Empire of Light hits the UK big screen – plus a chance to win a movie inspired prize

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Movie Empire of Light – which was filmed in and around Margate between the end of February and May last year – goes on official UK release on January 9.

The film, written and directed by Sam Mendes, has already had a special screening at the Palace Cinema in Broadstairs and another will take place for invited guests at the Carlton Cinema in Westgate on Sunday (January 8).

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Empire of Light is a tale of people brought together by the magic of cinema. It stars Olivia Colman as Hilary, manager of the Empire, a once opulent seaside cinema in a once flourishing holiday town. But, in 1981, all three have fallen on troubled times.

Image Searchlight Pictures

Hilary loves the old place despite its crumbling state and, when it’s booked for a regional film premiere, she and the cinema staff – including dedicated projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), grumpy manager Mr Ellis (Colin Firth) and handsome new box office staff Stephen (Micheal Ward) – need to find the hope, energy and imagination to bring the Empire back to life. There’s a lot stacked against them pulling it off, not least the world outside the cinema’s doors in which recession, racism and unemployment are on the rise.

(From L-R): Micheal Ward, Sam Mendes and Olivia Colman on set of the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Alongside the cast, the creative team includes cinematographer Roger Deakins, designer Mark Tildesley, editor Lee Smith and casting director Nina Gold. They bring together a vivid picture of 1980s Britain in the film which explores the wonder of cinemas and the joy of watching movies on the big screen together.

Micheal Ward in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

The production brought an estimated £4million into the Thanet economy through everything from accommodation and food costs to items and services bought locally.

Many residents responded to the call for movie extras and 1300 people of all ages were cast as background artists throughout the shoot.

Locations used included Margate’s main seafront road, the beach, the Old Town, Cliftonville,, Darcy’s Café and Manston airport site.

Dreamland, Kent Film Office, Thanet District Council and Visit Kent are celebrating  Kent’s arrival on the big screen.

With its art-deco architecture and role as one of the UK’s most popular seaside destinations, Margate shines as the backdrop to the moving film with the faded Empire Cinema using Dreamland’s frontage and locations across the town.

The film has already earned Olivia Colman a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.

Eddie Kemsley, CEO Dreamland Margate, said: “It has been a real joy to work with Sam Mendes and the team behind Empire of Light. Watching them bring the iconic Dreamland seafront buildings back to life has been thrilling and inspiring. We hope that the film will encourage people to come to Margate and sample the delights on offer at Dreamland and in the town as a whole.”

Cllr Ash Ashbee, Leader of Thanet District Council, added: “I am delighted that Sam Mendes chose Margate as the main location for his film Empire of Light, recognising the golden sands and timeless charm of the town. My thanks go to the people and businesses of Thanet for their support during filming as well as to the many council officers who worked hard to make the shoot run as smoothly as possible.”

Colin Firth and Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Gabrielle Lindemann, from the Kent Film Office, said: “Working with our local partners, businesses and residents to facilitate filming for Empire of Light was a thrilling challenge for the Kent County Council Film Office.

“The request to build and manage a studio set that overlooks the real world instead of using CGI or back projection on some stage elsewhere was completely exceptional and, as far as we are aware, not previously attempted on this scale. Essentially, the entire, busy, modern seaside resort of Margate became a 1980’s film set for three months.”

Toby Jones and Olivia Colman in EMIRE OF LIGHT. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Dreamland, Kent Film Office, Thanet District Council and Visit Kent are pleased to be able to share a short, behind-the-scenes feature, created by Searchlight Pictures, using footage shot during filming for Empire of Light. It includes director and writer Sam Mendes, who praises Margate as “an extraordinary place”, with a “kind of magic to it”, as well as acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins who called the chance to film at Dreamland, “too good an opportunity”, with its sea-views and art-deco facade.

The behind-the-scenes look film is being shared by Visit Kent, Thanet District Council, Kent Film Office and Dreamland across their social media, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Micheal Ward in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

To celebrate Empire of Light’s  release, Visit Thanet, in partnership with Guest House Hotels, Dreamland and Southeastern, is offering one winner the chance to win the following prize for two people.

