Littlehampton cinema still thriving a year on

Campaigners celebrate the announcement in late 2013 that cinema would be returning to the Windmill Entertainment Centre
Campaigners celebrate the announcement in late 2013 that cinema would be returning to the Windmill Entertainment Centre

IT’S not just the Oscar winners revelling in movie success this week – film lovers are celebrating the first anniversary of cinema returning to Littlehampton, too.

And fittingly, screenings of Oscar victors Whiplash, Birdman and The Theory of Everything have given more than a sprinkling of Hollywood stardust to the Windmill’s programme in the glittering awards week.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch, as Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game

In the 12 months since the Windmill reopened its doors to cinema-goers with the ‘sold-out’ notices up for 12 Years a Slave, regular audiences have been building steadily, helping to generate a small surplus for the venue, and the business running the operation will be showing films on 225 days in 2015.

When bookings for amateur dramatic shows are taken into account, it means that outside those dates, the cinema will be open almost seven days a week, up from just four days a year ago.

“It’s been going very well, we’re very pleased,” said Kevin Orman, who runs Windmill Cinema Ltd with his wife Marilu. “We’ve been really well supported by local people who appreciate that the cinema is open again.”

The Windmill reopened almost exactly a year after its screen went dark in February, 2013, the Ormans having their own digital projection equipment installed to drag the venue into the 21st century.

Crucial to the success has been the involvement of an army of more than 70 volunteers, many of whom were also members of the Windmill Supporters’ Group, which staged marches and public meetings when the venue’s future seemed in grave doubt as a result of changes proposed in Arun District Council’s leisure strategy two years ago.

The sorry saga had as many twists and turns as any movie car chase, but in this new period of calm, the volunteers now show their commitment as ushers or in the refreshment kiosk.

“People feel a direct involvement with the facility that they wanted to save, having gone on the marches and attended the meetings,” Kevin added.

Another vital factor in the Windmill’s renaissance has been Kevin and Marilu’s skilled programming, understanding their audiences’ tastes and then tailoring the schedule to fit. Live broadcasts, from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and from London’s National Theatre, as well as guided tours of art exhibitions, have been added into the mix, too.

This week’s trio of Oscar winners was booked long before the red carpet was rolled out, but highlights the shrewd approach.

“We took a punt that they would do well at the Oscars, and it’s paid off,” said Kevin. “Getting the programming right is most important, particularly for a single screen, independent cinema like the Windmill – you have to be very aware of local people’stastes.

“If something goes well, we will try to bring it back again – we brought The Imitation Game back several times, and will probably bring it back again. Mr Turner and The Theory of Everything have also done very well recently.”

Tonight sees the company’s boldest step yet, with the beginning of a two-week run coinciding with the UK release of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with three screenings most days.

“It’s very much the kind of film local people want to see,” explained Kevin. He and Marilu, who live in Sompting, have been independent cinema operators for more than 15 years, also running the venture CineMobile, showing films in halls across West Sussex in towns and villages including East Preston and Arundel.

Most of their time now, though, is spent at the Windmill. “It’s a very good venue for watching films,” said Kevin. “It’s a good auditorium, very comfortable, and there is a good atmosphere.”

The only potential cloud on the horizon is the uncertainty surrounding leisure services in Arun district, with the existing operator, Inspire Leisure, ruled out of bidding for the contract when it is renewed next year.

That poses a question mark about the future of the Windmill and the Ormans’ involvement. “We have spoken to people at the council, and I know that they have recommended that any new leisure operator should negotiate with us about the existing cinema operation,” said Kevin.

Whatever the outcome, the cinema set-up is secure for at least another two years, as Arun has said that Inspire can take bookings up to 2017 and they will be honoured by the new contractors.

“We will work with whoever comes in,” Kevin pledged, “but we hope that they will recognise we have the experience of running the venue and setting the programme, and the emotional investment of local people in the Windmill.

“There’s no reason it shouldn’t continue, and we would like it to continue indefinitely.”