Graham Young meets Tom Lawes ahead of the Electric Cinema’s centenary.
Just six years ago, Birmingham’s Electric Cinema was a crumbling shell of a building with a leaking roof and a basement piled high with rubbish.
Today, proud owner Tom Lawes’ £750,000 investment has created his very own ‘boutique’, two-screen picture house where comfortable, premium-rated sofa seats with waiter service have created a recession-busting little goldmine.
Screen 1 has just 108 seats (24 sofa, 82 standard) and Screen 2 has 78 seats (12 sofa, 66 standard) but admissions have increased ten fold to 50,000.
With a £500,000 turnover, Tom also now claims to outperform local multiplexes with independent films.
The upstairs second screen was reopened 18 months ago with a dedicated digital projector.
And there are plans to convert the main screen too – thus helping the Electric to potentially soon lay claim to being the Midlands’ first all-digital cinema.
But first, there’s the little matter of turning 100 years old on December 27, 2009 when Britain’s ‘oldest working cinema’ will become an ever-increasingly important tourist destination in its own right.
Today, with 15 employees, the man who has never even wanted the hassle of considering an appeal for public funding is a role model for anybody worried about the recession.
Even now, his bank tells him that he’s so efficient it would be a pleasure for them to lend him some money if he wants any.
Yet Tom left Handsworth Grammar School at the age of 16.
As a touring musician/roadie, he was in London to witness the birth of Creation Records.
The experience clearly fired a process which had already begun in his boyhood subconscious...
The first film Tom remembers seeing on TV is The Sound of Music. And his first cinema movie was The Rescuers, about a mouse rescue society operating out of the UN basement.
Now he’s a cinema owner whose separate music production/sound dubbing business, which kept the Electric afloat during that difficult first year, is in his own Station St basement.
Once the country’s youngest TV composer with All Quiet on the Preston Front, Tom has also shot his own feature film Demagogue (which had a DVD release in Germany) and directed and designed multi-million selling touch screen Sega games of Weakest Link, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Banzai and The Crystal Maze.
Tom’s television audio work might have shrivelled in the recession, but he’s still planning ahead.
The cinema’s website will soon relaunch with lots of footage detailing its history and facilities to help bring customers in from ever further afield.
Cinemagoers will even be able to record their reviews ready for uploading to the site.
Fancy some comedy? Check out Barbara Nice here on either December 14 or 15, with more nights to come.
Tom has already had customers travel from Scotland and, such is our love of cinema, the curiosity just keeps snowballing.
All he really had to do was to work out just who his audience should be.
“I asked myself: ‘Do people not want to watch specialist movies in Birmingham?’, or is it the fact that the venues are just not run very well,” he says.
“Family and friends helped me to renovate the building, though after remortgaging my house and taking out another £15,000 loan, I’d spent £14,850 of that by the time we were opening.
“That meant I had just £150 to spend on alcohol. We gave everyone a free drink and luckily, then sold £300 worth which enabled us to buy some more.”
Tom has let London-based specialists City Screen run the programme that’s always part mainstream, part eclectic independence.
The increasingly broad, loyal audience doesn’t mind paying more for the sofa seats because the Electric is not a cliquey arthouse that excludes ordinary people. The only cloud on Tom’s horizon now is the fact that the Electric’s lease expires in 15 years.
He plans to investigate the matter with Vyse Estates soon, while predicting that were he to sell the cinema to the council it would ‘list the building in a flash’.
Tom also stars in his own group, The Electric Cinema Orchestra, which does mean versions of hits like Live and Let Die. But what is even more amazing is that he’s also recently fathered two children by two different women.
Daughter Clara was born three-and-a-half years ago to a previous partner while son Elwood is now four months old. “I have both children at home on a Wednesday,” says Tom with pride. “The more successful the Electric is now, the less work I actually need to do.”
To make the Electric’s centenary even more special, it now has a licence for weddings.
Once again putting his money where his mouth is, Tom will marry fiance Suzie Norton there on September 4, with a reception at the Ikon Gallery.
Now, there’s another story for another day, because she’s the highly-paid CEO of Screen WM, a publicly-funded body responsible for trying to encourage filmmakers into the region, while Tom is still prepared to fall on his own privately-funded sword.
Clearly, the match has produced a spark.
And, as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John might tell you: ‘It’s electrifying’.
* The Electric is at 47-49 Station St, Birmingham B5 4DY. For more details visit www.theelectric.co.uk or call 0121 643 7879.
* The history of the Electric Cinema
* Formerly a taxi rank, The Electric was built out of a converted taxi rank by proprietors Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd.
* 1922 – Renamed as Select Cinema.
* 1931 – On November 14 the cinema closed and became an amusement arcade.
* 1936 – It was rebuilt by the architect Cecil Fillmore as an Art Deco news theatre.
* 1937 – The building added a gallery upstairs (now screen 2) and became the 399-seat Tatler News Theatre.
* 1970 – The cinema becomes The Jacey.
* 1980 – A second screen is added upstairs and the cinema becomes
* 1984 – The Tivoli opens on a strict diet of soft porn and horror.
* 1993 – The cinema is renamed back to The Electric and becomes a two-screen repertory theatre.
* 2004 – Cinema bought by Thomas Lawes Media Ltd.
* 2009 – Classic films on show from December 11 to help celebrate the centenary include Cinema Paradiso, Singin’ In The Rain, The Red Show, It’s a Wonderful Life and Citizen Kane. On December 21, at 6.30pm, Tom Lawes will introduce a centenary evening full of old news reel footage produced through the Electric itself. December 27 – 100th birthday.
* 2010 - New website.