A stay at the No. 42 by Guest House Margate

Number 42 GuestHouse Margate will open next June

Be amongst the first guests to experience a ‘Guest House’ stay at this Victorian beach-front building overlooking Margate Main Sands. Includes a one-night, bed and breakfast stay for two adults.

A day out at Dreamland


Experience Dreamland’s beautiful vintage rides, including the famous Scenic Railway. Includes refreshment vouchers up to the value of £20 per head, which can be redeemed in selected food outlets in the park.

Empire of Light Bundle

An exclusive limited edition bundle of Empire of Light goodies including a mug, t-shirt, notebook and tote bag.


Return train tickets to Margate on Southeastern trains including the high speed rail service. The service takes approximately 90 minutes from St. Pancras International in London.

Full details of the competition (including partner Terms and Conditions), and instructions on how to enter are available here: www.visitthanet.co.uk/empirebreak



  1. The film had a good review on BBC film review. One section of the press voted this number 5 best film of 2022.

  2. So….Welcome to Film 2023 ,where we kick off with the keenly anticipated new release “ Empire of Light “ which is the new film which for the first time is both written and directed by Sam Mendes ( American Beauty /007 Spectre ) and stars Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Toby Jones .
    The film was mainly filmed last year in Margate , incl the seafront , by the Lido & Winter Gardens but there are scenes also on Broadstairs seafront , both towns aren’t referenced by name in the film but mainly look good in this film
    The film is based in 1980/ 81 and there’s been some very clever cinephotography by Roger Deakins where he avoided showing some of the more modern buildings like the Turner Contemporary when the shot opens up to show Margate seafront
    This film is essentially a multiracial love story with an age gap set in a seaside cinema during a period in the early 80’s UK when it had racial unrest .
    The acting throughout this film is top notch but special mentions for Colin Firth as the unpleasant cinema boss and Toby Jones as the projectionist .
    Although Dreamland cinema isn’t named it’s obvious that it was the inspiration for the cinema in this film and I noted that I had seen every single film either referenced by name or film poster in this film at the said Dreamland cinema back in the period this film was set .
    There’s a particular nice reference in this film to the Peter Sellers film “ Being there”
    Also “ Chariots of Fire “ gets a big reference
    If you followed the making of this film last year then you will know of the confrontation scene between the Mods and Skinheads ……
    Let’s just say it’s done very well and it’s a very impressionable scene and I think the result of it probably made most the near sellout cinema audience gasp like it did me .
    This film has contrasting light and shade , with a bit of humour as well showing the different sides to the personality of the character played very well by Olivia Colman
    This film isn’t about Margate but it was good to see so many parts of our area up on the big screen .
    In short I enjoyed this film , ( no spoilers) a couple of scenes were very powerful , I thought that it had a good ending and I recommend that you see this film as it’s very good .

    And there you have it ……. And why not ! Lol

  3. Julie, I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed . Maybe you’d like to leave your thoughts on the film after you’ve seen it .
    Btw. The film is 2 hours long and the time just flew by ,the sign to me of an enjoyable film so much so that I intend seeing it again next week .

    • I think that if for nothing else that you might see this film for how the music of 1980/81 are represented in it
      It brought back happy memories for me of when ska music was at its height and is representative of those times
      As for the character of Hilary crying ,played by Olivia Colman ,that you’ve made comment about , it’s just a part off her story so shouldn’t put people off from seeing it .
      She’s based on script writer and film director Sam Mendes mother and so reflects real life .
      I think it’s a shame if you don’t want to see a film because it reflects real life issues
      As I’ve said in my honest review this film has light and shade with tears of laugher and sadness where you end up caring about some of the characters and contrary to your previous conceived ideas when the film was being made , Margate looks good on the big screen ,as does Broadstairs seafront .
      I think that there could be some BAFTA awards for this film , I particularly liked Colin Firth’s performance
      Just one final point . Dreamland cinema is represented very well in this film ,it looks terrific and just makes one wish it was really open and functioning because it was such a wonderful cinema .in its heyday

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