Entering the Curzon Mayfair cinema, it is fun to imagine bumping into a celebrity from the age of its construction: Diana Rigg, perhaps, or Michael Caine gracing a red carpet premiere. It has retained the star quality of its time.
Completed in 1966, it replaced the original cinema, described by the Royal Institute of British Architects as “a low-rise brick design” which had opened at the junction of Curzon Street and Hertford Street in 1934. Three decades later, a more profitable use for the land was found in the form of an added office block. Today’s cinema was constructed at its base, but not conceived as a mere footnote. Its design, by Scottish architect, Horace Gael “HG” Hammond, was displayed at the Royal Academy according to Historic England which, in 1997, listed the building Grade II. Everyone agrees it is gem of London’s cultural heritage. The arguments are all about its future.
On one side of that debate is businessman Dan Zaum, who has plans for its conversion into something other than a cinema alone. Those plans are due to be considered by Westminster councillors later this month. “We’re keeping intact all the heritage elements,” Zaum says. But, at the same time, he wants to transform what he calls “the experience” of visiting the famous cinema.
The point he stresses is that, these days, there are plenty of other ways to watch a movie. “How do you differentiate the auditorium experience from seeing a film at home or on your iPhone?” he reasons. “I’m basically giving you a menu for you to choose how to combine your audio, viewing and the seating and the food and beverage. The product has to be the experience, not any more the film.”
Put in very basic terms, Zaum’s development plans involve knocking the cinema at Number 38 Curzon Street and the restaurant next door at Number 37a into a single space for hosting a variety of related uses. Food and beverage will be a big part of the mix, including dining – as distinct from snacking – while watching the big screens. Initially, to the dismay of his critics, he envisaged doing away with the Curzon’s second screen, although that would, in fact, have been a reversion to the original: the Cinema Treasures website tells us that the Curzon went twin screen as recently as 2002.
However, Zaum has now decided that both screens will stay. Why? He gives two reasons: one, local consultations persuaded him that having two screens was popular (“we listened, we are engaging with the public”); two, he was advised by experts that reverting to a single screen would have denied some sections of the audience the benefits of the cutting-edge sound technology he wants introduced.
Zaum, a British Londoner of Israeli descent, says he will spend £15 million on the project. Previously a lawyer, he is now a partner at asset management firm AlTi Tiedemann Global. In his own right, he has a track record of involvement with the renewal of revered buildings in the capital, starting with the refurbishment of The Ned – formerly the City’s disused Sir Edwin “Ned” Lutyens-designed Midland Bank HQ, now home to a hotel, a private members’ club and more – and continuing with Koko, previously the Camden Palace theatre, opened in 1900, now also a members club and themed warren of lounges, studios and bars.
His Curzon make-over idea, which consultation exhibitions have shown the building renamed The Mayfair Cinema, would, Zaum contends, revitalise the picture house for a new era of leisure, art and technology. “We are only at the beginning of the technology revolution,” he says. “The cinema industry is treating patrons as a commodity. I want to give them more.” But the “more” Zaum has in mind is being portrayed as a lot less by those who do not share his vision. They include the people who, along with the rest of the Curzon cinema chain, most of which is in the capital, run the Curzon at the moment.
The cinema in Mayfair cinema was the original Curzon, opened by Harold Wintage, an importer of obscure movies starting from the years after World War I. In 2019, the chain was sold to the US-based Cohen Media Group, though Philip Knatchbull, its long-standing chief executive, stayed on. In June it was announced that Knatchbull will step down this month after 17 years in the job, but that has not inhibited him from making his feelings known about Zaum’s proposition. In September, he wrote of the Curzon company’s own plans for upgrading the premises, claiming that Zaum’s are a mere imitation of them and also implying they are part of a “flippant PR game” being played at the expense of “an iconic cinema” whose future has been placed in “a precarious position”.
Zaum and Koko’s operators reached an accommodation. That hasn’t happened with the Curzon Mayfair. Portraying his landlord as intransigent, Knatchbull cited backing for his own position from local residents, from the over 20,000 signatories of a Save Curzon campaign petition, and from industry luminaries Tilda Swinton, Steven Spielberg and Toby Jones. The argument from the Curzon side is that, under Zaum, the cinema would cease to be for true cinema-goers and no longer offer the high percentage of foreign, international and arthouse films for which it is loved and renowned. It wouldn’t only cease to be a Curzon cinema, it would also cease to be special.
There is, of course, a widescreen backstory to this script. At the heart of it lies the Curzon Mayfair’s lease. This is due to expire next March, as is that of the restaurant next door. Notice has been served on both. Normally, a lessee tenant has an automatic option to renew, but the company that owns the cinema, named unambiguously 38 Curzon Lease Ltd, of which Zaum is director, is apparently making use of an exemption which can enable a landlord to over-ride that right if it wishes to run its own operation in its building. The Curzon company has mounted a legal challenge to being forced to leave. It is ongoing and expected to remain so into next year.
