Movie House of Worship: London’s BFI Southbank

By  · Published on January 27th, 2013

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, reader Nik Mortimer highlights one of the best cinemas in the UK. His comments are those quoted. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

Name: BFI Southbank

Location: Belvedere Road, South Bank, London SE1 8XT

Opened: “1951, as the National Film Theatre before re-branding as the BFI Southbank in 2007.”

No. of screens: 4

Current first-run titles: “None. They mostly show early previews of upcoming movies and will occasionally show films that have just left mainstream cinemas.”

Repertory programming: “The majority of the BFI’s programme is foreign language and repertory programming; usually the cinema will have seasons that span a month or more focusing on a specific director, theme, country or genre. Notable seasons recently have included ‘Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen,’ ‘State of the Nation: Anand Patwardhan’s Portraits of India,’ ‘Uncut Season: The Films They Tried To Ban’ and ’39 Steps to Alfred Hitchcock,’ including a number of his early silent films which the BFI had spent years restoring.”

Special Events: “As well as organising the London Film Festival and their aforementioned seasons, the BFI regularly has special events which could be anything from Helen Mirren introducing L’Atalante as the film that inspired her to act to Joe Cornish interviewing Edgar Wright on his career so far.” Also the BFI Future Film Festival and the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

Why I worship here: “Although the cinema is open to the public, most of the people that attend screenings at the BFI are members of the cinema so it’s one of the few places where you know that everyone else in the auditorium is a film fan. Phones are switched off and people don’t hold conversations during the film, something of a rarity in today’s cinema going experience. It’s not just the atmosphere; the BFI shows films that you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of my favourite films on the big screen there including Manhattan, Aliens, Zodiac and It’s A Wonderful Life, which they show every December, becoming one of my favourite annual traditions. ”

Recent screening of note:Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright giving a Q&A after a screening of Shaun of the Dead over Skype from L.A. and watching Nicholas Wending Refn celebrated as he introduced Drive after being the first person to swear on UK breakfast television in over a decade, are two of my recent stand outs.”

Devotion to the concessions: “The BFI allows drinks to be taken into the screens but no food.”

Last word: “The BFI is a classic cinema in every sense of the word, from the atmosphere to the audience. If you really love watching movies on the big screen, this is one of the few places in London that you can do it properly.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.