Regeneration? Part 3: Beyond the London Thing

By Chris Chandler

Art house cinema is a London thing. A recent report by London Economics [1] found that 59% of the admissions and 71% of box office for a sample of eight Artificial Eye titles came from the 31 'specialised' cinemas in the Capital. Whilst prepared to concede that, just perhaps, selling non-mainstream titles to Londoners isn't best compared to shooting fish in a barrel, it is clear from this statistic that non-mainstream exhibition in the rest of the UK is under-achieving. As a reminder, the population of London is perhaps 7 million, and the population of the UK just a little under 60 million. Even allowing for tourists and long-distance commuters, that's something like 15% of the population generating 71% of the takings for the 8 titles in the sample [2].

Yet I do not think that this is proof that people living in non-metropolitan Britain – most of us – are uninterested in cinema. Regional art house exhibition is in crisis and probably has been for so long that everyone - including the people who run and support the cinemas - has learned to ignore it. Audiences stay away because they cannot get to a screen, because the local art house is dilapidated, or because by the time the film they wish to see makes it out of the big cities they have forgotten to look out for it, or for one of a number of other reasons. The causes of the crisis are complex and like all the best complex problems are no-one's fault. The solution, too, resists a simple analysis.

There are perhaps 130 art house or specialised cinemas in the UK. A minority of these are owned by the five or so commercial art house chains (the market leaders are Mainline, Oasis, Robins, City Screen and Mayfair). A handful are owner-operators, genuine independents. The majority are owned and operated by a combination of local authorities and private or charitable trusts. The commercial chains seem to be in an expansionist mode at present, aided by the National Lottery which has provided grants to construct venues owned by two operators and is considering an award to at least one other. Outside of London, these commercial operators naturally wish to cherry-pick the most promising locations, typically university towns with their students and favourable, ABC-rich demographics. This is not to castigate them for having faint hearts or failing to play a team game but to point out a perceived limitation to their ability to expand. Even in these high-worth locations it can be hard for them to raise capital, hence the engagement with the Lottery. Local authority support for cinema is very patchy. Many regard cinema not as an art form (and therefore worthy of support and subsidy) but as a cash cow to support the 'real' arts of theatre, dance and music. In any case, the days of local authority largesse in building – or even maintaining – cultural facilities are gone and in some cases the managing presence of a committee of councillors can act as a sheet anchor to cultural and commercial innovation. Charitable trusts manage the majority of the so-called RFT network. Trusts are a flexible solution to the management of many arts facilities. They belong, broadly speaking, to the voluntary sector and are governed by Charities Act legislation which brings (limited) tax advantages and protects assets. In common with the whole of the voluntary sector, there are difficulties of governance (finding trustees - charitable company directors – who without payment, training, thanks or reward can sustain companies, some with a turn-over of £500,000 or £1 million). Trusts tend to be heavily reliant on grants and find it difficult or impossible to raise commercial loans for capital purposes.

There are, perhaps, 96 specialised cinemas in the UK outside of London with 121 screens. That is, approximately one screen per 413,000 of us. That compares to 28,800 per mainstream screen. The distribution is far from even. There is no art house cinema in Leeds, Portsmouth, Basingstoke or in the whole of the Teesside conurbation (consisting of the towns of Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hartlepool and a catchment of around half a million people). There is only a single screen in Brighton; a single, part- time screen in Canterbury, Luton or Leicester. Croydon, by European standards a city in its own right, has only a single full - time screen seating 60. How many people will drive 45 minutes to see Drifting Clouds or Palookaville? Let alone embark on a perilous journey by public transport – which may in any case cease running before the end credits roll.

The cinemas that do exist – particularly those owned by trusts – tend to be desperately under-capitalised. Of the 32 or so venues that in the past 5 years have featured on the BFI's list of RFTs, only one (Harbour Lights, Southampton) was a new build. All the others are conversions. Regional art house screens, hermit crab-like, inhabit buildings which used to be warehouses, schools, town halls, corn exchanges, theatres, skating rinks, Methodist chapels and even a deconsecrated military chapel. Some of these conversions are clever, stylish and ingenious. Many are well-loved by loyal core audiences. All are compromises and (often) operationally compromised. Almost all were converted between ten and thirty years ago and many are showing serious signs of ageing in their current facilities and a need to add new ones to attract and retain audiences. Seating is worn and falls short of the deluxe standards of the multiplexes, carpets threadbare, decor dated and lavatories range from rudimentary to death-defying. Many managers are convinced that their venues need an additional screen (or two, or three) to obtain titles on or close to London release dates, maximise revenue and provide the flexibility to juggle first run, repertory and educational screenings. Few venues have the front of house circulation space to exploit commercial opportunities from bars, catering, retailing and confectionary which buoy up the profits of mainstream exhibitors.

Core audiences are, however, loyal. They need to be to persevere with the oddities of some venues. Cinema 3 in Canterbury is housed in the Cornwallis lecture theatre of the University of Kent. It operates four days a week, term times only. Audiences sit on thinly-padded benches with writing desks in front of them. The Metro in Derby is housed in the old art school, now a part of the new university, part of a maze of late Victorian corridors and lecture rooms. There are no weekday matinees because the auditorium is needed for lectures and at weekends the building echoes emptily. The cinema office looks as if it was originally a large, walk-in store room for artists' supplies. The people who run these and other venues, create vibrant programmes, keep film culture alive, are indeed heroes.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is currently engaged in a review of Film Policy. One of the issues it will be addressing will be – and I quote from a Ministry press release – "broadening the audience and improving access to good cinema". This, despite its faintly patrician tone, is an aspiration which most people involved in 'art-house', 'specialised' or 'non-mainstream' exhibition would wish to applaud.


[1] A Study of the Specialised Cinema Sector, London Economics and Dodona Research, London, 1997 (for the Arts Council of England, British Film Institute, Cinema Exhibitors Association, COMEX, All Industry Marketing)
[2] Amateur, Clerks, Crumb, D'Artagnan's Daughter, Exotica, Farewell My Concubine, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Three Colours: White. Data taken from release dates in 1994-5. Study of the Specialised Cinema Sector, ibid.

Chris Chandler is Regional Development Officer at the BFI.