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The Cinemas of London: Which one is for you?

Image By Dave Pearce

Staff Writer Joe Breuer ranks their experiences of some of their favourite cinemas in London

Since finishing my research for this article, it’s time that I admit I have a problem. It’s nothing serious, but like most addictions, the cinema is an expensive hobby. I cannot go more than a couple of weeks without paying a visit, or my neck gets all itchy. Tunnels of light in which we tell the most powerful stories. But living in the post-covid-streaming-service wastelands, it’s no wonder that the humble cinema struggles to survive. Even more so when life only grows more expensive, something life in London has always been a winner at.

Although it hurts me to admit it, most uni students don’t have the time nor the funds to visit the cinema more than once or twice a year. Thus, I have put my addiction to good use to rate the very best cinemas of London so you know where to spend your time, and more importantly your money. Accounting for prices, programming, events, service and distinctive features. The list is in no particular order of ranking, but I have given them arbitrary ratings out of 100 so you have a general gist of my experience.
I should mention that I am limiting this list to only one cinemas per chain, as there are hundreds in London. And Circuit Laundry isn’t cheap.

Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square:

Ticket price range: £7.00-14.00
Films seen: Ghost in The Shell, Mulholland Drive, Akira, Badlands, Days of Heaven, Tokyo Story, Paris Texas, A Brighter Summer’s Day, Repo Man, Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love, Eraserhead, Eyes Without A Face, Interstellar, You Were Never Really Here, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Perfect Blue, Paths of Glory, Phantom Thread... Too many.
Experience rating: 95/100

I didn’t want to show bias between my children, but full disclosure… this is my personal favourite. So much so that I bought lifetime membership. And I am not alone, with the Prince Charles Cinema being the favourite of so many big name directors including Paul Thomas Anderson and Tarantino. The Prince Charles Cinema (which has not and will not change its name) is the only independent cinema in Leicester Square. A visit to the PCC can be like a quick trip back to the 70s, a palimpsest of film history. The only thing missing is the stench of a cigarette smokescreen. The downstair screen has maintained its classic texture.

My favourite part is the programme of films. Simply outstanding. I’m talking about all the classics of previous decades, big or small, and the newest in indie hits. Showing in digital, 4K, and even special 35mm and 70mm. Furthermore, the Prince Charles offers frequent events including sing-a-longs, quote-a-longs, all-nighters, double-bills and Q&As. The upstairs screen is a notably more modern, albeit a smaller space than the downstairs screen but it is an equal delight. Audiences at the Prince Charles are typically respectful of whatever arthouse nonsense I am watching that day, but that’s not to say the place is at all snobbish; upon many of my visits it has not been at all surprising for audiences to laugh along and even clap and cheer together by the end. The staff are efficient and colloquial. In my experience it’s also the best cinema on this list for a date night… just saying.

BFI IMAX, Waterloo:

Ticket price range: £18.00-25.00
Film seen: The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One, Alien + Aliens, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Dune: Part Two.
Experience Rating: 79/100.

This is, without doubt, the most expensive cinema on the list. I’d know, I worked there over the summer. And visitors would never stop telling me how expensive their ticket was like there was anything I could do about it, while I shovelled their large popcorn at 8:30am. I’d respond “Yeah, but I guess that’s the price you pay for quality!” By which I wanted to say “DUDE. YOU BOUGHT THE TICKETS!” But despite my thickly veiled exhaustion, I wasn’t lying. This cinema is the largest in the UK and arguably one of the best in Europe. At least in terms of scale. You can’t miss it, only a mere stone’s throw from Strand Campus, this enormous circular structure on the Southbank facilitates a single (500 person capacity) screen. It is one of the only cinemas in the world with a capable projection team that can simultaneously project both 15inch 70mm IMAX film and laser projection.

If that means nothing to you, understand that it is the best possible way to see a film you could imagine. You can see every drop of rain and grain of sand in excrutiating detail, and the image takes up the entireity of the screen. Said screen is sublime in scale. I’m talking 25.9 meters wide and 19.8 meters high, 8 double-decker buses they tell me. There’s good reason most blockbuster premiers take place here. The seating is incredibly comfy, depending on what seat quality you choose. Hence the sheer range in ticket price. In order to stay afloat on such a scale, the film on display is typically whatever is the biggest release at a given time. However, there are often huge events including all-nighters and marathons as well as big-name IMAX classics. Especially the films of Christopher Nolan, with this being his favourite cinema in the world and all. Price is the main negative for this place, espeically if you get a bad seat low down or far to the sides. Or both. But if you’re particularly anticipating a specific blockbuster film, this is the place to see it. That is, if you’re willing to sell your soul to pay the price. I did.

