The Secret Cinema Hidden in the Heart of Shoreditch

Close-Up Film Centre in London
Close-Up Film Centre in London | Cassam Looch / © Culture Trip

Just off Brick Lane, the bustling hub of East London’s trendiest neighbourhood, you’ll find the unassuming facade of the Close-Up Film Centre. The mysterious black frontage not only houses a purpose-built cinema, but also operates as London’s last movie rental business.

Close-Up Film Centre’s library

For all the quirky creatives in the area – Shoreditch certainly isn’t short of tech start-ups, designer graffiti or expensive art galleries – you would be hard pressed to say that there was a vibrant film movement operating locally. There are a couple of high-profile independent cinemas – the Electric Cinema and the Rich Mix – but arguably the most interesting is the relatively unknown Close-up Film Centre on Sclater Street.

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If you do find it, upon entering you’ll find yourself confronted by something quite unique. Over the last decade or so, Damien Sanville (director and founder of the location) has amassed over 20,000 rare books and DVDs, all covering film. It’s this obsessive collecting, something Sanville admits he has done from a very early age, that led to the opening of the cinema and that has kept London’s last physical movie rental service in operation.

‘I moved to London about 20 years ago, having studied Philosophy and Fine Arts in Paris. I got tired of the culture landscape and mentality there. I started Close-Up around the corner from where we are with a small video rental service of about 1,000 films,’ Damien tells us when we catch up with him on a sunny afternoon in the garden area behind his cinema.

‘After a while I got the bug of increasing the collection, and soon after we became a reference [point] in London with regards to the titles we had, still within the business model of a video rental service,’ Damien continues. ‘We wanted to bring in people who weren’t necessarily aware of gems we had in our collection, and that proved successful. Within 10 years or so, we had 20,000 films and they are selected titles too; they are films that are relevant to the history of film.’

Wandering around the shelves that dominate the small space, you can tell instantly that the films and books on offer are not your average bestsellers or blockbusters. Close-Up, which also held a film club at the iconic nearby venue of Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, is a reflection of the tastes of Sanville, and this is probably what has kept the rental business going where everyone else has stopped.

Coffee and books at Close-Up Film Centre

Of course, Netflix played a part in reshaping the business, but Sanville also highlights the much lambasted ‘gentrification’ of Shoreditch as an agent for change.

‘It was a dramatic shift in demographics,’ he recalls. ‘Rents skyrocketed and people were moving out in huge numbers. At the same time, Netflix took off and we, along with everyone else, thought that was it. To be honest, that end has happened as we are the only video rental place in London. We lost 60 per cent of our business within six months at that time, but luckily I was able to move in here, to this venue, and I also bought up Vertigo film magazine to put it all online.

The landlady, Gwendoline, was open to us saving the library and she also gave us a very low rent deal. We then thought about adding in the screening room and soon realised it was too big an undertaking. Things have grown organically since then, becoming what it is now. There’s no way I would have taken this job on if I knew when I started. It would have been crazy!’

The cinema has both digital and film projectors. When they were installed, Sanville was warned by the British Film Institute (BFI) that films he was looking to get via distributors would soon move over to the archives, which in turn meant he had to get two projectors for film as that was a requirement legal archival compliance. This adds to the overheads, but also means the allure of watching classics on film, similar to the richer experience of vinyl over digital, is maintained.

Close-Up Film Centre

It has taken a while for Sanville and his team to understand why this venue has seen such a variation in attendance. The initial mistake was to think that Close-Up would get pop-up type numbers through the door. Sanville also admits that they were initially wrong to blame London for poor box-office returns. ‘It takes a while to build up trust and build partnerships. We’re stable now, and there is no panic. We’re fine-tuning, but we will never compromise on the types of films we show and why we show them. We have repertory cinema and also a lot of lesser-known films and directors. We also do a lot of experimental cinema, and that has seen us established as a serious cinema.’

One would think that the location is a help, not a hindrance, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘We’re not tapping into the South Bank audience,’ says Sanville, speaking of the area a few miles away that is home to the BFI and the National Film Theatre (NFT).

‘The people that go to the NFT don’t really come here as we don’t appeal. Shoreditch is fashion, apps, graffiti and drunken people at the weekend. A large portion of London think of it as a shithole, and in some way I don’t blame them. If I didn’t live here for all those years before, I wouldn’t not have found it “cool”. Having said that, I don’t really know where else in London we would be able to do better. You put this place in New York though, say Brooklyn, and it would be a full house every night.’

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of the cinema and film culture across the pond. One fascinating fact that Sanville leave us with is this: over the last two years there hasn’t been any increase OR decrease in the membership side of things. This means the rental business, for better or worse, has plateaued. The only real issue is the technology itself. DVDs, once heralded as the future of film preservation as well as viewership, are prone to destroying themselves by developing a fungus growth over time.

The humble VHS never had this problem…

For a full list of titles available and to see the latest additions, visit the Close-Up Film Centre website.

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