This is not the first dispute between the cinema and Zaum. In 2016, prior to the Cohen Media Group purchase, there was a problem about noise. Zaum is also director of another company, this one called 38 Curzon Ltd – no “Lease” – which owns the part of the building above the cinema and which he set about converted from office space into flats. The sound of the movies seeped up through the floors.
Zaum’s companies are two of three subsidiaries of Vevil Holdings Limited, the third of which, Vevil International Ltd, is the freeholder of 37 and 38 Curzon Street and much else. The Evening Standard reported at the time that Vevil said it wanted the cinema to stay, but it had to improve its soundproofing. As now, a petition was raised in the cinema’s defence. Eventually, following Sadiq Khan pledging to bring in new planning rules – subsequently embedded in his London Plan – making developers responsible for soundproofing in order to help protect entertainment venues, a solution was found.
Both parties professed themselves “delighted” by this. But although some protagonists quietly hold out hope for a late compromise, there is little sign of such harmony now. Zaum sharply disputes any suggestion that his vision is lifted from that of Knatchbull and the Cohen group. On the contrary, he says that when he met Charles Cohen, along with Knatchbull, all Cohen offered by way of improvement was “‘I’m going to change the carpets, clean the toilets.’ It wasn’t my vision. My vision was to create experience there. When I told him about what I’m trying to create, he said to me ‘you’re dreaming’.”
There is a political dimension to this too – one which encapsulates the recurring West End tension between the case for economic growth, notably by boosting the hospitality sector, and the desire of residents to keep it under control. Local councillor Patrick Lilley, one of the Labour influx who brought about the shock termination of Tory control of Westminster City Council last year, largely by positioning themselves as being more alive than their opponents to locals’ concerns, has been in the thick of Save Curzon Mayfair activity, going back to the office-to-flats conversion dispute. It was Lilley who raised the latest “save” petition. The Zaum vision, he says, is “terrible news for the community, terrible news for the legacy and for the future of the Curzon Mayfair as we all know it. It should not become a nightclub or a restaurant with a screening room.”
Alarmist? Harsh? Lilley, who is on Labour’s shortlist to contest the Tory marginal West Central London Assembly seat next year, thinks not: “If you’re going to spend millions, you’re going to have to get your millions back. That means more people, more eating and more drinking, and that means more noise. With it will come the pedicabs, the antisocial behaviour, the supercars with their sonic boom engines.” He recoils, too, from the notion of simultaneous dining and viewing. “I can’t think of anything more annoying than loud eaters in cinemas,” he says. “I’ve seen World War III break out over popcorn as it is.” His own vision of what cinemas are and are not for is the exact inverse of Zaum’s: “A film should be watched in a particular way. That’s why you go to the cinema! You can do that all other stuff at home.”
Zaum has responses ready to many of the objections to his ideas. The food he wants served “can’t be oily and can’t be smelly and can’t be noisy,” he explains, without needing to be asked. “There can’t be any disturbance during the show.” The restaurant and the cinema would “work seamlessly together,” he says, and paints a picture of flexible, in-house consumer choice, perhaps with customers watching two films during one visit and eating in between. “After the film, you can maybe go to a jazz show in the restaurant,” he adds.
He anticipates the venue also being used for special events, such as morning opera masterclasses. Zaum has already had conversations to that end, emphasising that there is currently no suitable and available space for such occasions. Things that would not otherwise happen could take place at his innovative Mayfair location, he says. But will there still be room for low budget, minority interest films in the long Curzon tradition? “Absolutely,” Zaum replies. “The experience has to address different genres. I want to be a platform for movies that cannot get to the West End.”
Zaum says he’s looking for a licence from eight in the morning until one or two at night. And he’s intending to employ a lot more people than the Curzon currently does, he thinks probably around 70. He describes overhearing some young employees at Koko talking about how the children who appeared in Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall video were chosen. He’ll be looking for staff who can talk just knowledgeably about Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn, he says.
The odds are that the planning application of 38 Curzon Lease Ltd will receive consent – in construction terms, its proposals are quite modest and will be considered by one of Westminster’s planning sub-committees, not the one that deals with major projects. Assuming that happens and Zaum secures vacant possession of the cinema next March, he hopes conversion work will start before the end of next year and be completed in about 12 months.
Meanwhile, the arguments will continue: on one side, the belief that the Curzon Mayfair should remain the Curzon Mayfair, a movie house first and foremost to be upgraded only in line with historic continuity, not radical change; on the other, Zaum’s insistence that his concept of the cinema industry’s future will liberate it from a mindset soon to be rendered redundant by shifting audience demands and epic advances in technology. His critics see Zaum as a personification of Big Property indulging in a destructive fantasy. Zaum chooses to take the barb that he is dreaming as a compliment: “I’d rather dream. Only people that dream create something.” This movie may not yet be near its end.
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Update: Since this article was published, Westminster Council’s planning sub-committee agendas for November have been published and do not include consideration of the 38 Curzon Lease Ltd application. It might now be dealt with in December instead.