The Whiteladies Picture House has the opportunity to be turned into a new cinema after 13 years of sitting empty.
Yet its future is currently the subject of an increasingly bitter dispute between two rival plans.
The first is a well-meaning yet ultimately futile scheme proposed by the Whitleladies Picture House Ltd, which includes the retention of the main auditorium space as a 580-seat theatre and cinema screen, a separate 60-seat cinema under the existing balcony and the reinstatement of the historic foyer and ballroom.
The second is from the Everyman chain of cinemas, who will invest in the region of £3 million fitting out the cinema and have already signed a legally binding contract with the building’s owner David Lewin, who is himself committing a further £1 million.
Subject to planning permission, a three-screen cinema could be open as early as next year, with restoration of the ornate ceiling in the auditorium, the marble columns in the foyer and the tower.
There are also plans for flats in the part of the building that was previously used as offices by Odeon and in the empty roof space above.
Regardless of the contentious issue of these flats, which should have no negative impact on the functioning of any new cinema, this second scheme is the one that Bristol desperately needs.
In Maida Vale, west London, the Everyman cinema on Sutherland Avenue (above) gives some indication of what Bristol could have if Everyman are given the chance to take on the Whiteladies Road building.
Walking up a small flight of stairs lined with vintage film posters and the smell of popcorn means this can only be a cinema.
And yet it is also so much more – there is a well-stocked bar, books about filmmaking on the shelves and old cameras dotted about.
Maida Vale is one of Everyman’s newest cinemas. It was opened in November 2011 in what used to be a restaurant and nightclub and has two screens, the larger screen one with 109 seats, while screen two with only 40 seats has a similar feel in terms of space to the Orpheus.
The cinema seats are something recognisably Everyman. Most are double sofas, with a few singles and triples, all with cushions, footrests, even wine coolers positioned to one side.
“I love to see how people react to our seats,” says Everyman area manager Eileen O’Shea (above) when I visited her in Maida Vale earlier this week.
“Taking their shoes off, stretching out. A big part of what we do is making people feel comfortable, as if they are at home, from a matinee with a cup of coffee to a big celebration night.”
The Everyman story began in 2000 when entrepreneur David Broch bought his local cinema in Hampstead. In 2008 the ambitious group acquired the Screen chain of London venues.
Recent openings in Winchester and Leeds have spread their tentacles outside of London for the first time, with a Birmingham venue due to open later this year.
O’Shea started working behind the bar in Hampstead before managing that cinema. She is now in charge of all 10 Everyman cinemas and is hoping to be helping to open in Bristol before too long.
“You walk through Clifton and think we could offer a little bit more,” she said as we chatted over coffee in the Maida Vale bar.
“The Watershed is a great space and we won’t be competing with it. If you look at London, we sit nicely alongside other cinemas. It’s a different offering.
“We offer what we think the area would like. Everyman does not look at what other cinemas are doing. It looks at how we can fit in.
“There’s a sense of ownership at an Everyman. I see people taking their friends and families on tours. That’s quintessentially Everyman.”
Films currently on show in Maida Vale are The Grand Budapest Hotel, Labor Day and Yves Saint Laurent.
“I think we’re at our best when we open to the public before a film,” O’Shea said.
“There’s always a great atmosphere as people have a drink, maybe a pizza, catch up with friends, then stay on afterwards to discuss the movie.”
Everyman has the money. It has the experience. And it will bring back to life the Whiteladies Picture House far better than any community group, however committed, who are relying on public fundraising for their own scheme.
With such an eminently sensible plan from Everyman in place, it would be inconceivable if it becomes derailed by a rival scheme with admirably good intentions but nothing else, and who in essence only want the same thing – the return of a cinema to Whiteladies Road.