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Genesis: the East End’s independent cinema bucking the streaming trend

How Mile End Road’s award-winning cinema, Genesis, continues to attract filmgoers despite the global challenges facing the movie industry.

Located along Mile End Road, Genesis is fundamental to the arts in the East End. Indeed, it has been since the mid-19th century, when its site was a theatre hosting the likes of Charlie Chaplin.

Whilst its exterior may have seen many reinventions, Genesis’s unwavering passion for movies remains unchanged. In fact, it is by platforming alternative cinema and forgotten favourites – cleverly catering to the more esoteric tastes of students from the nearby Queen Mary’s – that Genesis has managed to sustain its audiences.

Genesis is now flying the flag for how independent cinemas are going to survive the latest challenge to cinema-going – the post-pandemic world of streaming at home.

A cinema that’s home from home

Genesis is widely recognised as a cinema that goes above and beyond to provide its viewers with a pleasurable and immersive cinematic experience. Shortlisted in Time Out’s top 50 cinemas in the UK and Ireland, it also won Cinema of the Year in the 24 Screens and Under category at The Big Screen Awards in 2016 and was shortlisted the previous year.

It reliably features all the blockbusters as well as a regular programme of cult classics, re-screening old performances and live-streaming performances such as Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.

Cinema showings at Genesis are more affordable than many of the big chain cinemas, with a standard showing on a Sunday to Wednesday coming in at just a fiver, and remaining under ten pounds at the weekend. Screenings in the boutique Studio 4 and 5, fitted out with comfy sofas, Ottomans and an in-screen bar, are similarly under a tenner.

Genesis offers five screens, including the theatrical Screen 1 which can seat 550 people and retains original architectural features. Genesis was the first commercial cinema to use an immersive cinema lighting system that uses LED panels to create ambient light in the auditorium, reflecting the mood of the scene playing on the screen.

Genesis’ two in-house snack bars offer foods inspired by the East End itself. The Kitchen serves Pieminster pies, bangers and mash and Kray-themed pizza slices, whilst the Grindhouse Cafe serves sandwiches, Nude coffee and delicious Cro-doughs (croissant-doughnut hybrids) from the East End’s famous Rinkoff Bakery.

If you fancy something a little stronger, the upstairs Bar Paragon offers beer, wine and classic cocktails as well as their signature drink, the Paragon Martini.

Bar Paragon in Genesis Cinema, Mile End, East London
Bar Paragon, Genesis Cinema

The Covid-19 pandemic required cinemas to close for the first time since World War II. As restrictions began to ease, Genesis undertook an extensive refurbishment project, fitting Screen 1 with new seating, extending the Kiosk and building the Yard, an outdoor eating and drinking area drawing upon the cinema’s original 19th-century promenade. 

In the face of hot competition from streaming services like Netflix, Genesis has given greater attention to alternative cinema and specially curated film festivals to attract footfall. They welcomed the first Hong Kong Film Festival in 2022; the 30th anniversary of the Raindance Festival in 2023 and, in collaboration with United East End and the Tower Hamlets Trade Council, Genesis is currently hosting a season dedicated to the tradition of ‘Social Realism’ in British cinema.

The Bar Paragon also plays host to a selection of smaller, regular creative and community events. These include live music, poetry readings, Swing evenings and what is called ‘Bar Trash’, screenings of films considered to be the worst movies of all time.

Films served with history and soul

Watching a film at an independent cinema like Genesis brings a different dimension to the movie-watching experience. Rather than being a commodity of corporate giants who funnel you in and out of an anonymous complex in an airless shopping mall, visiting a small indie movie theatre is an intimate experience filled with familiar faces and a fascinating history.

The site on which Genesis now stands has been used for entertainment purposes since the mid-19th century. The first building on the site was a pub that opened in 1848 which then turned into a music hall. After that building was destroyed by fire in 1884, the owners hired architect Frank Matcham to design a replacement theatre that opened in 1885 under the name Paragon Theatre of Varieties.

Matcham’s revolutionary design of the building helped make him one of London’s most popular architects of the time and he was commissioned to build many more theatres in the capital. The theatre welcomed many stars on its stage including Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin just before he left for Hollywood.

The building has been used as a cinema since 1912, though it has changed hands and names many times. It eventually closed down in 1989 and fell into disrepair until current owner Tyrone Walker-Hebborn revived the derelict cinema and gave it its fitting name: Genesis. Tyrone went on to start the East End Film Festival in 2000.

Genesis was one of ‘the’ places to be seen in the East End. In 1963 the cinema hosted the royal premiere of the film Sparrows Can’t Sing starring Barbara Windsor. Princess Margaret was supposed to be at that premiere, but because she knew the Kray twins were going to be there she wasn’t allowed to go. Instead, her husband, the photographer Lord Snowdon, came as the official royal representative.

At the time, the Kray twins had a pub in Bow called the Kit Kat Club and after the premiere, everybody went there for the after-party. Here it was revealed that Princess Margaret had been there all along, enjoying the company of the Kray twins and the music of Brahms and Liszt.

There used to be 33 cinemas in Tower Hamlets, and seven cinemas just in the Bow and Mile End area. Over time, they were all turned into bingo halls or knocked down to make place for residential buildings. In 1989, Genesis was the last cinema to close down. It was derelict until current owner Tyrone Walker-Hebborn purchased the building and transformed it into what we now know as Genesis.

Find Genesis at 93-95 Mile End Rd, E1 4UJ.

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One thought on “Genesis: the East End’s independent cinema bucking the streaming trend

  • Many MANY years ago I was a student of General studies. Part of this was writing a project on whatever took your fancy I did video piracy and its effects on the cinema and interviewed the Manager of this cinema when it was ABC Mile End

    Reply

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