By David A. Ellis.
Charles Morris has been running cinemas for nearly twenty-eight years in northern England. His company is Northern Morris Associated Cinemas Ltd., named after the erstwhile Southan Morris Associated Cinema Circuit. He runs six cinemas, four of which are in Yorkshire and all are over 75 years old. One of his theaters, the Royalty, Bowness-on Windermere (ninety years old next year), is a three-screen cinema where silent classics are often shown with the accompaniment from the Wurlitzer organ.
An enthusiastic independent cinema operator, Charles copes with the now enormous outlay for digital equipment, which can be difficult for the independent exhibitor.
Where were you born and brought up and did you go to the cinema a lot as a child?
I was brought up in Hoylake and saw my first film when I was seven. This was at the Winter Gardens cinema, Hoylake. The film was The Lady and the Tramp. I think that was a good time to go. Some of the kids that come to my cinemas are too young to appreciate it properly. I got totally absorbed in the film on my first visit. I was oblivious to the surroundings, that came later.
At that time did you want to go on a regular basis?
Yes, as often as I could, which involved having to go with my parents and that restricted the visits until I got myself a free pass to go to the Winter Gardens.
How did that come about?
I used to do hand painted adverts for them and nail them on a tree at the front of the house. They came to the notice of the milkman, who knew the cinema manager, passed the word on and I got a free pass to go whenever I wanted. At that time I had already met the projectionist, so I was either up in the box, or watching the films.
What equipment did they have at the Winter Gardens?
They had Ross GC1s, RCA sound and Kalee Universal arcs, which were later, swapped for second hand Peerless. In 1981 the equipment was re-equipped with Westar 2001 machines. The cinema opened in 1911, becoming the Pavilion Super Cinema in 1920 and closed in March 1995 as the Hoylake cinema.
The Peerless was a very popular arc.
Yes, it was. It achieved greater penetration with 3D because a lot of the arcs wouldn’t take the full run of the 5000ft spools, needed for 3D at that time.
The Kalee Regal was similar to the Peerless.
Yes, I have got one of those – it didn’t last long. I heard they were inhibited from marketing it. The mechanism was very similar to the Peerless.
What did you do before running cinemas?
I worked for the Ministry of Defence in engineering, but I always kept part-time cinema jobs.
Why did you decide to run cinemas?
It was this childhood passion, dating from that first cinema visit. I spent the best years of my youth in the Winter Gardens. I also ran film societies at school and university. My wife encouraged me to live my passion.
How did you get the opportunity to run your first cinema?
The very first thing we did in our own right was in Settle, North Yorkshire, where we were on holiday in 1986. We went into the Victoria Hall where they were holding a flea market. At the back of the hall, downstairs I could see these projection ports. One thing led to another and we went to the council about hiring the hall for use as a cinema. We booked it for two months the following summer. We brought in our own 35mm machines. We then ran films on the Fridays and Saturdays for those two months. That was our first commercial venture.
Do you have any favourite 35mm equipment?
My favourite is Kalee. I didn’t know any other machine but Ross for the first ten years of my life. When I was at University we had Kalee 37s in one of the lecture theatres. I think the Kalee 12 was probably the best projector they made. The Kalee 21s were lovely but they were grossly over engineered. They did have their weak points as well.
How long was it before you acquired another cinema?
It was two years before we ran another one. We obtained the Rex at Elland. We had been inspired by the Settle venture. I was definitely on the look out for a cinema then. We lived in Rochdale in those days and we went to Buxton in Derbyshire a lot, because that was a town that needed a cinema. We searched for weeks for suitable premises and found nothing. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of Elland, between Halifax and Huddersfield, which to me was a town that was bottom of the list because it was midway between two towns that already had cinemas. It was by the M62 and it was likely a multiplex would spring up in that area, which indeed it did. We ran the Elland with my friend and his wife – doing half a week each.
Was business affected by the Multiplex?
Well, not really. It took a while to get the cinema going. We were operating for fifteen months before anything significant changed and that was after we managed to get an appearance on local TV. The multiplex had just opened then. Our fortunes improved, but I don’t know if we would have been better without the multiplex. We just got better even though the multiplex was there.
What is your view on multiplex cinemas?
Well, if they hadn’t arrived I don’t know what we would have been left with. At the time of the opening of Milton Keynes in 1984 the cinema in the UK was on its backside. I think the multiplexes rejuvenated the cinema going habit, but unlike many multiplexes we still have lighting effects, tabs and music, just like it used to be.
How many cinemas have you got and are they rented or owned by you?
I have six. I started with the Rex, Elland in 1988. I gave up my engineering career to take over the Royalty Bowness in 1992, and then added the others roughly every four years apart. I also re-opened the ABC Lancaster for three years until the Vue multiplex opened in 2006. I own one cinema, the Plaza, Skipton. The others are rented.
Do you get restrictions on what you can book?
Yes, I take care of all bookings. As for restrictions, not now, but we did when we first started. When we opened Elland we couldn’t get anything less than four weeks old. Sometimes a film would be released in America three months earlier and you might get a load of prints coming over here afterwards. Occasionally a distributor would have prints on his hands and you could get one then. It wasn’t always something you wanted or would do you any good.
How long have you been running cinemas and do you intend to carry on past retirement age?
I have been running them for nearly twenty-eight years. As far as I’m concerned I will continue until I drop.
What equipment do you have in your cinemas?
I have 2K projectors; six Christies and three NEC 800s.
Do you show any live content?
Yes, we have started to do that. I have four cinemas fitted with dishes.
What do you think of digital equipment?
I have always said: “It’s an invention that necessity was not the mother of.” Digital has cost me an absolute fortune. Recently it’s all started to keel over. The equipment is over five years old. We had a server that went down in Bowness and a week later in Elland. It is going to cost me well into four figures just to get them repaired. I’d never spent that kind of money on 35mm in twenty-seven years. It is going to be an on going cost. It is a bonanza for the equipment manufacturers, the installers and repairers. They have never had it so good.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).