Historic Cinema's Future In Digital Age Uncertain
Passions have been running high over plans to convert the historic auditorium of Edinburgh Cameo Cinema One.
An oft quoted factoid that you hear in Edinburgh is that the city has more pubs per capita than anywhere else in Scotland. There's no shortage of places to drink, with bars at every turn. So you can understand why a recent proposal by arthouse cinema chain City Screen to convert Edinburgh's oldest cinema into a large bar and restaurant met with such widespread protest and disbelief.
The 250-seat Cameo One is a unique cinema. Its neo-classical auditorium has been largely unaltered or subdivided since it was built in 1914, which gives it a classy ambience that the modern multiplex, for all its functionality, can't emulate.
Under the new planning proposal the Cameo's two small screens (63 and 80 seats) would remain, with the current bar, only recently refurbished, being converted into a 31-seat venue which would be available for corporate hire. The auditorium in Cinema One, beloved by Edinburgh film fans and audiences at the Edinburgh Film Festival (Quentin Tarantino apparently called it the most beautiful cinema in the world), would undergo a conversion that would make it unrecognisable from what it is now.
"It is accepted that the original main auditorium will now enter an incarnation which it is intended will offer a multi-function screening use," wrote City Screen managing director Lyn Goleby, in response to public concern about the Cameo's future. "Apart from the existing cinema use, which would remain, additional uses envisaged would be: Lecture theatre, Cinema workshop, Product launch and presentation space, Conference area."
The proposals have met stiff opposition locally, which City Screen says led to their prompt decision to put the cinema up for sale.
"That makes it extremely vulnerable," says Genni Poole, who is leading the Save the Cameo Campaign. The daughter of Jim Poole, who ran the Cameo for many years, she says that the cinema could become food and drink led. The Cameo is a category "C" listed building, which means that its interior is not protected for conservation value. Hence the fears that The Cameo could become a superpub, or as their campaign literature puts it "a change of use from a cinema with bar attached to primarily a bar with a cinema attached."
Digital Cinema Network
The proposal comes at a time of huge change for cinema in the UK. The Cameo, along with the UGC and The Filmhouse, is slated to be upgraded for digital projection next year as part of a nationwide, virtual network of 240 screens in up to 200 cinemas. This initiative verges on revolutionary in that it will double the number of digital screens in the world. Digital cinema will make it economically and logistically feasible for arthouse theatres to offer a wider range of documentaries, British, foreign language, and what the British Film Council calls "specialised (or non-mainstream)" films.
Between £50,000 and £55,000 per cinema of public money is being distributed by the British Film Council to install high definition projectors and computer servers with libraries of films, each a file of around one gigabyte in size. The upgrades to cinemas, which have already started, are expected to be completed by Spring 2007. Cinemas chosen to be part of the network were those that carried a diverse programme of films, catering to specialised areas, such as arthouse and ethnic minorities, and support local producers.
Size doesn't matter
How will this effect any plans to alter the Cameo? "In the event that the cinema changes, the new owners will have to sign up to the same terms and conditions," says Steve Perrin, deputy head of distribution and exhibition at the British Film Council. However, the criteria for these grants is programming based, rather than the size of cinema. Cinemas must devote a set percentage of programming time to specialised programming. "Capacity is not the issue for us," says Perrin.
Cinemas are shrinking as our viewing habits change. It's still to be seen what the impact of more specialised programming, made possible by the digital cinema network, will have on those habits, but it probably wont get any easier to fill big movie theatres specialising in non-mainstream fare, like Cameo 1.
Genni Poole points out that the Cameo is now making a profit, but its owner City Screen is making losses as a whole. "The Cameo is carrying the can for their losses," she says. At the same time, Poole, who played in the auditorium as a child, concedes that the Cameo may have to change in the future. "It can't necessarily stay like it is indefinitely... but it's about respecting what it offers to the cinema-going public."
She believes the main auditorium should remain intact with more varied use, like special events, while screens 2 and 3, which don't have the same heritage value, can be adapted.
Passions are running high. At a townhall meeting, in late November, over 250 people crowded along the aisles and into the corridor outside the main hall to discuss the future of the cinema. On Thursday 8th December, the day before the deadline for objections to the planning proposal closed, Trainspotting star Ewen Bremner joined Genni Poole as she handed a 1600 signature petition to a City council leader.
Poole has locked horns with former Edinburgh Film Festival director Mark Cousins, who suggested on AllMediaScotland.com "that the Save the Cameo campaign whilst passionate, sincere and with all our interests at heart, could be misguided and starts to look conservative... An auditorium isn't everything. The bottom line in exhibition is having as wide a range of movies available as possible, and that they are shown to a high standard."
A decision on the planning proposal is expected 21st December. Such has been the strength of opposition to City Screen's proposed alterations that there's little chance of them getting through the planning stage, a fact that City Screen themselves quickly acknowledged by putting the building up for sale. In an added twist to the drama, Edinburgh City Council has come forward with the Edinburgh International Film Festival as a possible buyer of the cinema. The Council is looking at the feasibility of acquiring the building and then supporting it with an annual subsidy as it does already for The Filmhouse, just down the road from The Cameo. The future remains uncertain.
One thing that is painfully clear as the debate simmers away, is that if there really was a good case for overhauling the cinema then it was poorly presented. City Screen and their Edinburgh architects Kerr Blyth, who in one press report described the Cameo auditorium as "stale", have left it to everyone to secondguess their intentions and motivations. City Screen, nor its architects, took the opportunity to attend the public meeting in November. Instead, City Screen sent a statement saying that it would withdraw the planning proposal. Then it didn't follow through on that promise.
When I tried to interview someone from City Screen for this article, a spokesman who only offered his first name as Mark told me, "We're not really interested in talking to the press" and hung up.
So I can only speculate on what City Screen's intentions are. Perhaps, we shouldn't be surprised at its decision to try and convert The Cameo, and that having failed, is now trying to sell it off, with a digital cinema grant as an added deal sweetener, to the highest bidder. Ultimately, City Screen is a business, and there's considerably more money in flipping property and running superpubs than the precarious business of running public cinemas.
Photograph courtesy of Surviving Cinemas.