Cinema Crawl: City Screen – York

Image: Picturehouse Cinemas

Film is not just about what we see on the screen, but where we see it. With the rise of streaming and the ease of accessing thousands of films without leaving the house or speaking to a soul, it is worth remembering that films are often best experienced not just on the big screen, but with an audience. Going to the cinema, however, is becoming something of a luxury nowadays. With ticket and snack prices on the rise, going to the pictures is sometimes dauntingly expensive. You want to make sure, then, that when you do go to a cinema it is worth your time and money. Our Cinema Crawl series aims to highlight the delights and defects of the most interesting, best value, and most spectacular picture palaces out there.

The Place

A beautiful city deserves a beautiful cinema, and with City Screen, York has got just that. Part of the Picturehouse chain, City Screen has the feel of an independent cinema, with plenty of character and a good atmosphere. Entering it feels more like being welcomed into a bustling bar or restaurant than it does a cinema, with the large, natural light-filled Riverside Café-Bar filling the room, and the box office tucked away neatly in the corner.

The food options here are more extensive than many cinemas, including other Picturehouses, with full meals being served alongside the usual selection of drinks, snacks, and baked treats. The real selling point here, though, is the restaurant’s view of the famous River Ouse, with its balcony seating area proving one of the most attractive places to eat in the city. Consider that this is with a cinema, and you have a very appealing venue.

The cinema itself comprises 3 decently-sized screens in the upstairs of the building. Each one boasts reliable sound and picture quality with comfy, unfussy seats. The York Everyman is a plusher alternative, but for basic theatre-style seating City Screen delivers.

The Films

As part of the Picturehouse group, City Screen shows roughly the same films that you will find up and down the country in any other Picturehouse. They are, by and large, a very appealing mix of the big and the small. The place Picturehouse occupies in the market, much like Curzon, means that they will dutifully provide you with screenings of the really big releases, whilst trying hard to sneak some smaller films in there too.

Alongside making room for new independent and foreign-language releases, City Screen has a selection of regular strands that cater to the discerning customer’s various needs. Every week, there’s Discover Tuesdays, which showcases something especially little-seen, and then Vintage Sundays, putting a classic film back on the big screen. The latter often incorporates mini-seasons within this, so you might get four weeks in a row of Fellini or Sci-Fi landmarks in this Sunday slot.

Another draw in the Picturehouse programme is the amount of non-film showings they put on. With their Screen Arts strand, they regularly put on screenings of plays, ballets, and operas in collaboration with Royal Opera House Live and National Theatre Live.

Like with all Picturehouses, one of the most admirable things about the programming at City Screen, is their commitment to putting on accessible screenings for several different groups. They have Autism-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly screenings that are adapted in several ways to make the cinema experience more comfortable and enjoyable for those with autism or dementia. There’s also multiple different child-friendly screenings, adapted to different age groups. Toddler Time, for example, shows 30 minutes worth of pre-school entertainment to help introduce young children to the experience of going to the cinema. The Big Scream, on the other hand is designed to cater for parents, allowing those with a baby under one-year-old to enjoy the cinema without fear of disrupting others.

The only real disadvantage of looking to see a film at City Screen is that now and then there is the odd enticing title that is conspicuously absent from the schedules. This is due to the strict Picturehouse (and parent company Cineworld) adherence to theatrical windows. What this means is that if a company like Netflix or Curzon, with their Curzon Home Cinema online platform, want to release a film in cinemas, but then also put it online before sufficient time has passed (the ‘theatrical window’), then Picturehouse will refuse to screen the film at all. This is essentially a protest against the eroding of theatrical windows and the negative impact this may have on the cinema-going experience. Céline Sciamma’s glorious Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for example, was nowhere to be found in York city centre because it was available on Curzon Home Cinema alongside its theatrical release. This is still a fairly rare occurrence, however, and City Screen caters for most viewing tastes very well.

The Price

York is relatively light on cinemas, with City Screen and an Everyman being the only ones in the city centre. This makes City Screen the relatively cheaper option, without the extra-comfy armchair seating of its rival. At peak times it’s still not that cheap at City Screen so going to one of the multiplexes outside the city might be the most economical option at times. That said, there are some very good ticket options here.

