Although now relying entirely upon the Multiplexes in Lakeside Shopping Centre and Retail Park, Thurrock once boasted a great number and variety of cinemas, particularly during the 1930s and 40s. For example, in the later part of 1940, there were 4 operational cinemas in Grays alone, seating a combined total of around 6000 people. The present-day VUE and UCI cinemas serve a much wider area, due partly to the closure of their predecessors in Thurrock, and only seat approximately 4000 when combined. Another significant change in cinema-going is that while Warner Village and UCI have the advantage of 7 and 10 screens respectively, usually showing a different film in each, cinemas previously were restricted to a single film in a single auditorium.
Thurrock's first purpose-built cinema, the Empire in High Street, Grays, was opened in December of 1910 and seated about 800 people. It had no competition for 3 years, until 1913 saw the opening of the Stanford-le-Hope Cinema Hall. Photographs of the front of the building survive, standing on the corner of London Road and Ruskin Road, but little is known about the interior. The venture appears to have been relatively unsuccessful however, as the cinema was closed within about 7 years.
The Tilbury Alhambra opened the following year and was significantly smaller in capacity than the Empire, with admission at its opening ranging from 2d to 1s. It put on a mixed programme of variety performances and films. In 1915 in an effort to increase profits, the Empire, Grays began to interweave live variety artists into its programme as the Tilbury Alhambra had done. The Alhambra itself became the Palace Cinema in 1921.
The 1930s saw a new wave of cinemas being built and opened in relatively quick succession. The first of these was the Regal Cinema in New Road, Grays, which opened in 1930. It was Thurrock's first 'super-cinema', complete with luxury furnishings, the latest technical equipment (including a 'Symphonique' organ) and seating for around 1500 people. Built by Fredericks Electric Theatres and designed by F.G.M. Chancellor of Frank Matcham and Co, it also showed variety acts as well as films. Five years later the Regal was followed by the Regent in Corringham Road, Stanford, which was relatively modest in proportions and seated only 585 patrons.
In 1938 came the arrival of the most significant cinema in Thurrock's history. The State Cinema, George Street, Grays, was opened in September of that year, designed and built by the same partnership that had created the Regal Cinema 8 years before. Another 'super-cinema', it cost over £100,000 to build and equip, featured a giant Compton Organ and seated 2200 people. The State also supplemented its programme of films with variety and concert performances. The opening programme describes the décor in particular detail:
'The Entrance Foyer...leads through to stalls foyer in contrasting warm colour schemes with richly figured fluted walnut pilasters which carry walnut canopies of original design on which the directional signs are carried as a decorative motif, being cut out letters in brilliant lacquer red.'
It is also interesting to note that cinema staff offered to take telephone messages for patrons, 'if they will be good enough to inform the Cashier at the Box Office that a call is expected'!
In the same year, a cinema opened on the East Tilbury Bata Estate, in Princess Margaret Avenue. Although seating less than 400 people and catering mainly for the entertainment of Bata employees, it was open to all who wished to attend its programme of films, plays, concerts and meetings.
At arguably the peak of cinema's popularity in Thurrock, the Ritz in Quarry Hill, Grays opened in 1940. Seating approximately 1500, it had not been built by Fredericks Electric Theatres but by another company controlled by Mr L. Morris, and proved a worthy rival to its neighbours. Its success forced the State to hire an impressive stage show to improve its own bill on Mondays and Tuesdays. However, the rivalry diminished in 1941 when the Ritz it was taken over by Fredericks.
In the same year, dwindling profits at the Empire, Grays, caused it to first close for refurbishment, then to reopen with a programme entirely consisting of stage performances. Closure followed soon after in 1942. Towards the end of the Second World War, the building was taken over by the Ministry of Food and used as an emergency storage depot. This ended after the war, at the same time as the Regal, New Road, Grays was transformed into a bowling alley and then finally demolished.
Some time later, in 1959, the Tilbury Palace ceased to operate as a cinema, having survived since 1914. In more recent times it has been used as a bingo and snooker club. During the following decade, the long-defunct Empire, Grays was demolished. Following this trend, in 1965 the East Tilbury Bata Cinema was also closed, and converted by Bata into a social hall. It now exists as East Tilbury Village Hall, having been taken over by Thurrock Council.
By the early 1970s, the State Cinema, Grays was owned by Mecca, then later by Mr B. Friedman. A campaign was launched by cinema enthusiasts ('The Friends of the Grays State Theatre') to keep the State open.
The Thameside Complex, Orsett Road, Grays, opened in 1972 and housed the Thameside Theatre, which in its early years also operated as a cinema. Seating around 300 people, at the time of its opening around 25 % of the theatre's entertainment programme consisted of film. It did not show new releases on their first run, but enabled the public to see films that they had originally missed, and also showed films of less commercial content than those shown at larger, purpose-built cinemas. The theatre also promoted the 'Thameside Film Society', with annual membership £1 in 1974!
Also during the 70s, the Regent, Stanford closed as a cinema. It is now the Regent Leisure Centre, where bingo, billiards and snooker are played. Continuing this theme, the Ritz in Grays became a Mecca bingo hall in 1979, and is still owned by Mecca today.
The State Cinema was finally closed in 1988 and threatened with demolition, but was saved from destruction by a preservation order. It reopened briefly in 1989, and live concerts began at the venue in 1991, when the auditorium was the largest usable cinema in the UK.
Today, the State Cinema is closed, but is owned by Morrisons supermarket and has the protection of being a Grade II* listed building. Thurrock now has only 2 operational cinemas, the West Thurrock Warner Multiplex opened in 1991 and the West Thurrock UCI Multiplex opened in 1989, situated in Lakeside Shopping Centre and Retail Park respectively. Both have a total seating capacity of over 2000, divided into 7 screens at Warner and 10 at UCI.