Back to Black: A look ahead to Scottish cinemas reopening
As cinemas across Scotland prepare to return, we speak to three of the country's best independent cinemas to find out how they've been weathering the COVID storm and what they're most looking forward to screening once they reopen
The 93rd Academy Awards were a strange affair. For the first time in the history of this celebration of cinema, actual cinemas were not a prerequisite. During its previous 92 editions, competing films required a run in a commercial theatre to qualify. In 2021, out of necessity, any stream would do, be it Prime Video, Netflix or Disney+.
It’s not just Oscar voters who’ve had to make this compromise. Cinephiles across the globe have been denied cinema (the bricks and mortar kind) for most of the last 15 months. After only nine weeks of trading during a brief period in 2020 between lockdown 1.0 and lockdown 2.0, the lights went down in cinema auditoriums across Scotland in October last year and haven't come back up since. Alice Black, Head of Cinema at Dundee Contemporary Arts, has been feeling this loss. “Don't get me wrong, I am not against streaming and love a good night on the sofa with a box set, but the pandemic has only reinforced how different the cinema experience is,” she says. “I love how cinema expands my world and it definitely feels like it has shrunk in the past year.”
Our world is going to get a bit bigger over the coming weeks, as the venues we love tentatively open their doors again, including three of our favourite independent cinemas: DCA, Glasgow Film Theatre and Filmhouse in Edinburgh. For the people who run these adored institutions, it’s been a year of heartbreak, but also a year of adapting.
Even before cinemas were forced to close due to the pandemic, the theatrical lifespans of films had been shrinking. For many distributors, theatrical runs had become token marketing opportunities to get their films reviewed and qualified for awards consideration before going straight to streaming. Cineworld (and its boujee offshoot Picturehouse), the UK’s largest cinema chain, had been trying to hold the line on an exclusive theatrical window of at least three months before a film can appear on a streaming service or video-on-demand platform. When cinemas reopen on 17 May, multiplexes have agreed to shrink this window to a mere 31 days, which will still be too long for some distributors.
Diminishing cinema exclusivity isn’t the only worry chains like Cineworld face. As we saw last year during that nine-week window, the multiplexes have become so reliant on massive Hollywood blockbusters that their business model only works if enough of those type of films get released when cinemas reopen. “Don't put all your eggs in one Bond basket,” is the advice from Allison Gardner, CEO of Glasgow Film, referring to the panic faced by multiplexes last year when No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, repeatedly moved back its release date.
While organisations like Filmhouse and GFT do receive government funding to help with their operations, ticket sales and spending in their cafes and bars are their largest source of income. They can’t be so easily held to ransom by skittish Hollywood studios nervous about releasing their films during such uncertain times, however. “I think being less hooked into the opening weekend/box office bonanza paradigm leaves us a little more room to adapt on the other side of this,” says Rod White, Head of Programming at Filmhouse.
Gardner agrees that independent cinemas seem better placed than multiplexes to weather the post-pandemic storm. After all, they’ve been adapting their business to the world of streaming and day-and-date releases (the practice of releasing films in cinemas and online simultaneously) for years. “We already had a more robust model [than multiplexes], in terms of screening long-tail releases and the breadth of work that we show,” she says. “We were already ahead of the game in many ways: GFT already did screen films on day-and-date when they were already on streaming platforms, so that’s not an issue for us. It wasn't the pandemic that taught us those lessons.”
Flexibility of programming wasn’t the only flaw exposed in Cineworld’s business practices. It was deeply disheartening to see how quickly they threw staff under the bus as it became clear back in March last year that cinemas would have to close for an extended period. Those who had worked for the company for less than 18 months were sacked with no compensation while workers with less than three years of service got a measly two weeks pay as part of their redundancy.
Gardner explains that it was important for her that no one at Glasgow Film was laid off due to the pandemic. “We've paid all our staff 100% of their wages throughout the whole period,” she says. “That is something I'm immensely proud of. And I genuinely think our audiences will applaud that.”
