The struggles of our independent cinemas
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.