It was never going to be an easy task reopening a business after the Covid lockdown.
But when that business is one of the most historic and smallest cinemas in the county the task is even more testing.
This week Lara Hewitt made the welcome announcement that The Palace, Longridge will be back in September - pandemic permitting.
But she also warned that she will be there probably for just another year or two to help it survive and thrive...if it can. Lara hopes it can then become a community run local asset and she can return full time to her own film making career.
Even before lockdown Lara had faced a dilemma. Despite best efforts and its growing popularity the cinema and theatre on Market Place, Longridge was still losing some £2,000 a month.
The cinema is owned by her late father’s company Parkwood and that company’s financial support had helped keep the business afloat. Lara had previously said that given the pandemic’s effect on Parkwood that subsidy cannot continue.
Of her hope that a Palace CIC (Community Interest Company) or a Palace Film Society could be created she said: “I’m not the solution. I won’t be here forever - like Mary Poppins there will be 12 - 24 months of me, less Lara and hopefully more of the community, where hopefully the community takes over and I’m not needed any more and I’ll be making films.”
One welcome and short term financial lifeline has come in the form of a grant from Ribble Valley Borough Council. She said: “We have got £8,000 which is a great help, but we will need to fundraise more money. We’re still going to need cash to cover the losses...”
She said there would be practical problems too: “We don’t have a till or coffee machine or card machine any more, we need to do legionella testing (on the water supply), we need to restock and resupply and what do you pay people with? The building over winter normally throws up some wonderful expensive surprises - it has a habit of doing that. Again, while closed we’ve had new water ingress and new pointing.”
She continued: “We’ve had to keep the insurance going - it costs £668 a month just on insurance for the projector. To have films delivered and insurance on the projector that’s the best part of £1,000 a month. I’ll have to recruit staff and pay for training for people There are set up costs you have in a business . We’re starting up again...It’s going to take some time to skill up as a team.I don’t have a personal pot of capital to put in...we’re going to have to live within our means and see what future it’s got.”
But for the moment she is staying positive and is looking to a future with the return of live events to the Palace stage. She said: “I’m looking already at what bands are available. People will be excited to have bands back again when we can. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be opening every day from September or just when there are events or a film - for example when the new James Bond comes out. I’ll watch and see how it goes with other cinemas in June, July and August... it’s better to not bite off more than you can chew...”
Noting it is possible they may open just one day a week she said: “There’s lots of unknowns. I’ve had my first vaccination and I’m hoping by September we’re in quite a different place.”
She has also taken the opportunity to make an impassioned plea for greater understanding of the arts and their role in society with a plea that funding is vital to keep the cultural and arts community alive.
She said towns and communities need to consider what kind of a priority arts are and whether they need funding in the same way that funding children’s playgrounds is considered essentia.: "Essentially arts need subsidising.There’s a cost. If you don’t want to have it then you end up with nothing. The idea the arts are free ...I think this is false. What do we value? I think the arts need investment for everyone.”
Parkwood bought the cinema early in 2018 with the intention was that Lara and her father Tony would run it together. But tragically he died suddenly just before the final contracts were exchanged. Lara worked tirelessly to make the dream of reopening her local cinema/theatre come true, recruiting staff and volunteers, opened a bar, organised art exhibitions and welcomed community groups to the venue. A Christmas advert featuring the Palace went viral and even featured on TV. The cinema had become more successful, but there was still that gap between income and expenditure. She also began to work on a film about Brexit and saying goodbye to Europe, taking her own camper van on the road and filming in summer 2019.
During lockdown Lara, whose previous film Datsche, can be purchased to watch online, decided that as she could not show films she would make another one - and is now part way through making The Palace Diaries, a part fictional , part true life Christmas story, in which she takes a lead role, about the fortunes of the Palace. She has been filming with the intention of releasing it at Christmas 2021 and said: " I just made it - it’s not the normal way in the industry. You’d normally pitch it for a year or two. But it’s looking really, really good.”
She is planning a Crowdfunding appeal to help steer the project through its final phases and plans to visit the Cannes film festival to see if she can rally support for and interest in the film.
She added: "When I took on the Palace I thought I would be running it for three to five years with the view by the end of that period it would have transitioned to be perhaps run by the community. I only ran it for two years before we closed. My work is not finished but I’m not the end solution.”
For our report on The Palace Diaries see here.