'Teetering on the brink': How have Scotland's independent cinemas been surviving lockdown?

Shuttered for months, how have Scotland’s independent cinemas been surviving the pandemic?

The Dominion Cinema and the Edinburgh Filmhouse tell us how Scottish cinema can survive Covid-19.
The Dominion Cinema and the Edinburgh Filmhouse tell us how Scottish cinema can survive Covid-19.

“We calculate it will take us five years to return to where our company was in March of last year”.

These are the grim words from the Alastair Cameron, director of one of Scotland’s oldest cinemas, the Dominion in Edinburgh.

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His story of economic misery is now a familiar tale since lockdown hit the UK in spring 2020. The red velvet curtain of cinema has been forcibly closed for much of the last 12 months. Film releases cancelled, capacity reduced to just 25 per cent and then, as hope was setting in, the second Scottish lockdown shut it all down again.

For Dougie Cameron, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Edinburgh Filmhouse the year has been equally gruelling: "Overnight on 17th March 2020 we lost 70 per cent of our income.”

With initial help in short supply, both cinemas benefited from grants issued by Creative Scotland and latterly, the Scottish Government, to keep their heads above water. Though the Dominion has only received its ‘enforced closure grant’ in January – 10 arduous months since its forced closure.

While The Filmhouse were able to temporarily open for a short period in 2020, many cinemas have been unable to screen a single film for close to a year, as they shifted focus to survival.

Saving jobs

"We had to shift our focus to solvency and keeping people in jobs – though I’m proud to say we’ve managed to do both” said the Filmhouse CCO. As for the Dominion Cinema, they made the tough decision to remain closed even when lockdown restrictions were eased. “It would have cost more for us to open than it would have to remain doors shut” their director said.

Both cinemas emphasise the importance of continuing the furlough scheme which helped save the jobs of 90 people at Edinburgh Filmhouse and 15 people at the Dominion Cinema. It may just keep the industry afloat.

“[Furlough] is key to keeping people employed and we strongly support its extension beyond its current end date”, said the Filmhouse CCO.

Although that’s not where the challenges end for the industry: “We need support to pay utilities, keep buildings safe and watertight to ensure that we are solvent and have useable facilities. When lockdown is lifted, capacity constraints mean that we will need some ongoing support until we can stand on our own feet” explained Dougie Cameron.

‘On the brink’

It’s a claim which Alastair echoed passionately, adding:“It is teetering on the brink (the cinema industry). It requires support in the continuation of furlough and grants.

"Cinema has generated hundreds of billions in tax revenues for Her Majesty’s Governments over the last 100+ years. It should be supported to continue. To do so will ensure more revenues will be paid in the next 100 years.”

In spite of their financial nightmare neither cinema chief is downbeat, in fact they feel the industry is ready to roar back.

“The public wants entertainment” said Alistair who ambitiously predicts a return to “the roaring twenties.”

He adds: "Cinema is rated in the top three things people are looking forward to coming out of this pandemic behind seeing family and eating out.”

Dougie agrees: “Once we can re-open the doors we are convinced that people will come – we had some of our busiest weeks ever just before the first lockdown, we were busy in the summer, and our customers tell us they are ready to come back to the cinema”, though he does admit the recovery will have to “be in stages” as the country continues to fight the virus.

And while coronavirus restrictions are still currently restricting a physical visit to the big screen, Dougie Cameron said you should continue to watch films, but encourages us to interact and engage with your local cinema, as this will help the industry – even whilst doors are closed. He added: “A lot of independent cinemas are charities so you could consider making a donation or taking out a membership.”

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