Beverley Picture Playhouse, Feasibilty Review, Alun Bond – Artservice
3. THE PICTURE PLAYHOUSE
3.1 The Building as a Venue
The Picture Playhouse is a venue which clearly has a strong following of people and performers who have enjoyed its unique atmosphere and experienced enjoyable and entertaining evenings at the venue. It is reported to have an excellent acoustic for live music and an ambience which performers respond to and enjoy. Its location in the town centre has perhaps added to its appeal, offering concert and cinema attenders the opportunity to link an evening’s entertainment with a meal or visit to one of the local pubs and hotels. To some extent its lack of facilities may have contributed to this experience by encouraging people to combine an evening at the cinema or a concert conveniently with a pub or restaurant visit.
The venue’s assets can be summed up as:
· Informal ambience and interior décor giving the building a unique period feel
· Central location & accessibility to pubs and restaurants
· Excellent parking in the evenings
· Attractive historic building
· The atmosphere and acoustic of the auditorium
· Popular historic building
· Proximity to transport links, including the railway and bus stations
· Not near residential properties
· Liked by music performers around the UK.
In addition the Playhouse supports and helps to diversify the evening economy of the town centre, potentially providing access to entertainment for visitors to the town who are staying in the town centre hotels and helping to support the local economy by bringing customers into the town centre.
However, despite the above assets, the Playhouse has a range of disadvantages:
· The building was not designed as a live arts venue and lacks adequate space for ancillary facilities, including bar and catering, storage, administration, dressing rooms and toilets
· The building has suffered from lack of investment over many years and is now in a very poor state of repair
· The standard of its facilities is extremely poor – it lacks modern comforts
· There is very limited scope for extending the building due to its landlocked site (though some scope for extending into the rear former swimming pool)
· Though parking and access is excellent in the evenings, it is more difficult in the daytime and when the market place is closed for the Saturday market
· The standard of the internal 1911 fit-out is not high and much of the internal structure which gives the Playhouse its special feel is of low grade.
The building is Grade II listed and the listing includes, we understand, two internal features, the chandeliers and wall plaques, neither of which we believe are original to the building or indeed to the 1911 cinema conversion. However, those features of the building which are of exceptional architectural merit relate primarily to its exterior, its structural qualities and to the internal removable features referred to above. There is little else of genuine architectural quality inside the building.
3.2 Previous Operation
The Playhouse has always been operated on a commercial basis and operators have in recent years experienced difficulty in making the venue pay its way. This is not surprising for several reasons:
· Live arts and entertainment venues of similar seating capacity which present mixed programmes normally require public subsidy
· 300 seats is insufficient to operate a mixed live programme venue commercially
· the quality of the Playhouse’s facilities is very low making it extremely difficult for it to compete in the leisure market (especially against multiplex cinemas with their range of high quality facilities and services)
· the venue had been run on limited resources with insufficient investment and resources to market and promote the film programme effectively
We have analysed attendance figures for the venue over two sample periods in 1999 and 2001 (see table below). They demonstrate the low levels of attendance at films, with an average audience of 41 in spring 1999 and 31 in spring 2001. Analysis of ticket income also suggests:
· Average net ticket income in 1999 was around £1.90
· Average net ticket income in 2001 was around £2.20
It is evident from the above that with a cost per film showing in excess of £100 and taking staff costs into account, the cinema programme was losing money.
There are a range of reasons why the film programme may have proved commercially unsuccessful.
· It is very difficult for small independent cinemas to gain access to the best films at the best time so programme choice is limited by what distributors are prepared to supply
· It is difficult to plan film programmes well in advance due to the constraints applied by the distributors – this inhibits the venue’s ability to promote films
· The Playhouse lacked the amenities of other cinemas and was not an attractive venue for many people
· The quality of the projection and sound equipment may was not up to present day standards with no Dolby system and poor image quality
· The Playhouse was unable to compete with other cinemas in Hull and elsewhere
· Ticket prices had to be kept low in view of the low quality of the facilities at the Playhouse
· The programme may not have been marketed well enough.
