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Changing Times | The history of Chichester Cinema at New Park

Situated in the former Chichester Central School (1887 to 1961) in New Park Road, Chichester Cinema at New Park is an independent cinema which screens a range of films across the Indie, World Film and main tream spectrum.


These films are shown in an old-school style auditorium that adds a retro yet comfy character to the cinema-going experience. The 40th anniversary of this much loved arts institution will be celebrated in 2019.


The cinema originated away from its current location. It was started by Roger Gibson (who remains the artistic consultant and festival director today) at the Chichester College of Arts and Technology when he founded the Chichester College Adult Education Film Society in September, 1979.


Films were shown one evening a week for 24 weeks, plus a Saturday junior film club. Presentations were also held on Thursday evenings and membership was limited to 300. Films were mainly shown in the 250-seat College Hall which was equipped with a 25 feet screen, while others were shown in the 70 seat Lecture Theatre. The first film shown was Woody Allen’s Love and Death on September 20, 1979.


In 1982, the society’s name was changed to the Chichester College Film Society. From the very beginning, the society focused on World Cinema and independent English-speaking films, plus the occasional box office hit. Retrospectives including five lost Hitchcock classics were also shown.


In1986 the Chichester City Film Society moved to its present home in the New Park Community Centre at New Park Road. The New Park building dates from 1887 and the cinema is housed in what were originally two classrooms that had been divided by a sliding partition. Films were shown on Thursdays and Fridays only.


Instant membership became available on the door to anyone over 16 years of age. In these early days, the seats were plastic on a level floor and the films were shown by a secondhand projector, which had its problems.


When raked seating was introduced, it had to be moved back as far as possible at the end of the evening as the space was also used by a playgroup each morning. In 1988, a 35mm projector was installed and the cinema began operating seven days a week with Dolby stereo sound.


The year 1992 was a landmark one for the cinema as it saw the launch of the Chichester International Film Festival. Directors, writers, critics and actors such as Sir Alec Guinness, Katherine Turner, Ken Russell and Daniel Brühl have visited and given talks over the years. The star-studded history of the cinema is not just confined to the films being shown, a look at the cinema’s film brochure will show Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Kenneth Branagh have attached their names to this Chichester cultural institution as vice-presidents.


Evolution has played a key role in the cinema’s history and August, 2008, saw the first open-air screening at Chichester Cathedral as High Society launched the 17th Chichester International Film Festival.


This has developed into two open-air screenings every August in Priory Park to launch the annual film festival. A film-loving spirit has been, and still is, an important and integral part of the cinema’s essence, which the strong volunteer base, the Friends of Chichester Cinema at New Park and regular patrons can attest to.


In 2012, the cinema saw the need to keep up with the quickly changing technology which seemed to be pushing aside the tried and tested 35mm format. With the incredible help of the cinema’s Friends group, £60,000 was raised in under than six months to buy a digital projector and other necessary equipment. The money also led to the installation of two satellite receivers and dishes which enable the cinema to screen live performance events from anywhere in the world.


Although the impending 40th anniversary attests to the popularity and durability of Chichester Cinema at New Park, its course has not always been plain sailing.


The site has faced the threat of demolition on at least three occasions, but has survived each one.


The cinema is currently managed by Walter Francesco and his box office and projection team and has become a mainstay for film fans across the area.


Compiled by Mark Anthony Jeffery, volunteer at The Novium Museum

Picture: West Sussex Records Office

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