DCA has been similarly committed to supporting all its staff at all levels throughout the pandemic. “In an ideal world, companies would recognise that treating your staff fairly is ultimately good for your business and your profit line,” says Black, “but I'm not sure if there has been a radical rethink or if operators will go back to the status quo.” Gardner suggests that audiences can vote with their wallets in this regard. “My desire and wish is that all audiences across Glasgow and Scotland support the organisations that have behaved well and treated their staff with dignity,” she says.
It was apparent that even before the COVID crisis, the cinema exhibition business was a precarious one being continually reshaped by the growth of streaming platforms. The pandemic has just accelerated many of the changes that were inevitable, and it’s clear that simultaneous digital and cinema releases are now fair game for Hollywood movies, as it has been for smaller films for years.
Rather than close their eyes to these changes, Filmhouse, GFT and DCA are rolling with the punches. All three cinemas launched their own VOD platforms during the most recent lockdown, each with its own particular flavour. New releases like indie comedy-drama Black Bear and Sisters With Transistors, the new doc celebrating the visionary women who are key to the history of electronic music, sit alongside a selection of older classics. One of the most appealing aspects of these platforms is their careful curation: one doesn’t need to endlessly scroll through filler titles to find the gold. Each film is the kind of thing you’d expect to turn up on these cinemas' screens.
For Black, the closure of DCA’s doors has been a chance to take a lay of the land and plan ahead. “Being closed has crystalised how important cinema is to the organisation as a whole I think – not just as an income generator but as one of the much-loved elements of our programme. I think being off-screen has increased our desire not only to resume our cinema offer but to expand it both through our new VOD platform [called DCA at Home] and the redeveloping of our building to fit in a third or even fourth screen!”
It’s also been a time for reflection at GFT. “We're taking time to look at how we can be more fleet of foot in the future,” says Gardner. “Luckily for us, Glasgow Film is not a behemoth that's slow to turn; we can do things very quickly because we control everything. So we make our own decisions and we have a great team who are really keen to look at how we can be more accessible. Maybe it's not business as usual once cinemas reopen: there are lots of things that we've learned and we'll be looking at what are the good things that we can take going forward.”
What’s most apparent from catching up with these cinema heads is that they’re desperate to open their doors again. “I didn’t know how much I’d miss imposing my taste on unsuspecting cinema-goers…” says White. One film he won’t be able to do that with is Promising Young Woman, one of the most discussed films of the year so far. “That’s a film we simply won’t be able to screen,” he laments, “which is such a shame but it was bought by Sky TV for the UK.” There are plenty of films he is excited to screen, however, including First Cow, The Father and Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. He’s also eager to showcase three films despite them having already been released on streaming and VOD platforms: Minari, Nomadland and Sound of Metal.
Gardner is also keen to screen Minari and Nomadland in spite of their availability elsewhere. “Audiences may have already seen them on a streaming service, but the cinema experience will really work for films like Nomadland and Minari, so come and support them and see them in a cinema.” She’s also excited to see Ammonite on the big screen as well as A Quiet Place Part II. “I'm like everybody else, I want those big-screen experiences for those films that I think would be really enhanced by it – I don’t really care about the Bond, though,” she laughs.
When DCA closed last October, it was right before Supernova and Another Round were due to be released. “I was gutted we were unable to show them,” says Black. “ But thankfully, they've been rescheduled for a theatrical release later in the year, so that dream is still alive. And it is very satisfying that it looks likely our reopening programme will include two of the very best films from last year, both directed by women – Chloe Zhao's Nomadland and Kelly Reichardt's First Cow.”
All this love for Nomadland, despite its current availability on Disney+ is heartening and suggests that streaming services and cinemas can coexist side by side. It will also be pleasing news to its star and producer, Frances McDormand. While picking up the Best Picture Oscar, she implored people to return to the big screen. “One day, very very soon, take everyone you know into a theatre, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space, and watch every film represented here tonight.”
We can't wait to follow that advice.