Filmhouse and EIFF closure leaves Scottish film community in shock
The immediate closure and sacking of staff at Filmhouse, Edinburgh Film Festival and Aberdeen's Belmont is heartbreaking, and could spell a warning for more bad news
The film community in Scotland was knocked sideways yesterday by the news that two of the most important and most-loved arts institutions in Edinburgh – Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival – have closed their doors, seemingly for good. Over 100 members of staff at Filmhouse and EIFF, as well as Aberdeen's equally vital independent cinema the Belmont, were told yesterday morning (6 Oct) that they had lost their jobs as the Centre for Moving Image, the umbrella company of all three organisations, fell into administration.
In a statement, the CMI board cited “the combination of sharply increasing energy and other costs, together with both the lasting impacts of the pandemic and the rapidly emerging cost of living crisis affecting cinema attendances” as the chief reasons for the measure.
First and foremost, our hearts go out to the great team of people at Filmhouse, EIFF and Belmont, many of whom we count as friends, who were dealt this hammer blow. The Skinny has been writing about and collaborating with these organisations since our inception and a future where they’re no longer part of Edinburgh and Scotland’s cultural landscape seems almost unthinkable.
Filmhouse: 'A home away from home'
Filmhouse has been serving Edinburgh cinemagoers since 1978 and it’s hard to overstate its importance. Edinburgh does not want for cinema venues – for a city of its size, it arguably has too many screens – but Filmhouse is more than a building in which to enjoy a night at the movies. It has long been part of the cultural fabric of the city. It's a communal space, a place of learning, and a home away from home for many in Edinburgh. For over 40 years, its daring programmes have been inspiring audiences and giving them a window to great cinema from around the world.
A quick glance at the cinema's now sadly curtailed October programme tells you everything you’d need to know about its importance to film culture in Edinburgh. This month you could have watched a selection of Hollywood films from the Pre-Code era, 14 films from the London Film Festival programme, and a quartet of films by Black British filmmakers in honour of Black History Month. Centenary!, Filmhouse’s yearly retrospective celebrating the films released exactly a century ago, was about to kick off with FW Murnau’s classic horror Nosferatu performed with a live score.
Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival and the Queer East Film Festival were in full swing. Scotland Loves Anime, the UK’s longest-running Japanese animation festival, had over a dozen screenings planned near the end of the month. This isn’t to mention the eclectic programme of new releases, many of which that won't find homes in the more commercially-driven cinema chains operating in the city like Everyman, Odeon, Vue and Cineworld (who also own and operate Picturehouse). No other cinema in Edinburgh, and very few in the UK, can hold a candle to Filmhouse's programming in its depth and range, and it’s hard to imagine the gaping hole that will be left being filled anytime soon.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival is equally well-loved and even more established. It celebrated its 75th birthday alongside the Edinburgh International Festival in the summer. A mint-fresh artistic team led by Kristy Mathison, the CMI’s new creative director, brought a brand-new vision to the festival and many forward-thinking innovations in terms of the festival’s programme and structure. It felt like EIFF was finally on the cusp of a resurgence and was finding its voice after a few moribund editions. All that promise looks now to be in jeopardy; it would be a tragedy if EIFF doesn’t make it to 76.
'How did it get to this point?'
After the shock and sadness of yesterday morning's news comes anger. The first question that comes to mind is: How did it get to this point? In a statement, the CMI laid out some mitigating factors. Some of the challenges facing the organisation are fresh and ever-changing, like the energy crisis that will cause the charity’s yearly energy bills to skyrocket by an eye-watering £200,000, and a 10% increase in staff wages on the horizon to meet the cost of living crisis. Some of the other issues they cite have been bubbling under for some time, however.
Audiences haven’t returned in the same numbers following the pandemic, with Filmhouse’s box office admissions around half what they used to be. “Only 57% of cinema audiences have come back to the cinema since the pandemic,” CMI estimates, “with older audiences less likely to have returned. The rise of streaming platforms has led to people having greater choice of what to watch at home, and has led to people getting out of the habit of coming to the cinema.”
It’s hard to know, without more knowledge of CMI's financial state, what the organisation could have done to combat this decline in income. Increasing ticket prices to match inflation would surely only accelerate the problem of cinema admissions, and help doesn’t seem forthcoming from the Scottish Government. “Public funding has been at a standstill or reducing for over eight years,” says CMI, “ and had been reducing in real terms value throughout that period. The more recent steep rise in inflationary costs reduces the real terms value even further. Additionally, our funders and the Scottish Government have indicated that the outlook beyond March 2023 for public funding is highly uncertain, given the other pressures that they have, making planning beyond that point almost impossible.”
Still, it seems strange that CMI didn't act on these warning signs sooner. Surely there were some intermediate measures that could have been taken before deciding to dissolve this cherished institution and sack almost all of its staff. I’m sure that over the coming days and weeks, more information will emerge as to what exactly went wrong at CMI and why more hasn’t been done to try and prevent this heartbreaking closure.
FRP Advisory have been appointed administrators and we’re told they will work with Creative Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council and Aberdeen City Council to explore the future of the CMI and to support staff through the process.
The speed of this closure of Filmhouse and EIFF feels unprecedented. I can’t recall such a brutal extinction of institutions of this size and importance in the recent past. We can only hope that this isn’t the first of similar closures. The Scottish film culture is a fragile ecosystem and, evidently, even monoliths like Filmhouse and EIFF are vulnerable. They clearly need protecting and hopefully serious conversations are being had within the Scottish screen sector to ensure other much-loved institutions do not go the same way.