Filmhouse and GFT on indie cinema in 2018
New technology and the increasing sophistication of home cinema systems are putting a squeeze on indie cinemas across the UK, but Scotland's two great art houses, GFT and Filmhouse, appear to be weathering the storm
The reports of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Every few years, it seems an industry insider will write a hysterical thinkpiece exclaiming that “Movies are over, man.” The latest person to make such a definitive proclamation was Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn. “I have come to Lyon to declare film to be dead…,” he told the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw at the Lumière film festival in Lyon. “If you look at Instagram or Twitter or all these things that my children use – they’re all for free! What on earth are we thinking? That it doesn’t mean anything for cinema?”
It should be noted that Refn was launching his own streaming service by NWR, so he has skin in the game. As much as we usually enjoy the Drive director’s hyperbolic statements, we must respectfully disagree here. For one, cinema can’t be dead as long as people like Lynne Ramsay, Wes Anderson, Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Spike Lee and Paul Schrader are making films, to name a few of the filmmakers injecting life and imagination into the medium in 2018. To quote Richard Brody in the New Yorker, “Movies aren’t dying; they’re not even sick.”
It’s easy to be optimistic about the health of the movies when you live within travelling distance of one of Scotland’s two chief cathedrals of cinema: Glasgow Film Theatre and the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. While film fans in some cities in the UK are certainly underserved, Scotland’s independent arthouses continue to provide some of the most illuminating and vibrant film programming in the UK in the face of competition from home viewing and other commercial forces. Needless to say, though, keeping audiences' attention in this digital age isn’t child’s play.
“Beyond simply the challenge of getting enough people through the door, the biggest challenge for us is finding that perfect balance between commerce and art,” Rod White, Head of Filmhouse, told us recently. “That is, staying viable financially while fully supporting the great films we love that the ‘market’ tends to fail.” Filmhouse’s other significant challenge is that the Cameo, once another gem in the capital’s indie film scene and now part of the ever-growing Picturehouse chain, is just up the road. “Though not a competition for audiences per se,” notes White, the cinema does compete with Filmhouse for film titles. “We simply cannot get all the films we want on their release dates – where most of the income from them is realised – as many film distributors often prefer to supply our chain operator competition, to our exclusion, instead,” he explains.
Over in Glasgow, GFT has its own set of difficulties. “Our biggest challenge is ensuring there is a breadth of quality films being released in the UK,” explains Allison Gardner, GFT’s Programme Director. “While there are an increasing number of films being released, we have to balance the programme and often due to release date patterns can’t fit in all the films we’d like to show.”
When the UK film release schedule gives you lemons, these cinemas have to create their own lemonade, and that often means programming out of the box. “During the more lean periods for quality product, GFT looks to ensure a robust season of classics and curated seasons,” Gardner tells us. Take this summer’s release schedule, which as usual has been heavy on blockbusters but low on the type of indie and foreign language films popular with GFT’s audience. Gardner and her team’s solution was to look to the past, and, ironically, three blockbusters from the 1980s. “This summer we have had great audiences for the Indiana Jones trilogy,” she says, “and a season of Berlin-set films to tie in with the European Championships, among others.”
Filmhouse also looks beyond new releases when planning their programmes, and “do a huge amount of work with a number of externally-programmed festivals (Take One Action! is an example) who link us to their own distinct audience groups and networks.” The key, says White, is the cinema’s programming variety. “We try to give a lot of different audiences a lot of different reasons to keep coming back!”
Another way in which cinemas like Filmhouse and GFT are giving audiences a reason to leave their big screen TVs at home is including expert introductions, post film discussions and Q&A screenings with filmmakers. One such Q&A happened recently, when Glasgow-based filmmaker May Miles Thomas visited the cinema in August to present her new feature Voyageuse, and it appears to be an arrangement that works for both the filmmaker and the cinema. “Certainly for indie filmmakers the big plus of a Q&A tour is to meet audiences face-to-face to build positive word-of-mouth,” said Thomas when we asked about her experience. “Playing in cinemas also makes it easier to get reviews that in an online context is mission impossible.” Thomas agrees that Q&A are becoming increasingly popular in the arthouse circuit. “There’s a genuine appetite among audiences to meet filmmakers or actors,” she says, “even when a Q&A is via satellite, as I saw recently at a sold-out preview screening at the GFT of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.”
So we can agree, cinema-going in Scotland is relatively robust, but will it stay that way? A key factor to cinemas sustainability will be defying Refn's suggestion that young people raised on Twitter and Instagram won’t pay to see films on the big screen. It’s a challenge that both GFT and Filmhouse are aware of, but seem prepared for in several ways. GFT, for example, have a free membership card for 15 to 25 year-olds that offers tickets at £5.50 for all standard shows. “We promote this in conjunction with titles that we know a younger audience are interested in – BlacKkKlansman and The Miseducation of Cameron Post would be two current examples,” notes Gardner. Sometimes, though, it’s simply a matter of smarter marketing: “Often it is about communicating to that younger audience that those titles are on at GFT," she says, "as they may not necessarily expect us to be playing them, or may not even look beyond the Cineworld listings.”
Filmhouse, too, has youth-oriented schemes but agrees with Gardner that the hard part is getting younger cinephiles through the door. “When they are here, we try to infect them with our sheer unbridled enthusiasm for the medium – preferably without them really noticing!”
For more info on Filmhouse, head to https://www.filmhousecinema.com
For more info on GFT, head to https://glasgowfilm.org
For more info on May Miles Thomas' Voyageuse, head to https://www.voyageuse.co.uk