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British Cinema Owner, Distributor Romaine Hart Remembered for Pioneering Efforts

British Cinema Owner, Distributor Romaine Hart
Courtesy of Mike Kaplan

In a British cinema scene increasingly dominated by multiplexes, Islington’s Screen on the Green remains something of a landmark. It may no longer be the independent it once was — having been bought 14 years ago by the boutique Everyman chain — but the North London stalwart still stands out, its quirky half-moon facade, red neon signage and pun-heavy marquee beckoning audiences into its single, intimate auditorium.

The programming these days mixes artsy discernment with commercial necessity: this week’s bill, for example, balances “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” with an offbeat short film screening and album launch on the weekend. That balance of inclusivity and eccentricity has kept it a go-to venue for London film lovers, and is very much the legacy of its former owner, British exhibition and distribution legend Romaine Hart, who passed away last December at the age of 88.

In 1970, native Londoner Hart — the daughter of a cinema boss who showed her the ropes of programming and managing theaters — took over one of the family-owned fleapits, The Rex, making it over into the renamed Screen on the Green. In doing so, she changed the face of an arthouse circuit in the city that was refined but not especially fun, bringing a punk sensibility to the venue that aligned with the growing audacity and experimentalism of the era’s filmmaking.

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Romaine Hart Courtesy of Xander Hart

The cinema reopened with a premiere of the surprisingly cerebral Robert Redford skiing drama “Downhill Racer” — an apt compromise between mainstream and avant-garde sensibilities — with Laurence Olivier and Richard Attenborough among the luminaries in attendance. Hart’s on-the-money programming continued through the decade, as she pulled sizeable crowds to the likes of Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and even challenging them with such provocations as John Waters’ “Pink Flamingoes” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” Furthermore, she saw cinemas as more than just film venues, as the Screen on the Green — as well as six further Screen Cinema venues she acquired in the wake of its pioneering success — would further play host to comedy nights, poetry readings, themed parties and, most famously, an all-night punk gig, with films interspersed between performances by the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Buzzcocks.

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“Eraserhead,” Jack Nance, 1976 Courtesy Everett Collection

Eventually, merely exhibiting great cinema wasn’t sufficient for the ambitious cinephile and businesswoman, and she muscled in on the distribution game. Having founded her own label, Mainline Pictures, in the late 1970s, she demonstrated the same playful, broad-minded sensibility in her acquisitions that she did in her programming. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” and Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!” were among the eclectic films she brought to the U.K.; in particular, she had a keen eye for new talent, jumping on debut features by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Loveless”), Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”) and Todd Haynes (“Poison”), among others.

Homegrown cinema also thrived under her care. Though Stephen Frears’ boundary-breaking queer drama “My Beautiful Laundrette” was initially headed for TV — having been produced for Channel 4 on a minimal budget — its success at the Edinburgh Film Festival turned heads, and compelled Hart to take it on for cinemas, whereupon it became one of the year’s arthouse breakouts. As her career progressed, she gave back even more to the industry at all levels, sitting on the admissions board for the National Film and Television School and serving on the board of the now-defunct National Film Finance Corporation.

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“My Beautiful Laundrette,” poster, from left: Daniel Day-Lewis, Gordon Warnecke, 1985. Courtesy of Orion Pictures Corp./Everett Collection

Legions of other careers flourished under her guidance and influence, before her eventual retirement in 2008. BAFTA-winning producer Stephen Woolley (“The Crying Game,” “Carol”) began his journey into film as a lowly usher at the Screen on the Green; later, as a programmer at London’s cult Scala cinema, he collaborated with her on the release of “Eraserhead.” In his own tribute to Hart, published in The Guardian, Woolley stated how, “as a woman in the quite frankly sluggish and male-dominated 70s British film industry, her acumen, good taste, quick wit and infectious sense of humor stood out as a beacon of hope for so many who followed.”

Producer and distributor Mike Kaplan’s label Lagoon Releasing benefited from Hart taking a chance on their unusual titles (including the innovative David Hockney hybrid doc “A Bigger Splash”) in the 1970s. “[She was] a straight shooter who understood the art of film distribution, and a whirlwind of fun socially,” he recalls. “Her antennae quickly spotted trends and talent, sussing out what new locations would be conducive to her Screen brand. Unlike dealing with the bureaucratic levels of studio decision makers, Romaine was a breath of fresh air.”