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Bury St Edmunds' Abbeygate Cinema reveal ambition behind plan to expand

They are not screening wall-to-wall blockbusters, supercharging auditoriums with sensory thrills or showing films in 3D.

But Abbeygate Cinema is modernising in a way that could inspire independent businesses and ensure a longer-lasting relevance than by embracing a fad.

In our latest Love Local feature, a series sharing ideas of how independent businesses can thrive, Abbeygate’s marketing manager Andrea Holmes has shared the cinema’s unique vision.

Head Chef Alex Rotherham and Marketing Manger Andrea Holmes
Head Chef Alex Rotherham and Marketing Manger Andrea Holmes

Abbeygate’s roots in Bury St Edmunds date back to the 1920s when it started out as an entertainment venue, in what later became the Winners Bingo site.

And now, over the next few months and years, the Hatter Street business will undergo a transformation, which will ultimately see a new foyer, box office, kiosk counter and a centrepiece 180-seat auditorium added, along with a small luxury preview screen.

It might be a while before the curtain is raised at the new screen, but the recent start of building work is already a major step forward.

Read more: Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds sets up 2020 Building Blocks Fundraising Campaign to help with major redevelopment

Behind closed doors at Abbeygate Cinema
Behind closed doors at Abbeygate Cinema

Andrea said: “We have tried so many times before. It has been talked about for a long time. Now it is properly starting and it’s an exciting time. For us, the mood is great and the customers are really behind us.”

Abbeygate has built up a large fanbase which seeks an alternative to a multiplex environment. Put in film terms, its managers got behind the Oscar-winning drama Green Book but decided to leave Avengers: Endgame to the town’s Cineworld.

“We are one of two cinemas in the town, but we deal with different customer bases,” Andrea said. “We have a niche beyond blockbuster films, and also show art or event cinema. The expansion will allow us to have more screenings of the films we have as we often sell out.”

As regulars will appreciate, all of Abbeygate’s staff are dedicated film buffs and its management know customer service is important. But Andrea also knows change is needed to keep their offering exciting.

“We have got to keep up with what is happening in the town and meeting the demand,” she said. “If we did not keep evolving we would risk losing customers.

“All businesses are finding it a struggle at the moment. Our business does depend on what films are being made. But cinemas still get people out, that is why we are building on our offering. A ticket price here is not out of the affordability range and we hope that if people are wondering what to do at the weekend they might still consider coming here and do more than see a film.”

Head Chef Alex Rotherham and Marketing Manger Andrea Holmes
Head Chef Alex Rotherham and Marketing Manger Andrea Holmes

In analysing the high street, retailers have previously told the Bury Free Press that shops could look to increase the type and kind of service they provide under one roof.

This has been true at Abbeygate for a number of years, with their No.4 Restaurant and Bar becoming a destination in its own right.

“With No. 4 we want it to be a venue in its own entity, for it to be thought of as a place to come for a meal or a coffee – and that it doesn’t have to be followed by a film,” Andrea said.

Alex Rotherham has been head chef with Abbeygate since 2012. He said: “It has got to the point where half of all our sales come through the restaurant. In other venues where they do both it is usually 90 per cent cinema.

“We buy from local producers so all of the funds stay locally.

Read more: Building work for transformation at Abbeygate Cinema, in Bury St Edmunds, is under way

Works are ongoing to improve the Abbeygate Cinema offering
Works are ongoing to improve the Abbeygate Cinema offering

Get to know your Abbeygate Cinema staff a little better by finding out their favourite films.

Chris Peters

Project manager

Favourite Film: The Fifth Element

Most-anticipated film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Alex Rotherham

Head chef

Favourite Film: The Breakfast Club

Most-anticipated film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Andrea Holmes

Marketing manager

Favourite Film: Erin Brokovich

Most-anticipated film: Star Wars - Episode IX

Claire Brimelow

Staff member

Favourite Film: Devil Wears Prada

Most-anticipated film: Downton Abbey (and also Frozen 2!)

Bradley Troughton

Staff member

Favourite Film: Airplane

Most-anticipated film: Missing 411: The Hunted

“There are challenges. A lot of people think you have to go to the cinema to come in here, so for new customers we have to coax them in. We do have our regular clientèle.”

The cinema has been a fully independent entity for several years, having previously been run by Picturehouse. This has allowed easier decision-making for managers to adapt to suit the audiences in Bury.

Intriguingly, the venue is now set to expand into the bingo hall next door – the same site where Abbeygate originated. But in moving back to the past, the management has its focus on the future. Part of this is by replicating the experience of a night at the theatre or opera in London for an audience that live 80 miles away through event cinema and the restaurant. But there is also a greater goal to make Bury the best it can be – and by working with other groups and businesses around the town to deliver that.

Andrea said: “We have a great culture offering in Bury. We want to expand on that. We will be screening the Summer MET encore and we want our customers to have that live experience.

“We want to include every area we can. Not everyone is into shopping but that shouldn’t be the only thing a town centre can provide. We are working with the Theatre Royal and Apex to draw people in. We want to make it an appealing town, there are a lot of lovely things here.

“Events like the Wolf Trail, the Theatre Royal Star Trail and Bury St Edmunds & Beyond gets people to come in from outside areas, and they know we are here.”