Outdoor cinema has become a phenomenon in London; we meet George Wood, founder of Luna Cinema, the Dulwich local who started it all
Interview Catherine Hales
Meet George. George is the person who, despite our infamously soggy summers and temperamental climate, thought outdoor cinema would be a great idea for England. Luckily, he was right. Eight years on, Luna Cinema is a resounding success with screenings all over the country and it all started once upon a time in Dulwich Park after a particularly nasty scooter accident…
Catherine Hales: What gave you the idea for Luna Cinema?
George Wood: Eight years ago I was working as an actor and there were never many jobs over the summer; as a result I had always wanted to start a little summer business. I was commuting into London for a play and I got knocked off my scooter at the Elephant and Castle roundabout and broke my leg; it was a nasty break and I wound up in hospital not being allowed to work for five to six months. It was probably all the morphine running around my system but I suddenly thought about my summer business idea. I had seen outdoor cinema before about ten years earlier in Australia and thought, ‘What a great idea, why don’t we do it in the UK? To which my Aussie friends replied, ‘Because the weather is rubbish!’
CH: But you decided to try it anyway?
GW: I did. It was there and then in the hospital bed that I rang up venues and asked if they had ever tried open air cinema. The reply I got most often was that they hadn’t or that they had done open air theatre but never cinema. It was very lucky timing that we were the first ones to approach Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens and other big venues with this concept. We did our first screening at Dulwich Park which is my local park; it was instantly popular, everyone in the local community came out. So, I invested my life savings in a screen and projector and that’s how it all began. It’s grown from that one screening to what is now 160 odd screenings this summer, two a night, six nights a week.
CH: What is it about open air cinema that attracts people even despite the sometimes terrible weather?
GW: The weather, which you think would be a factor, isn’t at all. It’s all about the experience. There is a general boredom with the multiplex experience – people like to watch their favourite films in a different setting. The thing I love most of all is that communal feeling that you get, a big audience watching a film that they know and love, singing along or shouting out. There’s always a murmur of, ‘Oh, I love this bit,’ and ‘Do you remember this?’ It’s a really social experience. You do find that people come year on year, it’s not a try it once and tick it off kind of thing.
CH: Was your first film a classic?
GW: Yes it was. We did a public vote, because I didn’t want to have to choose the first film – too much responsibility! – and the people of Dulwich chose Some Like It Hot which is still one of the best films we do. I love it, we show it every year.
CH: Do you do any screenings outside of London?
GW: Yes, very much so. In fact, three years ago our quest was to be the first open air cinema in Britain to be fully nationwide. So although we started in the South East, it became apparent that the formula of a classic film on a big screen in a great setting would work just as well out of London. We’ve now got two teams that tour around: one that stays in the South East and one that goes everywhere else. And I really mean everywhere else. We do Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, Warwick Castle, Blenheim Palace and Cardiff Castle over in Wales.
CH: Are they always very well attended?
GW: They really are. The popularity of open air cinema has grown year on year. What’s great about it is that the films that we show are often the classics, they’re the films that people know and love. I mean, you never get bored of Top Gun or
CH: What do you think it is that makes Luna Cinema so special?
GW: It’s a question that I often ask myself. The answer is that we present the film in the best possible way. The technology has come such a long way in the eight years that we have been going; the screen, the sound the projectors, it’s incredible – it’s just like being in an indoor cinema. But really, what sets us apart from all the others is the venues. To be sat in Hampton Court Palace at sunset or Kew Gardens or Warwick Castle, these incredible settings are just incomparable. Next week we’re in Leeds Castle in Kent, which is one of the most magical castle settings. You’re there, watching your favourite film and it’s that unique experience that really sets us apart from the rest. You can find open air cinemas all over the country now and but I always make sure that we are the premium offering: we are the country’s biggest open air cinema.
CH: Do you have food trucks and bars that come to the venues?
GW: That’s a good question, because food and drink is a key part of open air cinema. It can really enhance the experience. The policy is that we always invite the audience to bring a picnic but in addition, we always make sure that we have fantastic food and drink on site. We have a full bar (the Luna Bar) that’s designed to look like a cinema set up and then our food partners. We have a stone baked pizza place and a full barbecue with pulled pork burgers.
CH: What is your favourite South East London venue?
GW: There is something really special about Brockwell Lido, which is the outdoor swimming pool in Herne hill. We do Jaws there every year. It’s become our calling card; we have VIP dinghies in the water and it’s the screening that we have become best known for.
CH: Has anyone ever fallen out of their dinghy?
GW: You know what, they haven’t. I’m convinced it’s going to happen every time – we were there last night and I was fully expecting a call from the front of house staff to say that someone had gone in the water. We’re screening Titanic there next, which should be something.
CH: Anywhere else?
GW: Dulwich Park. It’s my home venue if you like, just round the corner, and it’s also where we started so there’s always something special about going back there. We do Crystal Palace and are going to Greenwich Park this weekend, which is an amazing venue overlooking the whole of the city. We deliberately put the screen up right next to the Royal Observatory so the audience can watch the film whilst also having an amazing view of London.
CH: Do you have any favourite Dulwich haunts?
GW: When I first started the cinema, I lived in East Dulwich and I’ve since moved to West Norwood which is ‘up and coming’. I like the Great North Wood pub at the end of my road, which I credit with being part of the gentrification of Norwood. It’s a really nice gastropub and that’s my hang out at the moment. There are so many great restaurants and bars in Dulwich, The Bishop was my old favourite on Lordship Lane.