In May 1999 Tyrone Walker-Hebborn opened a five screen cinema in the East End of London using a former derelict cinema, built on a site with a long history of entertainment in the East End. Having worked in the family business of roof working, he had no previous experience in the cinema industry, but he did have a vision and was determined. Now we celebrate the 15th birthday of Genesis cinema, the successful independent family run cinema in Tower Hamlets (and also my favourite London cinema).
To mark this occasion I sat down with Tyrone for a revealing interview. Last week I published part 1 of the interview about the history of the cinema and also the development of the East End over the last 15 years. Here in part 2 you will read more about Tyrone’s personal cinema anecdotes and his future plans.
Do you remember the first film you saw in the cinema?
I do, there are actually a number of them I remember. The very first film I went to see was The Jungle Book with my mum. I remember queuing up around the block with her.
But what I remember really vividly is going to see The Sting with my auntie Linda and my uncle Peter. I’m not sure if I was old enough to see it, but I loved it. I remember sitting in between them.
Later I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with them. Then they also took me to see James Bond: Live and Let Die. I remember that being a real event, with this big screen. I don’t really know why they kept taking me to the cinema, but I remember going with my aunt and uncle all the time. Those were my first cinema experiences.
What are your favourite films?
I’ve got a list because people always ask me. [Tries to find the list on phone, but then continues:]
When I was first asked this question I was at a cinema industry event. It was my first one, as we had just opened Genesis cinema. We went to this dinner & dance event and I sat there at a table with independent exhibitors. I was relatively young to be a cinema owner, 33 years old, so I was this new kid on the block. They asked me questions as: ‘Why are you here? Where do you have your cinema? Is it a single screen cinema?’ I answered I owned a five screen cinema in London and from their reactions couldn’t make out if that was good or not.
Then they started to ask me what my favourite film was. I wanted to say Point Break, but knew that wouldn’t go down very well in this environment. I would be like this one-legged tap dancer. So I said I wasn’t sure. When I asked the people what their favourite film was, they all said Cinema Paradiso. I had never seen this film, but after hearing that answer all night I started to use that title as well as my favourite film answer that evening. After that night I told my wife we had to get that film and watch it. I thought it was a charming film. I get it why you like the film if you’re a cinema owner. It’s a great film, but not the best film. I still love Point Break. It stands for a great period in my life.
I also love Pulp Fiction. I saw it in Frankfurt when visiting a friend. I had just arrived from the airport, and he said: ‘Oh you absolutely have to see this film!’ So we went to see it and it was such a great film. They even had beer in the cinema which you wouldn’t have in the UK at the time.
I would also like to say Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels because I like the banter in it. But then I sound like this East End geezer who likes gangster films. A film that also blew me away was The Fisher King with Robin Williams.
Apollo 13 is very dear to my heart because I was in Monaco with my wife and we went to see this film at an open air cinema at night so the scenes on the screens just drifted out in the sky. Watching the film outside like this was just amazing.
So to me, my favourite films aren’t so much about the film themselves, but more about the memories and experiences.
I do have a get out clause though: Monsters, Inc. A friend of mine runs a small charity in Africa. One day we decided to have a pop-up cinema. I nicked a sheet off the bed, took a projector and a sound system and we showed Monsters, Inc. to 450 children in an orphanage who had never been to cinema before. They were all yelling and running around, but once the film started they went all quiet, watched it and loved it. And we were standing there crying, me and these three other big bulgy builders.
There’s a new neon sign in the foyer saying ‘If you build it, they will come’. From all film quotes, why did you choose this specific message?
This quote is very profound for me. It’s a misquote from the film Field of Dreams. The actual quote is: ‘If you build it, He will come’, but it’s always quoted as ‘If you build it, they will come’.
To me that film always reminds me of my dad so it always chokes me up when I see it, but it also relates to the opening of the cinema of course. You can do all the marketing research you like, you can do all the publicity you like, but you do not know until you open up those doors if anyone will come.