Genesis Cinema, Mile End/Stepney Green:

Ticket price range: £3.00-9.00
Films Seen: Decisions to Leave, Knives Out: Glass Onion, Possession, Your Name, Creed 3, Akira, The Wicker Man, The Host, Enys Men, The Hunt, Petite Maman, Paprika, Cruising.
Experience rating: 89/10

Swinging to the other end of the budgetary spectrum, the Genesis is one of the cheapest on the list. But that cheapness does not reflect in the place itself. It’s certainly nothing fancy but you really can feel the love put into this place. Some Thursdays have £3 tickets. On particularly miserable Thursdays whilst living East last year, an easy way to spend my day would involve buying 3 tickets for £9 and watching whatever was on.

The main screen upsstairs is the largest and best. Downstairs screens are smaller and somewhat dingy, but that’s a fair price to pay for the price you get to pay. Some screens include sofas and side tables and sometimes staff to go order further snacks if you’d like. Likely in order to compete with The Everyman chain. Generally tickets are around the £5 mark which is still remarkably cheap for central London. Cheaper than a pint anyways. This is often subject to change. Although the Genesis more than makes up their money with the the food prices. And you can’t smuggle any in, regular security guard and friendly face Manny makes sure of that. Whilst the previous two cinemas do have bars, the Genesis functions more as a space to hang out, with a bar, a pizza stand, a downstairs cafe, sofas and area showcasing local artists. The stairs are decorated with two gorgeous hand painted murals of The Matrix and actor Steve McQueen. They also offer varying and regular events including poetry nights, fan events, TV quizes, minor film festivals, a regular schedule of film clubs for niche interests in classic cinema (I often frequent Rochester Kino and Bar Trash) as well as anniversary screenings.

This is my best pick for students without a doubt. It’s easy to find, showing a great range of films on several screens, mostly whatever is new that week. On a rainy day after lectures, I promise you this is your best bet.

BFI Southbank, Southbank:

Ticket price range: £3.00-10.00
Films seen: Barbie, Jeanne Dielman 23 Commerce Quay 1080, Titane, Fallen Angels, Rashamon, Dog Day Afternoon.
Overall experience: 95/100

This is probably the best on the list. Although not my favourite, it is impossible to deny the BFI Southbank’s world renown reputation. Before I go any further, I must first mention that the BFI offers a free Under 25 membership which comes with £3 tickets for most screenings and cheaper tickets for the many big events that take place. Which include Hollywood Q&As, big name industry professionals in conversation, early previews of new movies or upcoming TV series.

The building itself is an architectrual treat. Integrated seamlessly underneath Waterloo Bridge, the BFI finds itself situated between its brutalist neighbour the National Theatre on one side, and post-modern Southbank Centre to the other. The interior includes the Ruben library, media archives, gift shop for all your film-nerd needs, two modernist cafes and bars, a restraunt, a gallery, a riverfront balcony beneath the bridge. The hallways are adorned with iconic posters of international film history.

NFT1, the largest screen at the Southbank is breathtaking. There are only four screens yet this does not diminish the BFI’s efficency as a cinema. The programming is frankly second to none. Ranging from the most significant historical films from abroad and the UK, to newest films of that season. Speaking of seasons, the Southbank has monthly seasons on, which highlight vital directors or movements in film history. Only downside is there are no cinema snacks available for purchase, but they do not stop you from bringing in your own. They haven’t caught me yet anyways.

Picturehouse Central, Picadilly:

Ticket price range: £11.00-18.00
Films seen: Zone of Interest, All of Us Strangers, Saltburn, Anatomy of a Fall, Belle.
Experience rating: 68/100

I have a mixed relationship with the Picturehouse Central. I have had some wonderful early mornings there seeing press screening films at the London Film Festival. Not showing off, just saying.

The interior itself is lovely. Atmosphere wise the place is gorgeous to look at and simply be in, especially during Festival season when I visited. People would play chess and debate about the films. Sadly, it is not always like this but I would be remiss not to mention it. Tucked away inbetween Picadilly and Soho you wouldn’t assume such a small building would be so much bigger on the inside. The vibe is unmatched, but vibe and vibe alone is pretty much all the place has going for it.

I don’t want to be mean or pick on anyone, but compared to the others on the list, the price you have to pay for Picturehouse Central is frankly not worth it. It’s boujee, without doubt, but you may as well visit the IMAX at that rate. The seating is the most comfy and can recline naturally. And the cinemas themselves are really pleasant. It’s average screen is a lot nicer than, perhaps the Genesis. But not that much nicer it is worth dropping almost 20 quid for a night out you can easily experience somewhere else sadly. The Picturehouse is perhaps the overrated player of the list.

Peckhamplex, Peckham (obviously):

Ticket price range: £5.99-6.00
Films seen: Poor Things, Wicked Little Letters.
Overall experience: 74/100.

