In September, as disease stalked the land, the Highland Cinema opened in Fort William. Built like a red-roofed bothy and containing two screens and a cafe bar, it came to life because a local millionaire read that a small town ought to contain two things: an independent bookshop and an independent cinema. He already had the bookshop. Three months later, the Highland Cinema was forced to close due to Covid-19.
‘It was a bit of a surprise that we had to lock down at all, because the Highlands was one of the best tiers in Scotland,’ says Hamish McIntyre, the cinema’s marketing manager.
Now, after a long hard diet of grants and furlough, the Russian winter is finally over for this little picture house. It may properly commence life as a community cinema, which means blockbusters. There’s also more local fare on offer, such as a collaboration with the Fort William Mountain Festival, screening Free Solo and Touching the Void, and a talk from cameraman Keith Partridge.
Special events like this, notes Hamish, can massively help independent cinemas, as they are less likely to involve large distributor’s fees. They also highlight a positive away from the multiplex: the flexibility to screen what local audiences want. In Fort William that equals outdoor pursuits, understood via communications with the bike shop and the yacht and mountaineering clubs. However, it isn’t all Gore-Tex.
‘We were approached by a chap from the Polish community here who wanted to put on a Polish film. We said that’s great, if you have the numbers – and if you could tell us the name of a film because we have no idea whatsoever. But we’re quite happy to put on events for groups like that.’
While Highland Cinema is a new kid on the block, the past year has been all about hanging tough for the Dominion in Edinburgh. In October, its £20,000-a-month losses made national news. Established in 1938, this family-owned cinema – one of only two in the country – was wheezing.
‘It took six weeks to close the books and ensure every supplier was fully paid,’ explains director Alastair Cameron. ‘Negotiations with the bank started in the first week and took eight months to resolve. The company increased its lending by over 30%, taking us back ten years.’
Nonetheless, the Morningside doyenne forged on, and in November was one of the 30 independent cinemas awarded money from the Independent Cinema Recovery and Resilience Fund [ICRRF]. It was the first time in 83 years of trading that The Dominion had required a grant.
That financial support was resuscitating. Just as necessary, however, was the support of the community. If the Dominion’s Covid story has a moral, it is that tough times reveal true affection.
‘We didn’t know how our community felt about us until the pandemic,’ Alastair notes. ‘People would say nice things, but once we made a direct appeal we received an outpouring of love. So many people invested in private hires, tickets, and champagne packages, not forgetting generous donations.’
‘However, it was the memories people shared of visiting the Dominion over the decades that touched us. It was very uplifting when we were seven months in with no funding.’
Covid-era cinema funding schedules can be criticised. It was, after all, 5th July when the UK government’s ‘world-leading £1.57bn rescue package’ for Britain’s ‘world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions’ was announced. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden claimed such institutions were ‘the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries’. But it took four months to slice the world-conquering pie: £59m for Scottish culture and heritage became £31.5m for culture, then £15m for the Culture Organisations and Venues Recovery Fund; and finally, on 3rd November, £3.55m for the ICRFF.
Other buoyancy aids kept cinemas afloat while accountancy overran arts. There were grants, Bounce Back Loans, ‘super’ tax deductions promoting equipment purchases, and extended rent protections. Furlough, says Alastair, ‘was a godsend’.
Ultimately, however, the twin tales of the Highland Cinema and the Dominion, one old, the other young, have a commonality: community cinema matters to people. Moreover, it is a commonality the ICRFF confirms is widespread within Scotland: although a third of money went to the GFT, Filmhouse, and Belmont, there were venues in Orkney, Elgin and Campbelltown, art centres in Stornoway and Stirling, and Aberfeldy’s community-owned Birks.
Community cinema required handouts to get the doors open and projectors running. But it is the people who come together in the Highland Cinema, the Dominion, the Kino, Filmhouse, and the GFT that prove every town ought to contain a bookshop and a cinema. Such places exist for the community, and because of the community. For them to move forward, we must go back.
Find out more about Highland Cinema including what’s playing now.
Find out more about Dominion Cinema (re-opening 23rd June) including what’s playing now.