The Lexi Story
The Lexi is London’s only social enterprise cinema, a volunteer-run picture palace with strong links not just to our local community, but to a unique charity project thousands of miles away in South Africa.
Here’s how our beloved cinema came to be…
2006 – 2007:
‘It’s a twister! It’s a twister!’
On December 7th 2006, a freak tornado struck Kensal Rise, destroying property and devastating trees and buildings. But in its wake our local community pulled together, forging new bonds of support and togetherness. From these bonds, the Lexi Cinema was born.
But The Lexi wasn’t just built to serve Kensal Rise. The cinema’s founder had an existing relationship with a unique ecological project: the Sustainability Institute near Lynedoch in South Africa. The Lexi was designed to act as a bridge from one community to the other, providing a vital arts space for the people of Kensal Rise while offering ongoing financial support to the Institute. In return, the people of Lynedoch would offer the Lexi team inspiration and advice on how to make the cinema as green and sustainable as possible.
After a year of planning, the site for the new cinema was finally located on Boxing Day, 2007. At the time a derelict pool club, the Edwardian building once known as Pinkham Hall had also been used as a community theatre – an appropriate foreshadowing of its brand new life.
2008 – 2013:
‘If you build it, he will come.’
With all the paperwork done, the Lexi Cinema opened its doors in September 2008, launching with a street party and a programme of locally sourced films. We boldly printed the words ‘I AM A CINEMA. LOVE ME’ on the front of the building – and happily, people did.
In those early years we worked hard to establish and build our audience, while also exploring a whole new way of running a cinema. The Lexi is the only London cinema to have an entirely volunteer-led front of house, and we estimate that over the years more than 400 wonderful people have volunteered with us. We’re signed up to the UK’s volunteering charter, and are regularly cited as an example of best practice.
2013 saw the launch of The Nomad, a pop up cinema designed to the spread the Lexi ethos all across London. When we first started we were the only touring outdoor cinema – and the only social enterprise, volunteer-run pop-up, too. We were able to send even more of our proceeds to Lynedoch, supporting everything from their new pre school creche to high-schoolers getting ready to leave education.
“Don’t just fly, soar”
As the Lexi audience grew, so did our commitment to engaging with our local community. From carer and baby screenings, schools events and senior screenings to Black History Studies and our ever popular find-a-friend club Cinemates, we tried to program something for everyone in our neighbourhood.
And these regular programs were just the tip – we also put on loads of one-off happenings, from film-and-food events to local film nights to documentaries exploring issues vital to Kensal Rise. We’ve hosted Q&As with filmmakers, academics and critics – and even the occasional Hollywood megastar! In the same period we also opened our dedicated gallery space, a place for local artists, many of whom have never exhibited before, to show their work.
In return, Kensal Rise stepped up when we needed them. Local businesses and individuals sponsored seats in our auditorium, and when we launched a crowdfunding project to pay for a new sign on the outside of the building, the original goal was reached in an astonishing 14 days. By the time the campaign reached its end, a remarkable 232 backers had contributed almost £10,000 towards the campaign. The Lexi’s read-o-graph board is now an iconic part of the local landscape.
Meanwhile the Nomad went from strength to strength, showing films in legendary London locations like Brompton Cemetery, the courtyard of The Royal Academy of Arts, the courtyard of St Paul’s Cathedral and of course our lovely local green space, Queen’s Park. All of the proceeds were funnelled back to Lynedoch, where the youngsters who’d started out in the Institute’s creche were now thriving at ‘big school’, while the older children were graduating, finding jobs and making their way in the world.
‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
By 2018 the Lexi was beginning to outgrow itself. One screen simply wasn’t enough for the number of projects we were dying to do, from film festivals and networking groups to women-only refugee screenings and our hugely popular Lexi Film School. So we began planning for a second screen – soon named the LexiHub. Thanks to funds raised from Brent NCIL and the GLA Mayor’s Fund and with the remarkable support of our local councillors and the community at large, in 2020 we were able to break ground on this brand new, ecologically friendly building.
Sadly, the plans we’d been making for Brent’s Year of Culture had to be put on hold in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, which closed the cinema for the majority of 2020. But we weren’t idle: our Virtual Lexi discussion group ran for 27 weeks online, while the food bank we’d set up at the cinema remained open throughout lockdown, collecting (literally) a ton of food for local distribution. We received massive deliveries from our local Sikh temple, Shree Swaminarayan in Willesden.
But there were more challenges to come. In September 2020, just as the cinema was starting to reopen, a fire swept through the Lexi, causing huge damage to the foyer and auditorium. However, the response both from our immediate neighbours and from the wider film community was immediate and overwhelming: hundreds of people stepped in to offer support, and we were able to ask the expert team of builders already working on the Lexi Hub to also work on repairing the building. The refurbished Lexi and the new Hub both opened to the public in May 2021.
Meanwhile in Lynedoch, the eco-village’s food and seedlings distribution programme had to be put on hold due to Covid. But the school’s graduate pupils continued to thrive out in the ‘real world’, finding jobs as teachers, administrators and even film editors!
2021 – ????:
‘To Infinity and beyond!’
Despite the trials of 2020, the Lexi’s future looks brighter than ever. The Hub is now open, alongside its beautifully refurbished parent screen. Our community projects are flourishing once more, and we have a brand new website to help spread the word.
We’re immensely proud of all the work we’ve done, and endlessly grateful to everyone who’s helped us along the way, from volunteers and ticket buyers to all those at the Borough of Brent who recognised the urgent need for a new arts space in our community. If you’ve ever been to the Lexi, you probably already know how much we love you. And if you haven’t, why not pay us a visit?