If Peckham is the heart of London, and the heart of Peckham is Rye Lane, then Peckhamplex is at the very centre of the neighbourhood’s spirit. Known for its low prices and commitment to quality, Peckhamplex is a testament to the cinema’s place in bringing communities together.

Peckhamplex opened in 1994, however only came to be its current form in 2010. Although young compared to many established picturehouses on the list, you can feel this place’s history permating. The exterior is decorated with portraits of iconic black figures in cinema. Whilst the inside is a healthy dose nostalgia, with an early 2000s aesthetic emphasising effervescent pink detailing and cineamtic history. The staff are super friendly; not in that customer-service facade but with honesty and warmth. They care for both the cinema and cinema as a whole. The 6 screens vary in size and scale, but are equal in comfort, and the events that take place are usually engaged with the surrounding community. My only complaint: slightly sticky carpet.

Sadly, one of my screening was somewhat empty so I didn’t get to gague the audience particularly. What I did see, however, was some young lad’s first ever trip to the cinema with their Mum, likely no older than 4. Thankfully they were not on their way to my showing of Poor Things. I cannot overstate that it was really something special for me to see. So, if you are ever in the area, rain or shine, show Peckhamplex some support because it’s really the place to be.

Vue, Stratford Westfields:

Ticket price range: £7.00-13.00
Films seen: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, GOTG, GOTG: Vol 3.
Overall experience: 70/100

Oh, Stratford Westfields. Your reputation precedes you my dear. Seriously, I need a compass to navigate my way through Westfields’ labirynth of restraunt chains, but once I waded my way through the hordes of shoppers and social media interviewers, it’s not so bad. This seems like a rogue choice for the list, I know, but I felt a need to include it for the sake of balance. There are only so many pretentious independent cinemas you can fit in one list, and the variation in location makes this note worthy.

Although not an IMAX cinema the scale and format size is certainly of note given the reasonable price. At least compared to the many smaller screen indepent cinemas on the list. Every screen in the Vue Stratford, of which there are many, are all decidedly large and in striking visual quality. With seating that is perhaps most comfy on the list and ample legroom.

Built in 2012 for the London Olypics, the Vue Stratford is highly modern and improved to keep up with an everchanging cinema landscape. Other than its location, there is not much of note nor that is special. But if you ever find yourself in Westfield’s limbo of shops, you can find a fairly priced and reliable refuge in the Vue.

The Garden Cinema, Covent Garden:

Ticket price range: £5.00-12.00.
Films seen: Perfect Days.
Overall experience: 84/100.

Only recently opened, the Garden Cinema is the newest establishment on the list. I think it wins in the design department with its unbelieveable interior. A silky and dark artdeco aesthetic. What makes The Garden Cinema worth mentioning is its £5 matinees. Mix this with its proximity to Strand campus and you have a deadly combination for my wallet. Only a 5 minute walk from Bush House if you dordle, I found it necessary to place on the list due to its geographic significance to Strand Campus.

The staff were quick and friendly. It also has an interesting line-up of films, including a recent showing of the Wallace and Gromit movies that I begrudgingly missed. Events include cinephilic arthouse screenings, charity screenings, family activies and talks. Overall, while little seperates the Garden Cinema from some of the other independent cinemas already mentioned, given it is this far down the list, it certainly gets my seal and smile of approval.

Curzon Cinema, Aldgate:

Ticket price range: £9.00-18.50.
Films seen: Beau is Afraid, Suzume.
Overall experience: 75/100.

The Curzon may not have my love, but it does have my respect. Curzon, as a distributor and a chain, promote and support countless independent films, some of the very best from abroad. The scheduling is diverse and rich, showing a balanced diet of independent and blockbuster films. My main qualm with Cuzon is the popcorn is too small for my sheer gluttony, and the screens to match. But staff are frequently friendly and of great service. Aldgate Curzon itself is nestled away but a pleasure to pay a visit. And Curzon Mayfair is a favourite of Sir Steve McQueen I might add, described as one of the last great cinemas in London. If you do decide your nearby Curzon is the one for you, a membership certainly helps as tickets aren’t cheap at peak hours.

Every interior is sleek and clean, modernism in its simplest. Often sinking deep into the London ground to fit as many screens as possible. Events include live broadcast of productions, Q&As and previews. Plus they have the best loos on the list in my opinion. With 5 locations across the city, the chances are wherever in London you may be a Curzon cinema isn’t too far. That’s a good slogan, please hire me.

Yet to be visited honourable mentions:
Rio Cinema, Dalston. Has a nice sign, not the cheapest comparatively.
Screen on the Green, Islington Everyman owned, iconic staple.



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