Film nights and clubs are ten a penny in London and elsewhere these days. Not only are they all over the place – a rooftop here, a car park here, a supposedly secret location a la warehouse parties there - but they're also big business. The money currently being generated by the likes of Secret Cinema (less secret, as noted elsewhere recently, than Secretsundaze, particularly now the organisation even announces the film before the event, removing another element of its secrecy) is breathtaking.
But the choice of many of these events is surprisingly similar – a Ghosbusters here, Jaws over there, Back To The Future elsewhere.
One club, one of the capital's longest running nights, stands head and shoulders above the others. The Duke Mitchell Film Club has been running for seven years and is a shining example of what a film club can do.
Now taking place on the last Monday of the night at the Phoenix Artist Club, nestling under Charing Cross Road it has, in its own words, been "bringing London the best in obscure films since 2007". It doesn't just host feature films, there's shorts, B-Movie trailers, exploitation soundtracks and more too.
And now, from Sunday June 29 until Wednesday July 3, it is hosting its first festival over four nights. But more of that later.
Like the best nights, it has a strong ethos and philosophy behind it. "The Duke started off as an extension of the weekends of film discovery we used to have in Evrim’s living room," say its hosts, Alex Kidd and Evrim Ersoy, one bowling shirt clad, one besuited, the two gentlemen behind the night. It's worth quoting them as one person, as they are both equally involved with the evening. "The film club scene is London seemed to be stagnating, the same 100 films doing the rounds over and over again and we started to dig deeper and deeper into the history of film to discover these little gems that NO-ONE seemed to want to being back."
A chance discovery - via MySpace, of all places ("those really were the days" they joke) – saw them agreeing to put on a night at the Cross Kings. "Our intention was to put on a night at the movies, to make a whole thing an event while engaging the audience – we wanted to entertain them but also ourselves, too. It was an aim to carry the atmosphere of that living room into a bigger, more communal space."
Seven years down the line and it has grown and grown: "We’ve changed homes twice, grown bigger, attempted weirder, more off-beat events and have even managed to have an off-shoot event called Night Of The Trailers."
It still keeps the main criteria, but has developed further too, as Ersoy and Kidd say: "We’ve discovered that we need to strike a balance between showing oddities and having more interactive, clip-based events – the audience will not come out month after month to watch a feature they don’t know anything about SO we need to strike a balance – we need to find ways of engaging the audience more directly with things they can relate to AND THEN get them occasionally to take a chance. So far it’s been a struggle but one we enjoy fighting."
It's built up a loyal and devoted following and, interestingly, still brings in new devotees each and every time. Word of mouth helps: "We still don’t know who our audience are," they say. "One of the most interesting things we discovered about the night is that we seem to have very little in terms of regulars – our regulars make up less than a quarter of the audience – and it’s a new crowd every month. But mainly it’s people who hear through word of mouth that there’s a bunch of people somewhere near Soho doing the kind of film shows you simply don’t see anymore."
The festival is a leap into the unknown, which came out of a two-day event held last year dedicated solely to VHS. It approached cinemas and is now hosting the event over four nights, two at its regular home, Phoenix Artists Club, the other two at the Prince Charles Cinema. The thinking behind it is clear. "We think that London lacks an off-beat festival like the ones in the U.S. – like Everything is Festival or the stuff they do in Austin or even in New York. There’s so much that can be done if someone wanted to: so many new and rare films, guests, events that we thought we’ll be the first, we’ll take that initial step. Hopefully people will respond to that."
So what's in store for punters over those four nights? We'll let them talk you through the events…
"On Sunday we open at Prince Charles with the European premiere of My Name Is Jonah – one of the most entertaining and crazy documentaries ever made about one of life’s most wonderful and engaging characters – a real life adventurer and musician and rock star and superhero,
"On Monday we’ll be at the Phoenix with our Japanese VHS experiment where we’ll be working our way through some Japanese tapes recorded off Japanese T.V. in the early 1990’s. We have no idea what’s on them but the one tape we put in immediately kicked off with an advert for Twin Peaks which we took to be a good omen.
"We’re also showing one of the rarest Swedish films called Stockholm Nights with live translation by Evrim who doesn’t speak Swedish but understands the film in a way that’s almost too good to be true.
"Tuesday we’re again at the Phoenix Artist Club and it’s our music video night. We’ve got Spencer Hickman from [ace soundtrack label] Death Waltz coming down to present the worst horror music videos in history followed by our Music Video Found Footage where we’ve asked the key film clubs and the audience in London and around the world to submit their weirdest discoveries which Spencer and Evrim will be analyzing.
"And finally on Wednesday we’re back at the Prince Charles for the official 30th anniversary screening of Strangers In Paradise – a brilliant 1984 musical about a cryogenically frozen Nazi hypnotist who is deforested by small town America to use to cure their town of wild elements such as punks, homosexuals, gamblers and prostitutes. It’s brilliant, funny , incredibly well put together and has some of the best music we’ve ever heard in a film of its kind. Evrim just tested the DCP at Prince Charles and we had to force him to leave the cinema – he must have seen that film 25 times by now but he still can’t stop watching it."
It's a huge task putting an event such as this together, both Ersoy and Kidd don't do this as a money-spinning venture, it is a genuine labour of love.
"There's been no financial reward. Not since day one. Not ever. Every penny we get goes into the Duke kitty which is spent on Duke stuff. Films, empty DVDs, prizes, trophies. We do this because we love film, we love discovering new film and we love sharing.
"That’s the only reason behind it."
And those turning this ind of thing into a license to print money? The answer is a curt, but fair: "It’s not for us but they’re welcome to do whatever they like."
In fact, the Duke Mitchell Film CLub is keen to encourage others to start up. It has helped others get started and supported the Scalarama film event's efforts to get more people to launch their own nights.
"It’s our belief that a vibrant film scene needs variety and when we started there wasn’t many people to show us the way forward, to guide us or even offer suggestions," they say. "So we like to pay it forward, we like to help people create something vibrant.
"There are some people who will hide ideas or try to discourage people or even backtalk – that’s not our style. We think in a big enough film scene, there’s room for everyone."
They've helped foster a scene that is, they say, healthier than it's ever been. "We think that the current state of London film club nights is better than ever – there is something for everyone out there and we are always happy when more turn up doing interesting things. Alex will support any night we can on social media and always go down to new nights to encourage them."
So what's next after this festival for the Duke Mitchell? "The next one," they reply succinctly. what about beyond that? "But near future? We’ve got an event at Nine World Convention in August then,our birthday party in August. And we have a huge secret which will be out by the time this is live, hopefully. Let’s just say we’re going even bigger this August. And Evrim has his eye on a certain filmmaker for September which he just discovered. So lots."
We'll end offering up another flavour of the Duke Mitchell Film Club, as Evrim Ersoy and ALex Kidd talk us through the highlights of the event. What have been the standout points? "Oh man, bringing down the actual screen after a screening at King’s Cross, Alex dressed in black jumping out with a glow in the dark skeleton for our recreation of William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill, sing-a-long karaoke after ‘Strangers in Paradise’, the madness of VHS experiment night last year at Phoenix Artist Club – you know what? The list is endless."
You can find out more about the event here
Tickets available from here
Tim Murray has worked in and around the film and video industry for more than 20 years, predominantly as a trade journalist, and has written for everyone from Screen to Faith Fanzine. He's also organised screening programmes at Horse Meat Disco and is currently writing and publishing his own trade newsletter and website The Raygun.