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Oliver Meek on the Evolution of the Iconic Rio Cinema in Dalston

In 2015 I took on the running of a huge 1930’s picture palace, stunningly beautiful, with a rich and exotic history, but looking distinctly unloved, shabby and down at heel, locked in a slowly declining cycle of financial difficulties, a building that the industry and local residents were fiercely proud and protective of, but one that had dropped of peoples radar, the mission that I accepted was to rescue, restore and get this East End warhorse back on its feet, back into regular use, and give its many unused spaces a purpose again.

The Rio Cinema in Dalston is one of London’s most beloved and iconic old school independent cinemas. Serving East London’s film fans since 1915 it has been through many incarnations over the years, from its early days as a very grand silent cinema, to its rebirth in the late 1930’s as a futuristic art deco super cinema, a community hub and air raid shelter in the war, and then as cinema goers declined with the introduction of TV, it reinvented itself to fit changing audience tastes, first as a cartoon news theatre, then as one of London first art-house cinemas, then as a steamy adult porn theatre with live burlesque shows, then as a kung-fu house, and a Bollywood cinema, and then facing closure in the late 70’s it was saved by the local community and the GLC, and became a multi-purpose arts cinema with film, live music and spaces to serve a myriad of social uses from education, to legal advice, to citizens tv, to feminist recording studio, to photographic and printing lab, but it always remained open as a cinema.

Even through its toughest years when all seemed lost, the Rio clung on and in 1999 re-emerged following a £1.5m grant from National Lottery, fully restored to face the new millennium, and was newly recognised with Grade II listed status to reflect its remarkably intact original condition.

But listing can be both a blessing and a curse, and although independent cinemas have regained huge popularity and are often beacons of hope for other retailers and leisure operator’s to bring high streets back to life, operating a single screen cinema is an out-dated business model.

London cinemagoers expect choice, and with up to 20 films released per week programming a single screen is both a logistical challenge to fit in main features, family matinees, classic rep films, late shows, parent & baby shows, festivals, premieres, live events and private hires, and an impossible balancing act to keep customers and film distributors happy. Dalston has one of the most diverse local populations in London, and we try to achieve the impossible by bringing as wide a variety of films to the big screen to meet the equally diverse tastes of Rio regulars. It is also a challenge to fill the 402 seats in the auditorium with films that are showing at other cinemas locally, but it is much easier to fill these seats with unique films and events, but hard to drop shows of new main features to allow these events to take place.

The recognised industry ideal for auditorium size for new builds is currently around 175 seats, with many chains now opting for smaller spaces and ever more luxurious seating options, making the Rio with 402 seats a fairly unique proposition.

Solutions had been talked about for over 30 years by the various generations of management teams, namely that of creating additional screens within the building. Plans had been mooted to subdivide the main auditorium into three screens, a sensible business solution but one that would have destroyed the unique selling point of the Rio, and one that aesthetically and ethically no one wants to consider. In the late 1980’s the basement space had been used as a video screening room and was the birth place of the pioneering Rio Women’s Cinema group, but the primitive video projectors were not a long-term option, and it is only now with small compact 2K systems that previously unusable space can be used as screening rooms, and on an affordable budget. Over the years the huge basement space had fallen out of use becoming a storage area, something had to be done.

So in 2017 we started the RIOgeneration campaign, our aim was to raise £125,000 to restore the scruffy exterior, renovate the exterior lighting using energy efficient LED’s, to build a second screen in the main basement space and create a flexible use bar and meeting space. As well as funding from trusts and foundations, donations from the public and local businesses, we crowdfunded through Spacehive, making us eligible for the Mayor of London’s Crowdfund London scheme.

The fundraising ran through the summer and by mid September we had hit our target, boosted along the way by £40,000 from the Mayor’s community fund. As well as being able to raise the money, the campaign also re-energised the community, the Rio members, the staff and our industry partners, various events also bought many new people through the doors for the first time. By mid-December the first stage of building work was complete and we had our second screen, an amazing achievement given the many constraints imposed by converting such an old building.

So we now look ahead to 2018 with a huge sense of excitement at the opportunities that the second screen brings, also to complete the exterior renovation, and the ongoing work to retro fit the interior with energy efficient LED lighting, we also aim to have the first solar powered projector in the UK.

2018 also looks to be a great year for independent film as well as our commitment to supporting festivals and local film makers. Our first festival screenings begin in January with the London Short Film Festival.

We will also be looking at what we currently provide for the local residents and how the new screen space can be put to additional use for the many different local groups wanting to use film for entertainment and educational purposes, as well as meetings, training, theatre, spoken word, video artists, photography, stand up comedy and more. Most importantly in 2018, we hope that the additional revenue from Screen 2 will put the Rio onto a secure financial footing for the first time in decades, giving us a chance to reinvest in the building, the staff and our essential community work.

Looking further into the future we hope to bring more unused space in the building back into public use, maybe even the ghostly remnants of the 1915 auditorium, who’s well preserved ornate classical plasterwork still hangs high above the current 1930s auditorium.


Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan “The Rio is one of London’s most iconic cinemas and an important cultural asset to the diverse community of Dalston. It’s fantastic that, through the RIOgeneration campaign, the Rio is both preserving the incredible heritage features of the building, while making sure its facilities are improved in order to keep cinema alive for generations to come”

Paloma Faith “I’ve been going to the Rio Cinema since I was a small child - not only did it inspire me architecturally and take me to another world but also it opened my eyes to so much culture that I would have otherwise not been exposed to growing up in Hackney.”

Ed Skrein “I am delighted to become a Patron of the Rio Cinema and support Riogeneration. My son and I have enjoyed many a matinee there. I also loved the Big House Theatre interactive sessions that were on in the basement. I live locally and believe it is important that local businesses are supported in the unique services they offer to the community. It means a lot to me that independent cinemas like the Rio are able to survive in these days of large multiplexes as they are able to offer a broader range of films as well as services to the community.”


Oliver Meek is Executive Director of the Rio