A standard peak-time (weekends and before 5pm during the week) adult ticket will cost you £12.50, with that price dropping to £10.70 for weekday matinees. If you are retired or a student, you can knock £1 off those prices, and a child’s ticket never rises above £8. You can also pay child’s prices before 5pm Tuesday-Thursday if you are unemployed. Your best shot at a cheap ticket, however, is on ‘Happy Mondays’. At just £7.90 across the board, it’s one of the cheapest showings you will find in York. A good deal can be had for families (four people, at least two being children), too, with a group ticket priced at £32, £28.80, or £23.60 depending on when you visit. 

Those prices are just for normal showings but, as we have established, there’s way more on offer at a Picturehouse than just the standard screenings. This is where some of the best bargains can be found, too. Vintage Sundays are £8, and Silver Screen (running every Thursday before 5pm, free to join for seniors, and offering free tea or coffee before the film) is £7. The accessible Autism-Friendly screenings are just £3 each, and Dementia-Friendly showings are £4 for all. For those with children, the Big Scream is free for the babies, and priced at £8.70 for others, whilst Kids’ Club is £3 a ticket, and Toddler Time is £3 per child, with accompanying adults getting in for free. 

Like with most cinemas these days, the cost of a ticket is complicated by the option to buy a membership to City Screen. Further in line with modern cinema trends, there’s way more to consider than just whether to get a membership at all, with multiple types and tiers of payment and benefits on offer. Luckily, the Picturehouse website lays the options out very simply, letting you find the membership that is best for you based on your age, and which Picturehouse is your local.

In the case of City Screen, you will likely be looking for a non-London membership. This is the cheapest of the three options (the other two being London and West End), and gives you a range of benefits. Adult and Over-60s memberships offer exactly the same discounts and perks, for £52 or £47 a year respectively. Compared to some cinema memberships this isn’t too cheap, but you can make your money back fairly quickly if you use your free tickets at the right time (i.e. pay for the cheap weekday matinees and save your freebies for a peak-time showing). You get four free tickets with these memberships, which can be used not just at City Screen but at any Picturehouse venue outside of London; this includes Picturehouse Stratford, which is on the outskirts of the Capital.

Your discount, meanwhile, applies to every Picturehouse in the country and knocks £2 off your normal ticket price, and £3 off at West End venues Picturehouse Central and Fulham Road. A membership also means you can say goodbye to the 70p online booking fee, and hello to 10% off food and drink, some external partner discounts, and priority booking – which can be especially helpful for the preview screenings Picturehouse like to hold.

To make things even more complicated (but also appealing), there’s two upgraded versions of the memberships just described. Firstly, Premium Membership is a no-brainer. It’s a free upgrade that happens when you have been a member for a year or longer. So renew for a second year and you get a personalised membership card, invites to free Premium-only previews, and your food and drink discount jumps up to 20%. Then there’s Member Plus, which is basically membership for two people. You get twice the number of free tickets, you can bring up to three guests who will also pay member prices, and you get two membership cards. It’s double the membership, but it’s not double the price. At £94 a year, or £89 for Over-60s, it seems expensive but is pretty good value, especially when you consider that when upgrading to Premium Member Plus after a year, you get £10 off your renewal.

If you’re a student, then membership works a bit differently, and much more straightforwardly. No Member Plus. No Premium Membership. Fewer benefits altogether. But the important ones are there, and it’s very cheap. For just £25 a year, you get the usual discount nationwide, a whole 25% off food and drink (plus one free drink and popcorn), and two free tickets as well.

A nice detail of the Picturehouse memberships is that if you are eligible for a concession, your member discount applies to the concession price, not the full price. So you’ll still get your normal student or retired person’s discount, with an extra £2 off on top of that. For students in particular, the membership option here is extremely rewarding.

Like everything else in York, City Screen is great to look at. The Riverside café/bar/restaurant is in one of the best locations in the city and offers more food and drink options than many other Picturehouses. It’s not always the best value, but you also won’t find anywhere cheaper in the city centre, and the film selection is reliably solid. So as local cinemas go, City Screen is right up there.

Andrew Young