Cinema and the High Street: Robert Livingston

By Angie Jennings 4 months agoNo Comments

This article was originally published in Tripod the quarterly online publication by photographer and heritage specialist Colin McLean and is reprinted with his permission.

Cinema is flourishing.  That may seem an odd statement to make in this time of HDTVs, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, but there seems to be something special about seeing films as part of a social gathering, that never loses its appeal.

UK-wide, annual attendances have not dropped below 150 million in the last 15 years.  In our Screen Machine mobile cinema, annual attendances remain at the same level as when the service was first launched in 1998, so the novelty has never worn off!

Of course, historically it was a very different picture. UK cinema audiences peaked at an astonishing 1.4 billion in 1946, the highest attendance/population ratio ever recorded anywhere in the world, apparently. The Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project’s database records the existence of over 1100 cinemas in Scotland since 1902. The vast majority of those have of course been demolished, or turned to other purposes (usually large pubs called, with sad irony, something like ‘The Picturehouse’).

Things are gradually getting better.  Across the UK, some 144 cinemas are planned to open in the next five years, and only 17% of those will be in the kind of out-of-town locations favoured by the big multiplex chains in the 80s and 90s.  This pattern of growth can be seen, at a more modest level, in the Highlands and Islands, where, in the last 20 years, 10 different cinemas have been opened, re-opened, restored or enlarged, from Campbeltown to Lerwick, and by contrast only one cinema, in Fort William, has closed and not reopened (yet).

Significant success stories of recent years have been about the restoration and reopening of three historic cinemas: the oldest surviving cinema in Scotland, the Hippodrome in Bo’ness, from 1912; the oldest continuously operating cinema in Scotland, the Campbeltown Picture House from 1913 (reopening this autumn), and the Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy, from 1939. What these cinemas have in common is their central, highly visible, location in the townscape, in small urban communities with significant issues of deprivation, and in all three cases the cinema restoration has become a project around which the community has rallied, and wider regeneration benefits have come into play.

Other, similar, projects are in the pipeline.  In Edinburgh, the G1 Leisure Group have plans to reopen the sumptuous Art Deco Odeon in South Clerk Street, while in Portobello local residents are struggling to prevent the similarly styled George Cinema from being turned into flats.  And some historically significant cinemas still remain in fully commercial operation, from the lavishly comfortable, family-run Pavilion in Galashiels to the B-listed, seven-screen Perth Playhouse.

But there is another aspect to the links between cinema and the built heritage.  As cinema-going changes, the scope increases for smaller ‘boutique’ cinemas to be inserted into town-centre buildings which formerly had very different uses.  An extreme example might be the six-screen Peckhamplex slotted into a 1970s multi-storey car park, but there are many cases of new cinema developments being seen as ‘anchor’ developments in the refurbishment of now-tired shopping centres. Even if a new cinema development is not, in itself, in a building of historic significance, nonetheless, by bringing life, footfall, and local spend back into town centres, cinema developments can help boost the survival prospects of other historic buildings.

There is, however, a serious caveat to this otherwise heartening picture.  The vast bulk of the cinemas planned to open in the next five years are in England. The few Scottish examples are all in towns and cities that already have at least some form of cinema provision.  But there are five Scottish Local Authorities, home to 8% of the Scottish population, which have no cinema provision of any kind. Many other Local Authorities have large towns whose only cinema access is at an expensive, often hard to reach, edge-of-town multiplex.  The really disturbing factor is that so many of these communities which are deprived of the cinema experience are also multiply deprived as defined by the Scottish Government’s Index. That is, for a large part of the population, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to enjoy a film at a local, affordable, venue.

This is not an issue which can be left entirely to the market.  The normal pattern for the establishment of a new commercial cinema is that it forms part of a network of developments that includes a range of branded food outlets, such as those owned by Casual Dining (Bella Italia, La Tasca, Café Rouge, etc). That kind of development is not only unlikely to be commercially viable in most of Scotland’s Central Belt towns, but, in some cases, may result in an unwelcome uniformity that undermines the distinctive character of a community.  On a small scale, the way in which the Birks in Aberfeldy has indirectly led to the opening of other, locally generated businesses is an example of a more desirable pattern.

Commercially, the key role of cinema is now widely accepted by developers.  At a community level, cinemas continue to head almost any wish list of ‘things our community needs’.  Increasingly, the evidence is there, and many agencies now accept, that cinema development can deliver significant economic and social benefits, whether it’s creating jobs, retaining spend, overcoming isolation, or offering quality entertainment for families.  But, crucial to all of this is the role of Local Authorities.  Many of those 144 cinemas in prospect in the UK will have been made possible by Local Authority initiatives and partnerships.  But, in Scotland, I believe we have a particular challenge to overcome, to address areas of market failure, where a purely commercial model simply will not function.  Perhaps, instead of linking new cinemas to related retail developments, in some of Scotland’s communities the link could instead be with other cultural or social facilities that are at risk, whether those be libraries, museums, community centres, or even post offices or service points.

For too long dismissed as simply Hollywood-based cultural imperialism, cinema and screen provision has the potential to bring real and lasting benefit to many communities across Scotland.  But only if the political will exists to make it happen.

Robert Livingston is the Director of Regional Screen Scotland, which works to enable more people, in more places, to share more great screen experiences, and which operates the Screen Machine, the UK’s only full time mobile cinema.

Photo of The Birks Cinema, Aberfeldy © Colin McLean

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