drive. With the Odeon Banbury and Oxford Magdalene Street both closed, the nearest multiplexes are Cineworld Witney and The Light Banbury. Claire’s business partner Nicole, who is a local, felt the area could handle the ticket price, which is £16.50 for an adult.
While it would take someone with the passion, commitment and vision of Mses. Beswick and Carmen-Davis, there is clearly a market for well-run cinemas in smaller towns, strongly anchored in the community. LRC ‘Chippy’ even attracted a new General Manager, who joined from Vue Croydon, “who wanted a change in pace of life.” We could see another LRC at some point, but it will be “at least a year until the next one,” sighs Rosie Mulford, “to preserve our sanity.” Launching a new cinema at the height of #Barbenheimer clearly brings both rewards and challenges. Time to order a Barbitini.
Claire Beswick, co-founder of The Living Room Cinema