The strug­gles of our in­de­pen­dent cine­mas

The Church of England - - REVIEWS - Steve Parish

It’s the cue to switch off the mo­bile in in­de­pen­dent cine­mas across Europe – the jingly cym­bals of the Europa Cine­mas net­work sig­na­ture tune [http://goo.gl/w7WsII]. In one venue it will be heard no more.

Manch­ester’s Corner­house has closed and moved to HOME, a new arts venue down the road shared with the Li­brary Theatre Com­pany (whose orig­i­nal home, the Grade II* Cen­tral Li­brary, has had a £40m makeover). Tak­ing over the for­mer News Theatre (af­ter a spell as an “adult” cinema) for its main screen and squeez­ing two small screens into the base­ment of an old fur­ni­ture store, Corner­house be­came the art house cinema of choice in the city 30 years ago – though the Aaben cinema in down­town Hulme strug­gled on a few more years.

The glo­ri­ous art deco Ty­ne­side Pic­ture House opened in 1937 (again as a News Theatre) and was res­cued and re­opened in 2008. The Hyde Park Pic­ture House at Leeds was res­cued by the City Coun­cil in 1989 – when coun­cils had money – and cel­e­brated its cen­te­nary last Novem­ber (and Leeds also has the Rex in El­land and the Palace in Armley). The Duke of York’s in Brighton claims to be Bri­tain’s old­est cinema in con­tin­u­ous use, with the Phoenix in Finch­ley close be­hind.

Theatr Col­wyn in North Wales, opened in Jan­uary 1909, lays claim to be the old­est op­er­at­ing Bri­tish cinema, closely fol­lowed by the Elec­tric in Birm­ing­ham, but both had pe­ri­ods where they “went dark”. Although Liver­pool has its mod­ern Pic­ture House, out in the sub- urbs is the old Woolton Pic­ture House, just round the cor­ner from St Peter’s Church and the grave of Eleanor Rigby – maybe she’d been a regular at the cinema, where even though they’ve moved to dig­i­tal pro­jec­tion they still stop the film for an ice cream in­ter­val.

Away from the cities, and of­ten wait­ing a while to get the films, there are in­de­pen­dent cine­mas in odd places. One of the small­est is a for­mer church in Lyn­ton (seat­ing 68), and an­other in an old church on the Isle of Wight is ac­tu­ally called “Sa­cred Cinema”, but more fa­mous is the Kinema in the Woods at Wood­hall Spa in Lin­colnshire, com­plete with back pro­jec­tion and the mighty Comp­ton or­gan.

A lot of th­ese are try­ing to get the main­stream movies rather than art house films, and there are cinema clubs in all sorts of places – there’s even fund­ing avail­able for try­ing new venues, but ex­pect to fill in a ques­tion­naire for “feed­back”. So in­de­pen­dent cine­mas may not be show­ing in­de­pen­dent films.

Even “in­de­pen­dent” may mean lit­tle as the big dis­trib­u­tors have bought up some of the smaller indie compa- nies, and have started their own. Warner Bros even la­belled their own sub­sidiary “Warner In­de­pen­dent Pic­tures” - then closed it and re­launched as Pic­ture­house (no re­la­tion to the Bri­tish cinema chain, owned by Cineworld).

Oc­ca­sion­ally a low-bud­get film like Mon­sters (2010) can break into main­stream, but there are those where even evan­ge­lis­tic zeal – like mine for Mor­ris: A Life With Bells On (2009) – isn’t enough. The mak­ers had to rely on self-pro­mo­tion and bookings in vil­lage halls, and even then Xan Brooks in the Guardian had to point out that this was rel­a­tive suc­cess com­pared to a “slush pile” of undis­tributed indie films [http://goo.gl/ui­wmbU].

Mul­ti­plexes were meant to al­low for more in­de­pen­dent films, more subti­tled films, and more chal­leng­ing films to get seen in more places. It hasn’t worked like that, and in par­tic­u­lar fewer for­eign lan­guage films get an au­di­ence.

The dis­trib­u­tors may say the mar­ket has waned but, if a film isn’t shown any­where, it’s hard to judge the mar­ket. That’s com­pounded by fewer for­eign films be­ing shown on TV, de­spite the pop­u­lar­ity of Nordic noir mur­der mys­ter­ies.

In­trigu­ingly, many for­eign films seem more will­ing to deal with “spir­i­tual” mat­ters, even if vaguely so, com­pared to the for­mu­laic Hol­ly­wood norm, and Os­car® win­ner Ida is a case in point, deal­ing with a novice nun’s search for her fam­ily his­tory. It’s hard to imag­ine a Bri­tish ver­sion of Into Great Si­lence, Philip Grön­ing’s 2005 doc­u­men­tary about life in a Carthu­sian monastery.

Even if the Bi­b­li­cal epic is back (and an an­i­mated ver­sion of Noah on the way) and even if the Hol­ly­wood for­mula al­lows for re­demp­tion of at least one char­ac­ter as a familiar theme, it’s hard to es­cape the feel­ing that the big stu­dios play safe, and spir­i­tual isn’t safe. Search­ing out the indie film-mak­ers, and watch­ing their work some­where other than a look-alike Screen 7 of 15, makes it more likely that one finds some­thing deeper, and closer to ques­tions about life in all its full­ness.

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