Ian Wild, the Showroom cinema’s chief executive: ‘We screen films that wouldn't be seen in Sheffield otherwise’

"I've been here a while now," says Ian Wild with no little understatement when looking back on his time as chief executive of Sheffield's only independent cinema, the Showroom.

Tuesday, 16th April 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 16th May 2019, 12:37 pm
Ian Wild, chief executive of Sheffield's Showroom Cinema. Picture: Scott Merrylees

For Ian started working on the project to open an arthouse cinema on Paternoster Row 25 years ago, in early 1994 – but his business there, he promises, is far from finished.

"There's no reason we can't continue developing," he says. "There's plenty of ideas and we plan to be around for a long time. It's very difficult to get bored – there's lots of challenges, of course, but that's what makes my job interesting."

The place occupies one of the best and most prominent spots in Sheffield. Elevated halfway up a hill, the art deco building is one of the first things people see when leaving the railway station – a cultural beacon that brings audiences the latest films across four screens, from mainstream movies to foreign pictures, as well as educational classes, talks and seasons dedicated to critically-acclaimed directors.

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But that's only part of the offering. There is also a popular café bar, recently extended with a stylish outside terrace, while next door sits the Workstation, which is part of the same complex and provides space for businesses, primarily those in the creative and digital industries.

Meanwhile Ian's involvement in the city's arts scene actually pre-dates the venue, which was created in the old Kennings car showroom. Born in Bradford, with a background in cinema management with the Odeon chain, he moved to Sheffield to work for The Anvil, a council-run municipal venture that was the Showroom's forerunner.

"When the city decided it wanted a new one to replace the Anvil, which was due to close, I was asked to work on the development of the cinema," he remembers.

At the time he was part of the council's Economic Development Department, specialising in culture, and when the search started to find someone to run the Showroom, he successfully applied.

"I've always worked in film exhibition, from the time I started as a volunteer usher at the Bradford Film Theatre when I was 16," he explains over coffee on the terrace. Ian is softly-spoken and thoughtful but can't disguise his passion for his life's interest.

"I've always loved film, I still do. But I enjoy showing films to people - one of the most satisfying things about the job is when you can attract people to see a film they wouldn't otherwise have seen. I suppose that's part of the ethos behind the Showroom, we want to show films that wouldn't be seen in Sheffield otherwise."

The cinema was at the centre of the first Doc/Fest – then known more formally as the Sheffield International Documentary Festival – in 1994 before screens one and two opened the following year. The first films shown were Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite and Hal Hartley's Amateur. Lottery funding helped to cover the cost of screens three and four, which launched in 1998; the actor Pete Postlethwaite did the honours.

Gradually – and not without some difficulty – a local following has been built for documentaries, pictures from abroad and niche independent features. "When we first opened it was quite a challenge to show subtitled films in Sheffield. Now it's just accepted as something that happens."

Efforts to broaden the cinema's appeal continue. The Cine 26 scheme provides cheap tickets to anyone aged under 27, attracting an important demographic.

"There's lots of received wisdom that young people don't like challenging films, but we find the opposite is true," says Ian.

He tries to watch as many new releases as possible, but no longer has time to pick films himself on a day-to-day basis – that's the job of programmer Andy Moore. But he's put in the air miles travelling to major festivals, and keeps a close eye on the films Sheffield audiences respond to.

He cites the example of climbing documentary Free Solo, which began screenings in December and ran for weeks.

"It's not surprising when you realise Sheffield is a city of climbers. Instinctively we knew that would work. I think in the last few years since I've been working here the films I really love tend to be European, a lot of the Polish films, Romanian films – and Asian films as well.”

Sheffield is home to many South American and Chilean natives, he says, so anything from that part of the world goes down exceptionally well. "The ex-pat community comes out in force."

A season celebrating the Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year with Shoplifters, is also expected to be a hit.

The Showroom now leads a network called Film Hub North alongside the HOME arts centre in Manchester and Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. Charged with developing audiences, the group is branching out by investing in a series of short films.

“That's really to give people an opportunity to get a toehold into the industry,” Ian explains. “We're very much focused on new entrants, we don't want the same people coming into the industry. If they can make a short film and send it to festivals it will hopefully start to build their reputation.”

In addition the venue is part of the Europa Cinemas Network, an EU-backed programme founded in 1992 with money from Creative Europe. Ian hopes there is some way this membership can be maintained after Brexit.

“When we set this place up we were just a single voice, and suddenly we were meeting all these cinema people from all over Europe who were doing the same thing. I would say that was almost transformative for us because there were so many new ideas that emerged. Now we send so many of our staff on European training courses.”

An ongoing refurbishment programme, which started when the Showroom marked its 20th anniversary, is reaching its conclusion. A gala dinner – hosted by Look North presenter Harry Gration with the theme A Celebration of Sheffield Film – is happening next week to raise money to renovate screen three.

“It's my job to make our venue as attractive as possible,” says Ian.

In recent years two more cinemas have launched in the city centre, complementing the Showroom and the nearby Odeon – The Light, on The Moor, and Curzon Sheffield tucked away off High Street – but Ian hasn’t seen a ‘huge impact’ on visitor numbers. “One of the interesting things about more cinemas opening in the city centre is it attracts more people, which is good for everybody.”

Ian, 57, lives in the middle of Sheffield, allowing him to ‘walk to work in the morning, which is very nice’. “Culturally, Sheffield is much more cohesive now than it used to be and there's a much better strategy. I've got one of the best jobs there is, I thoroughly enjoy it.”

The gala fundraising dinner, A Celebration of Sheffield Film, is on April 25 from 6.45pm featuring a four-course meal and entertainment. Visit showroomworkstation.org.uk/support-us/fundraising-dinner for details.

‘It’s not just a matter of seeing the film and going home’

Ian Wild is relaxed about the rise of streaming services like Netflix – viewed by some as a threat to traditional cinemas.

“As far as I'm concerned there are two things – if people want to go out on Saturday night, rather than stay in and watch TV, they'll choose where to go,” he says.

“It feels like our competition is probably with restaurants, theatres, art galleries, pubs, rather than with what's on TV. We want to invest in comfort, and good-quality sound and image, but also we want the things around the cinema to be appealing as well. After a film, we hope customers will feel comfortable about having a glass of wine and talking about what they've seen, so it's not just a matter of paying for a ticket, seeing the film and going home.”

He was ‘disappointed’, however, that the Showroom missed out on the chance to screen Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning drama which was distributed by Netflix and only released to a few theatres.

“That was, I suppose, the only example of something I felt I would have liked to have shown, because it was such a good film.”