The Cube is an independent cinema, events and community centre run by volunteers in Bristol. It is a beacon of creative light, a safe haven for all those passionate about good music, film and community. I spent some time talking to one of the volunteers, Paul Cooke, and he explained how The Cube works.
Chloë: So, tell me about The Cube, how did it start?
Paul: The Cube has been running for fourteen years but it’s been a cinema for decades. It used to be called the Arts Centre Cinema, which was family run, but they gave it up in 1998. At that time there was a group of people doing mobile cinema party nights in Bristol and when they heard this place was up for grabs they decided to make a go for it, in a permanent way. Just four people started The Cube in 1998 and now, in 2012, there’s something like 200 volunteers on the books.
It’s flourished! How does it work?
We are a limited company that works as a cooperative, we are a not for profit company… And if we do make any money it all goes back into programming.
Can you tell me a bit more about programming?
Well, we’re not just a cinema. We show films and people play music, we have Indymedia come in and host political talks, we also do cabaret and comedy.
Each month might have a different feel to it. Some months are film-heavy, others music-heavy. At the start of the year it’s usually more film centric, as bands aren’t normally touring. Then October/November time will be more music-heavy because most bands are touring then. I guess we get a nice balance.
So, we’ll show films like The Artist (2011), that will sell out and so will compensate for more unusual events, like obscure Italian gangster thrillers: Almost Human (1974) These films are risky, but might do well. A film like Almost Human might make a loss, but that’s okay because we need to put on interesting stuff, and things like The Artist will pay for that.
“Whatever happens at The Cube is just some volunteers saying ‘hey, shall we do this?’ and people say ‘yeah, okay, great’.”
So, what are the benefits of being a cooperative?
It’s a great feeling to be self-sufficient. I feel really proud of that. A lot of places are getting their funding cut now, and they’re struggling because they relied on it. If you’ve never had funding, you don’t rely on it. We haven’t got loads of money, but we can stand up and say we do it all ourselves. But, we can’t afford to install a digital cinema system, we don’t have that kind of money to play with.
What kind of projection system do you have here?
We’ve got a 35mm projector, and we try to show as much 35mm as possible, we also have 16mm, DVD, and Blu Ray projectors. We get prints from distribution companies. Sometimes they say you’ll have to wait for films because they’ve got bigger cinemas showing them first. But that’s okay, it works in our favour, if people miss a film on release they’ll come and see it here, some people will even wait to see it here, because they like us, and it’s cheap, ticket prices are between £4 and £5. We’re only a small single cinema, with a 100 person capacity. Then sometimes there might be something really obscure that you can only get on 16mm, and that’s really exciting.
How do you guys go about promoting The Cube? You have a beautiful print flyer that I see around Bristol.
The good thing about having a big pool of volunteers is that you have people with skills. We have artists and graphic designers that make our programmes for free, and it’s good for them as well to have a programme in their portfolio. Sometimes people email in offering to do design work, but they’re not volunteers, and that works well too, but it’s mostly done in-house. We have a website too, and we do a members email flyer. But I do think it’s really nice to have something on paper, to hold in your hand. Our programmes are really beautiful.
We’re a members cinema, so when you come you pay £1 for a lifetime membership and you give us your email address and you’ll get regular emails from us, telling you what’s going on around here.
The programmes are really special, but can you tell me a bit more about the website?
The website (www.cubecinema.com) looks a little bit old-fashioned but I love that about it. We get loads of emails from website designers saying “I’ve looked at your website and I think I can make it look really slick, because it looks out of date”. I don’t think they realise that’s what it’s supposed to look like. We actually want it like that. We host the site ourselves, and we host lots of other sites too, that aren’t Cube sites. We host sites for like-minded businesses.
I notice you have a podcast.
Yeah, that’s a brand new thing, we started it about two weeks ago. Whatever happens at The Cube is just some volunteers saying “hey, shall we do this?” and people say “yeah, okay, great” and so that’s just three or four volunteers getting together and doing a podcast, they’re making it happen. And the one on the site now is the first one. I think they were very nervous. And maybe, you know, it wasn’t very slick. But that’s good, that’s what The Cube is all about. If it’s too slick it wouldn’t be The Cube.
How does The Cube run day-to-day, how does a typical week take shape?
Everybody here has a ‘day job’ everyone either works or is a student. It’s only open in the evenings, apart from our Wednesday morning baby cinema. Sometimes during the day people are here because things have to be done, like admin, film booking, cleaning, that kind of thing. We’re open seven days a week, so there is always something on. We have an old-fashioned paper rota and people write down what they want to do the week before, then they turn up an hour before, set it up, and do it.
We train our own projectionists, they’re all volunteers, so are the sound engineers. James, who is a projectionist at The Watershed, he gets paid there and then comes here and works for free, and trains others. We also have professional sound techs, who come and work here for free because they love it.
What kind of audience do you get coming to The Cube?
Our audience are mostly local. People actually find it quite hard to find us. So quite often students will come across us in their third year of studying because in their first two years they haven’t gotten around to coming, or they’ve tried, but haven’t managed to find us because we’re quite tucked away.
The fact you have to find it adds to the fun. The Cube is a hidden gem, when you discover it you feel like you’ve found something. When I first moved to Bristol, to discover The Cube was great.
Our audience varies a lot, there’s people that come here in their sixties and seventies, but generally I think it’s younger than that, we typically have people coming who are in their twenties, thirties and forties. And, um, yeah, they know about us because they’ve been in Bristol long enough to have found us.
“The Cube points to an alternative model of cultural consumption, one that exists on the periphery of the market.”
Is there a core group of people who run The Cube?
Yeah, there is. They are the people who have the most time and the most experience. There is a head of film programming and a head of music/events programming.They’ve been here for a long time, and have the hours to put into it. Sarah Acton is the head of film programming and Barry Parsons is the head of live events. Those teams have to have a head, they need someone to hold it together, they’re not managers as such, they are just people who have got the time to organise it and get it done.
I spoke to Paul on the 21st March 2012, and hopefully it will be the first of many conversations I have with him and other volunteers at the Cube.
The Cube is a special place: hugely successful and truly independent. Its autonomy has protected it from a growing climate of austerity and privatisation, and its longevity is testament to its business model. Organisations like The Cube make me hopeful, creative institutions seem to be in constant jeopardy so it’s important to find places and communities that eschew burgeoning restrictions. What’s more, the independent and egalitarian ethos that defines The Cube points to an alternative model of cultural consumption, one that exists on the periphery of the market.
The Cube is part of a network of independent, volunteer run cinemas, venues and cultural cooperatives in the U.K. and around Europe. Cinemas like The Star and Shadow in Newcastle, 7 Inch in Birmingham, and Kino Climates, Europe’s alternative cinema network. There is also an independent cinema festival: Flatpack, in Birmingham, which ran on the 14-18 March 2012. Look out for it next year.