Campaigners in last minute bid to halt cinema land sale

Hana Rajabally talks to East Finchley cinemagoers who say Phoenix Cinema trustees have the wrong plan for sustainability

The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley
The Phoenix Cinema – (Credit – Amanda Stockley)

Campaigners are urging a much-loved community cinema in East Finchley not to go ahead with its plans to sell some of its land to fund the construction of a second screen.

Trustees of The Phoenix Cinema on High Road, which is a registered charity, made the decision to sell the land behind the cinema, which it has owned for 40 years.

However, local campaigners argue that the decision to sell the land has been rushed due to the Phoenix being in a position of financial difficulty – and that trustees should take more time to think about the best ways of making use of the land.

A petition launched in February has so far reached over 800 signatures from those opposed to the sale. While Barnet Post understands that the sale is in the process of going through, campaigners are still determined to stop it.

Ruth Kersley, an artist based in East Finchley and long-time member of the Phoenix’s community ‘friends’ scheme, has been vocal in her opposition to the land sale and started the petition against it alongside other concerned campaigners.

She said: “There was no consultation, and it seemed like they were rushing this through.”

Husband Stephen Kersley, also a long-time member of the community friends scheme, said: “We just couldn’t believe it. We got together and found there was an immense concern that this hadn’t been advertised.”

He refers to a previous attempt to secure the cinema’s future through a merger with the Curzon chain in 2018, which was abandoned following a local outcry: “The reaction was so great that the Trust stopped the merger with the Curzon. It is the same situation with the land sale. Why didn’t they consult with anyone?”

In this instance, trustees have no plans to change the cinema’s proudly independent status. A statement on the cinema’s website explains that the sale of the land – which was listed on Zoopla for offers of ‘over £400,000’ is part of: “a plan to secure a more sustainable future for the cinema.”

It adds: “This involves creating a small second screen within the main building in the former café area and updating the foyer and main auditorium to provide a better experience for our customers.”

In the Q&A that follows it states regarding the land being sold: “The Phoenix has owned this land for 40 years but has never made good use of it or found a way that any building on it could be linked to the main cinema, due to the listed features in the main auditorium which we need to protect.”

Campaigners dispute the Trust’s claim that the land is very small and unused, and should therefore be sold.

Ruth said: “The land is quite valuable for the Phoenix. It is used for servicing the back of the cinema, and as a car park. It is let out for hires which represents quite a significant source of income.”

She continued: “The trust maintains there’s no purpose to maintaining the land but it could be the future for the Phoenix.”

Rachael Harvey, a commercial property designer and another Phoenix community Friends scheme member, did a design appraisal of the Phoenix Cinema and the proposed second screen.

She produced a design suggestion for a second screen that would enable it to host 30-50 seats, which she argues is the “golden number” for a second screen, by being built within the auditorium of the main building.

Rachael told Barnet Post that she was very concerned about both the impact of the land sale on the Phoenix Cinema itself, and the viability of a second screen with only 15 seats.

Rachael said: “How can you operate the cinema when there are diggers right there – have they factored in these thoughts? My gut feel is that they haven’t thought this through.

“Their proposals seem designed to fail.”

Trustees argue that these proposals for a second screen inside the auditorium would not get round Historic England’s requirements to protect the listed status of the main building.

The main auditorium has a 1910 Edwardian barrel vaulted ceiling as well as 14 Art Deco panels by interior designers Mollo & Egan from the 1930s on the side walls.

Responding to the wider allegations about failure to consult Friends of the cinema on the land sale, chair of trustees, Alison Gold told Barnet Post: “We’ve not hidden anything. The piece of land was put up for sale, on Zoopla. There’s been no attempt to hide what we’re doing.”

Alison said the trustee board had consulted a wider group of ‘company members’ on the sale at the charity’s AGM in January and received unanimous support for the plans.

Under the charity’s constitution, members are a small group of up to 50 people invited by trustees to share legal responsibility for the charity and hold trustees to account. They are distinct from members of charity’s friends scheme such as Ruth, Stephen and Rachael.

Alison explains the distinction: “We do have a membership scheme, but it’s very much about getting you discounted tickets, a few free tickets every year. There’s no suggestion that it brings a decision-making role and we couldn’t really do that because there are over a thousand members.”

She adds: “Charity trustees aren’t really allowed to do that anyway, the Charity Commission is very clear that if you’re a charity trustee, you have to take responsibility for the decision. So you can’t just put it out there and say ‘what does everyone else think?’, you have to own the decision, and that’s what we have done.”

While this approach is disputed by campaigners, Barnet Post understands that it has also prompted concerns within the cinema’s staff team. A former member of staff, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Barnet Post that that trustees’ approach to consultation amounted to: “a bad faith interpretation of what a community cinema is and of what the role of members is.”

They added: “The members are important stakeholders. They could have run a consultation and taken in views in the community. It’s supposed to be a cinema for the people, run by the people,” citing the pledge proudly written on the Phoenix Cinema website.

The former staff member also told Barnet Post that staff had not been consulted about the land sale, and that staff raised this point to the Board publicly at a meeting.

Alison disputes this point saying: “We talked to staff about it well before we went ahead to put it on sale. So we talked about it with people we thought were very familiar with the cinema and with the company members who have a formal role to hold us to account.”

The former staff member argues that the desire for a land sale for a “quick injection of cash” demonstrated a wider problem within the cinema’s board of trustees.

“I think there’s a deep-seated, fundamental lack of ambition on behalf of the trustees. A real reluctance to fundraise, a real lack of creative ambition, and a real unwillingness to build and grow,” they told Barnet Post.

While understandings of the process and how it has been conducted may differ, it is clear that trustees have a big problem to solve. Charity Commission data shows the cinema’s

income has dropped by 20% since before the Covid-19 pandemic from £755,000 in the year ending March 2020 to £609,000 in the year end March 2023.

Despite the lower income, trustees have successfully stabilised the situation over the past two years however the organisation’s most recent accounts hint at problems ahead.

While the organisation made a small loss of just over £11,257, this situation was significantly due to receiving a grant of £92,513 from the final part of the government’s post-Covid Culture Recovery Fund administered by the British Film Institute.

The accounts explain that while income from cinema admissions was higher in 2023 than 2022 the overall picture is very difficult: “This level of admissions is also just one third of its level 10 years earlier, reflecting the growth in local competition to the Phoenix since 2015, as well as lower cinema going across the UK since the pandemic, due to some changes in audience habits, but also a lack of compelling film titles due to production halts and delays during the pandemic.”

With the cinema facing big challenges and strong feelings on both sides, a planned meeting between campaigners and trustees was cancelled after the two sides failed to agree to the conditions of the meeting, with campaigners demanding an independent chair to mediate and trustees only agreeing to a meeting over which they would preside.

As Barnet Post went to press, campaigners were planning to hold a meeting of East Finchley residents at East Finchley Constitutional Club on Wednesday (24th April) and had invited trustees to attend for ‘a friendly and helpful discussion’.

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