The figures above indicate that the most popular films, notably Shakespeare in Love, attracted reasonable average audiences taking into account all factors, but that the majority of the film programme under-performed in box office terms.
The live programme may have suffered from some of the above constraints, however, We understand that performers with a national reputation and which could attract audiences, such as Ray Davies or Lindisfarne, were able to be promoted on a commercially viable basis producing a modest surplus of income over expenditure.
The Playhouse is a well-liked venue in an excellent location and contributes to the local economy, supporting Beverley’s role as a visitor destination. It is viewed as a key venue for the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival, both as a central focus for the festival and as a key venue for main concerts, but is not at present a key venue for the town’s other festivals and arts groups. While there have been problems in operating the Playhouse as a cinema, this may be due to a variety of factors, not least the condition of the building.
The venue has had a troubled history in recent years and it has not proved possible to operate it on a commercial basis. This is not surprising in view of the condition of the building and its lack of facilities. It would however be unwise to conclude from previous experience that the venue could not play a part in the town’s cultural provision in the future if it received adequate investment (though it would still be likely to require subsidy which we shall explore later in this report).
While there are several examples of independent cinemas surviving and thriving in small market towns in the region, these tend to be in locations more remote from major centres of population. Beverley, with its proximity to Hull, and with a multiplex in close proximity is a different context. In our view a more appropriate option for future operation would be a mixed programme facility with a core film programme.
If the Playhouse were able to provide a more varied programme than in the past, with a more specialised film programme concentrating on second runs of mainstream films, classics and specialist films, a regular programme of live theatre, dance and music, greater use by local festivals and amateur groups and increased use for other purposes, such as rehearsals, seminars, meetings, presentations and talks, then it could still play a role in the town’s arts and entertainment provision.
However, there are several areas of consideration if the Playhouse is to have a future as an arts and entertainment venue:
· Its role in supporting arts and entertainment development and provision in the town and wider area would need to be affirmed and clarified within the broader strategic context
· it is in desperate need of capital investment, both to refurbish the building and to extend its range of user and customer facilities and would require major capital investment
· the programme would need to be widened to address a wider range of audiences and include a broader range of usage, which might still include film showings, but would attract new user groups and open up new income streams
· an appropriate management arrangement would be required – this might be in the form of a charitable trust – the commercial options already proposed have been rejected by the Council
· new income streams would need to be created, including possibly a daytime catering facility
· it is likely that revenue support would be needed
· operation of the building would require voluntary support if costs were to be minimised.
3.4 Developing the Building
If the Playhouse were in the future to be operated as an arts and entertainment venue it would, in my opinion, require a major internal re-design aimed at providing it with a bar and catering facility with the capacity and potential to maximise income through daytime operation as well as supporting the programme of activities by making the venue more attractive. Such a facility could possibly be operated on a franchise basis and would need to be located to the front of the building overlooking the square so that it could attract customers and operate viably.
The auditorium would need to be totally re-designed and possibly shortened to provide more front of house space for the café, foyers and box office. This would result in the seating capacity being reduced, but it is likely that it could accommodate flexible retractable seating with a capacity in excess of 200. The flat-floored hall could also be used for other income generating activities such as antique and crafts fairs (which could prove popular given its location).
The rear of the building would need to be re-designed and refurbished to provide additional facilities, including administration offices, dressing rooms, storage and perhaps space for meetings.
A major re-design on these lines would provide the building with increased income generating capacity, from its bar and catering, from hiring out facilities, and by making the venue more attractive to potential audiences and hirers. It is likely that a revitalised and attractive venue would also be used by more of the town’s festivals and groups than at present.
No design work has been undertaken by the Council on the building and there is no estimate of capital costs for a major re-development on the lines suggested above. However, we would estimate that it would be likely to cost between £500,000 and £1m.