Edinburgh Filmhouse: closure of Scotland’s leading independent cinema and film festival is a grim wake-up call

The news that the Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Festival have ceased trading is a tragedy for the film scene in Scotland - it also reminds us about the perilous state of cinema and live arts across the UK

<p>The Filmhouse in Edinburgh, which opened in 1979, has ceased trading</p>

The Filmhouse in Edinburgh, which opened in 1979, has ceased trading

It would be no exaggeration to say that film fans in Scotland have been jolted by the news that the organisation behind two of the country’s leading independent cinemas and the world-renowned Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) have suddenly ceased trading.

The Filmhouse in Edinburgh, the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen and the EIFF operated under the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), a charity which has received more than £1.7 million in annual grants from the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland and city councils for the current financial year.

But that even that taxpayer support was evidently not enough to save them. As our sister title The Scotsman reported yesterday, just over 100 staff were told that they were immediately being made redundant. Gut-wrenching news for anyone at any time, but especially during a worsening cost of living crisis.

The administrators who have been brought in, FRP Advisory, say they are seeking to transfer the EIFF brand and trademark and are “hopeful” the CMI’s assets will attract interest within the film business. That won’t inspire much confidence for any of the staff affected, however.

For generations of people in Edinburgh, the Filmhouse, along with the Cameo just up the road and the Dominion in Morningside, holds a special place in their hearts. I worked there for a few years as a student, first at the EIFF putting up posters at press calls and then in the Filmhouse box office - and the place had a special atmosphere.

You knew that some of the most talented directors and actors in the world had attended screenings and mingled in the bar over the decades - and every year when the festival came around you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullen or some auteur from the 1970s. I once found myself briefly chatting with the late Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn after a screening of his cult film Night Moves. As thrilling as it was surreal.

It’s no surprise that the news has been met with words of sadness in the film world, from Edgar Wright to Mark Cousins. The latter, a Northern Irish film-maker, journalist and regular face at the Filmhouse, included an important note of warning in his tweet: “Please don't take your cultural cinemas for granted. Please treasure them.”

A bastion for independent and arthouse film, with a regularly changing, diverse and challenging programme, the Filmhouse and the EIFF flew the flag for the world’s best cinema, at a time when multiplexes were simply filling their screens with whatever Marvel or Tom Cruise blockbuster was most commercially viable, and guaranteed to get bums on seats.

Has the habit of cinema-going been broken?

But therein lies the rub. The closure is being blamed on a “perfect storm” of audiences staying away since the pandemic, soaring energy bills, rising staffing costs and the cost-of-living crisis. The first of those reasons is no doubt linked to the rise in streaming and home entertainment choices, which has diminished the allure of cinema. When people have such an abundance of TV and films at their fingertips - and when so much of the media is now fixated on the latest Netflix or Disney+ hit - it’s increasingly difficult for independent cinemas to attract a viable audience.

Let’s not forget that before the pandemic, cinemas were doing a healthy trade. The UK box office had averaged between £1.3 billion and £1.6 billion every year since 2004. That fell to approximately £360 million in 2020 when the pandemic hit, grew to around £630 million in 2021 as Covid restrictions loosened, but has yet to get close to previous levels.

With audiences having broken the habit of regular cinema trips, and even major conglomerates like Cineworld Group recently reporting financial difficulties, right now it’s hard to see a viable future for movie-going. While independent cinemas have led the way with innovation in recent years, from director Q&As and live events to programming cult classics and double-bills, it seems like a radical reinvention is needed if people are going to get off their sofas and get along to venues like the Filmhouse in the future.

Ardent film fans are acutely aware of the loss that the shuttering of bold venues like the Filmhouse represents, but the rest of the public will need to be persuaded, and that can only be done by reminding them of the magic of sitting in a dark room with a hundred or so other people as the curtains open. Let’s just hope that more curtains don’t close on independent cinemas.