REEL Cinemas director Sunil Suri was sat in the back of a taxi, returning home to the east Midlands after another whistle-stop tour of his chain’s 15 cinemas when we caught up with him over a video call last week. How technology has moved on since Farnham’s last cinema, the Regal, closed its doors in 1985...

From next Friday, February 2, Sunil will have a 16th cinema to add to his itinerary with the opening of the new six-screen state-of-the-art multiplex at the heart of Farnham’s Brightwells Yard development.

Over the course of our conversation, and Sunil’s taxi ride, we discussed his own remarkable journey from conflict resolution in east Africa to running his family’s cinema empire, the health of the industry, and the much-anticipated return of a cinema to this corner of west Surrey.

Daniel Gee: Sunil, you’ve been on quite a journey looking at your website – can you walk us through how you came to be director of REEL Cinemas?

Sunil Suri: Certainly, I did have a bit of a journey to where I am today. At university my interest was in international affairs, and afterwards I spent five years in conflict negotiation. 

Then around the time of Brexit, I found myself in east Africa, contemplating what I should do next. During this period, I spent a bit of time with my father, who founded REEL in 2001, driving across the UK. I felt a pull to work closer to home, which led me to embark on a social entrepreneurship journey. This involved various start-ups, including a net-zero venture aimed at creating a million green jobs in ten years. 

However, when my father decided to step back from the companies he founded, I had a decision to make. So in December 2022, I stepped into the role of the full-time director of REEL Cinemas.

DG: It’s quite a step change. Are there many transferable skills between conflict resolution and running a cinema chain?

SS: I was always very impact focused and many of the community building skills on those start-ups are transferable, in terms of how we think about cinemas and how we think about our future.

DG: I had a look around the new cinema recently and it’s such a huge asset for Farnham. It’s been almost 40 years since Farnham last had a cinema and the town’s just so excited about it coming back. On the REEL website, ‘community’ comes up an awful lot. Why is that so important to REEL?

SS: There are a lot of cinemas across the country. You have your Vues, your Cineworlds and Odeons, the multiplex model, and we’ve got a lot of respect for what they do. There are also the Curzons and the Everymans, and I’ve also got a lot of respect for what they’ve pushed forward in terms of that premium model. 

But one size doesn’t fit all, and I want to create an exceptional experience as a base level, even in our standard screens, at affordable prices.

Firstly we are a cinema. But we are also a venue, and our doors are open for the people of Farnham to use it, and to approach us and tell us how they might want to use it.

DG: REEL Cinemas had 1.8 million customers last year, an impressive figure. However, given the industry changes because of the pandemic and the rise of streaming services, how do you feel about these attendance figures, and what trends are you observing?

SS:  Farnham is different for REEL because typically we position ourselves in towns with a different level of affluence. And so Farnham, I think it’s just going to be another addition to the success story of the company. 

We’re not immune to falling attendance – it would be untrue to say that we’re not. Everyone in the cinema industry recognises those changes in the overall business model since the pandemic, which accelerated streaming.

But I’m very optimistic about the future simply because we’re becoming a much leaner industry. Some of that over-expansion has been curtailed and everyone’s minds have refocused on the customer and I think you can lose sight of that. 

DG: And you’re optimistic the offer in Farnham will get lots of people through the doors?

SS: Coming out of the pandemic, cinema operators have found themselves at a juncture: do you increase prices or keep them low? We’ve chosen to keep them low because we want cinema to be affordable, we want it to be a habit, and we think there’s a way of getting people to come more often.

We’re bullish on Farnham, and every time I come and visit I sense that palpable excitement. We’re also excited to learn about what the taste-making profile of the community of Farnham is and you’ll see our programme evolve through those first few months. Farnham is a blank slate for us and it really gives us an opportunity to treat the people of Farnham to some really fun stuff that we haven’t done elsewhere. 

DG: We were originally getting an Odeon cinema at Brightwells Yard. They dropped out a long time ago and the bigger chains do seem to be cutting back, whereas you guys are expanding. What’s your winning formula?

SS: Family-owned operators like us can be quite nimble, we can be quite innovative. If any member of the Farnham community approached our team and said, ‘Hey, we want to try x’, and our new managers thought your idea was interesting, we can put that into action. 

That speed of decision making and reactiveness and responsiveness, that co-creation, is something the larger chains can’t do, and as a company we are financially resilient. My dad’s philosophy has always been sustainable. We’re not gobbling up ten to 15 cinemas, we do it sustainably and sensibly, one at a time, and really make sure our offer resonates in the area.

I travel a lot and see a lot of communities with empty high streets, charity shops and betting shops. There’s nothing wrong with charity shops, but we want more vitality in our high streets. The way I see cinema is as a long-term community asset that’s shared, and we have a responsibility as an anchor tenant to really make sure we make the right business decisions because we support the entire town’s economy.

DG: With the current competition from streaming giants like Netflix, what unique offerings do cinemas still have that can’t be replicated at home?

SS: It’s a great question. Theatrical experiences still hold significant value for distributors, as demonstrated by Disney’s decision to release three of their recent films theatrically, even though they’re already available on Disney+. There’s something gained by the theatrical experience, both in monetary terms and as a legitimiser of cultural moments. The shared experience in a cinema, especially for culturally significant films, remains unparalleled. 

I watched One Life the other night in a cinema with a large Jewish community, and it was a really emotional experience. You can’t really compete with that in your living room, watching it with a blanket.

We’re not anti-streaming. There’s lots of different ways to consume content and no one way is better than the other. But some are more appropriate than others. 

It’s about working with our audiences to show content that’s relevant to them.

DG: REEL Cinema is part of a larger development in Farnham, and the cinema is just the beginning. Can you share any insights into when the rest of Brightwells Yard might open, including the restaurants and shops?

SS: I think later in Q1 or Q2 in 2024 as I understand it. We’re obviously really excited. We’ll all thrive together and, as a development, when we’re all open we’ll support one another. A big part of what we’ll do is those cross-promotional relationships.