On our opening night we first saw people looking into the cinema, then slowly people started to come in and they have done so for the last 15 years. So the quote means a lot to me.
The sign is in my handwriting and my first bit of commissioned artwork. It’s very special for me.
What are your plans for the cinema for the near future?
In the immediate future we have a new signage coming in.
In my dreams I would love to put a lovely secret garden in the back. I’d like to put a nice little deck in there with nice furniture, possibly doing outdoor cinema screenings on the walls with headphones. That would be pretty cool.
At the back of the building we’ve got a massive flat roof, the size of the entire width of Screen 1. I could put a fantastic sunroof on there, but that would cost. I would have to put down a lift in there and make it secure. That would be fantastic though. I could either go try other sites or really concentrate on this one and make it as best as it can be.
In the beginning I was talking to an architect and told him: ‘I want to be the coolest cinema in London.’ At the time I didn’t really believe that myself if I’m honest, but I wanted to give it a boost. I know they didn’t really believe me either, but I don’t think we’re a long way off now. We’ve got a great place now and I’m extremely proud of it. I think we offer something unique. We could be THE place to go to because we’ve got everything here: the big screen (Screen 1), three smaller screens with great sound systems and our luxurious Studio 5 with 40 sofas. Furthermore we have a great cocktail bar with the best mixologists I’ve ever seen. We opened up a kitchen so we can also serve dinners now. The cafe downstairs, in my opinion, offers the best coffee in London. For me naming the bar after the Paragon Theatre of Varieties was a big thing. We have our poetry nights in the bar, script writing nights, comedy nights, music events. It’s getting back to be what cinema used to be, a real community hub and that’s my vision. I don’t want to rush people in and out, having them spend lots of money and get rid of them after two hours as the majors do. No, come here, spend four hours, six hours, whatever you want. Of course I want people to spend money, but I want people to spend their money with a smile. I want them to enjoy themselves.
Would you be interested in opening up a chain of cinemas?
I think we’ve got a great formula here now. I wouldn’t open a chain, that’s not what I want. Two or three locations would be nice, but only if I could make them as I want them to be. I wouldn’t want to be too big. I have a great team around me now so now would be a good time to look at other locations.
Do you still have any other business ventures?
Our roofing business closed down about 5 years ago. It was quite a tough decision for me as it was my dad’s business. It had given us a good life and allowed us to have the cinema. It took me about a year to tell my dad. When I told him he said: ‘ Thank god for that, I hate it!’
I started a little production company a few years ago and we had our first feature film Edge in 2010. We were lucky to get it in the London Film Festival and also in the Shanghai Film Festival. We went to Shanghai to do a Q&A which was great.
We’ve worked on more smaller films, but I decided to concentrate on the cinema and bring it back to what I want it to be. I’m looking at a couple of scripts at the moment. One of them is open for casting. That could be interesting.
Furthermore we look after a little bit of property that we have accumulated over the years as a family.
I’m doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It keeps me busy and out of trouble.
Final question: I found a photo of you with Arnold Schwarzenegger. How did that meeting come about?
Ah yes! Well, a friend of mine is head of sales of Lionsgate. At a certain time he told me to keep a particular date free. He couldn’t say for what it was, but it was going to be great. A few weeks before that date, he told me it was for Schwarzenegger’s book launch and that he was also going to be there. My friend said he would obviously need to invite all the big boys, but would slip me in. I was so excited!
When Arnie came in, he gave such an amazing speech. That guy really knows how to work a room. Afterwards they told us he was going to go around the room and shake hands with everyone. You could then have your photo taken with him and ask him one question. So it was all very formal, but he was fantastic, really intelligent.
When he came up to me, I said: ‘Arnie, it’s lovely to meet you. I grew up with your films and now I have a cinema where I show your films.’ He then said to me: ‘Keep up the good work’ and urged the photographer to come over and take a photo of us.
Click here for part 1 of this interview.