Tom Lawes is a Birmingham-born film director, soundtrack composer, and owner of The Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema.
Tom’s interest in filmmaking began at a time when there was very little access to the industry and is, according to him, “a really stupid story”. At age 17 he was at a gig with his band and somebody lent him a security camera to film the gig. He took the camera home and began filming comedy sketches.
A couple of years later, he linked up with his video camera owning friend and was “literally using it to film each other’s bottoms…And I thought we’ve got a video camera, let’s do something brilliant with it.” 1 script and 5 days later they emerged with a film called Camping in Hell.
With no access to editing equipment, the 22-minute short film had to be shot chronologically – a feat easily taken for granted in an age where you can edit films on a phone. “It had this kind of energy to it that meant it ended up being reviewed in magazines and being sold around Europe and it was bizarre.”
He built himself a reputation making similar budget horrors such as ‘Rhino Bitch’ and his first feature length film ‘Demagogue’, which found its way onto the shelves of HMV.
Tom also spent some time working for SEGA, directing videos and composing music for games like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and The Weakest Link, starting out there with just a keyboard and a sound module. Years later, having written the music for over 300 fruit machines, he felt ready to break out of the constraints of that medium. Instead, he began writing music and mixing sound for the BBC and production company Maverick. All the while, he was raising money to buy The Electric.
Flipping The Switch
Tom first imagined The Electric building as a potential space for a recording studio. “I didn’t buy the cinema because I thought ‘I want to be cinema owner.”
He opened the cinema as a kind of “shop front” for his recording studio in Screen 2 – which was supposed to be the real business – and left the downstairs screen as a working cinema. However, a couple of years later the cinema’s success overtook the recording business, causing Tom to relocate his studio to the basement and re-open the second screen.
Boutique style cinemas aren’t an outlandish concept nowadays, but back in 2004 when Tom first bought the cinema, the concept of the cinema as a complete “going out experience” was almost unheard of. When it opened, the cinema was the first of its kind to offer something different in the form of sofas, waiter service and a really nice bar.
When he took it over the cinema had been completely run to the ground and verging on derelict. He describes the cinema as:
“the hardest thing I have ever had to do without a doubt.”
The Electric Now
The Electric is now the UK’s oldest working cinema, having been around since 1909. It’s also completely independently owned.
Beyond a cinema and recording studio, the building now also houses a magazine, a production company and an apartment, whilst also maintaining the relics from its 110 year history; stacks of old films in the basement, well-preserved features from the era of the early projectionists on the upper floors, and details from Birmingham’s wartime history painted on the walls.
While multiplexes can boast what Tom refers to as an ‘economy of scale’, independent cinemas like The Electric can devote more attention to detail and offer a much more personal experience. He believes that any small business is able to cater better to the individual.
His most famous work to date is his documentary The Last Projectionist. Originating as a project to celebrate the centenary of The Electric Cinema, it went on to claim global success after being picked up and broadcast on BBC Worldwide. The final full length documentary is about the end of projectionists as we transition from film to digital, cinemas, and their history.
“There’s loads of films about films, but not about cinemas.”
“The independent scene has changed because it’s so easy to make a film now…The technology is there, and with quite simple cameras you can make something that’s a lot closer to a professional film than you would have done 20 years ago.”
According to Tom, if you’re planning on an independent film it’s important to get the genre right.
“This is advice to anyone who wants to make a film… you’ve got to make a religious film, a niche documentary like my recent film The Last Projectionist, or you want to make a horror.”
Tom insists that these genres are the ones that break out into the independent scene most frequently. But even for movies of these genres, it is difficult to get noticed in the industry.
“It’s never been easier to make a film, but it’s never been harder to make a successful film. […] One piece of wisdom that I have accumulated from my long and varied career in the film and music industry is that you should keep making and creating stuff all the time; it’s better to create something and for it not to be great, than not to create at all.”
Tom told us a few exclusive details about his upcoming project Amaryllis: it’s a silent film that will be the first to ever have the soundtrack scored and performed live on stage. Unlike retro silent film effort The Artist, Amaryllis will be shot to look like a modern film, centring on a skater girl with an unhappy home life.
Photography by Will Pace.