Shona Thomson: Making the big screen big again

Proudly etched in large ­letters on the wall by the pool table in Fallin Miners Welfare Social Club a few miles east of Stirling, there is an epitaph '“ 'I never again will go down under ground' '“ dedicated to the nearby Polmaise ­Colliery whose dates are just below the quote, 1904-1987.
Shona Thomson is an award-winning curator/producer and founder of A Kind of Seeing, Thomson is an award-winning curator/producer and founder of A Kind of Seeing,
Shona Thomson is an award-winning curator/producer and founder of A Kind of Seeing,

Three decades after the pit closed, I felt the power of those words when I was in the social club’s dance hall for the pop-up screening of Still the ­Enemy Within, a feature documentary film about the 1984-5 ­miners’ strike as part of Macrobert Art ­Centre’s ­inaugural Central Scotland Documentary Festival last October.

Alongside the films, ex-miner and leader of the demonstrations in ­Scotland, Jim Tierney, was there and we all had a blether about how bad it got through that long, cold ­winter and how villages like Fallin rallied around the families affected.

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Some folk in the audience were ­nodding in recalling the conditions, and others (like me) were humbled and quite frankly embarrassed that they’d lived through it as a young child but didn’t know more – it hadn’t been taught in any depth at my school but I also hadn’t asked more about it, about what it actually felt like.

To me, this is what cinema does. Or to be more precise, what watching films on a big screen does. Increasingly, these kinds of deeper ­cultural connections are happening away from the wee mobile screens we carry in our pockets and the screens in our homes connected to hours of boxsets with high (and not so high) ­quality entertainment. The big screen is ­getting bigger.

It’s not a new concept – of course we’ve had the big screen experience since the fairground showmen of the early 1900s. But with ­cinema’s ­original 1950s threat of home ­entertainment now advancing to stratospheric ­levels of sophistication, technology and influence, the term “mass media” has been exploded.

We’re fragmented, categorised and targeted by giant commercial media conglomerates based on what we like, comment and share.

But there is another story emerging. As a 21st century medium, the big screen has grown in popularity from 142.5 million UK cinema admissions in 2000 rising nearly 20 per cent to 170.6 million in 2017. This is despite the UK launches of streaming ­services like Netflix (2012), ­Amazon Prime (2007), BBC iPlayer (2007) and YouTube (2005).

In Scotland, recent research I worked on found there were 10.8 big screens (permanent and temporary) per 100,000 people in 2016. This ­compared to 6.4 screens per 100,000 people in 2013.

It’s happening all over the country: the Merlin Cinema in Thurso is in the process of converting the adjoining bowling alley into three new screens offering a wider film/event selection and moving the business away from being reliant on the same dozen blockbuster releases each year.

The global streaming services have definitely burst into our lives with extreme popularity but the ­stubborn rebirth of cinemas and cinema-going emphasises the power of the big screen.

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Be it in a cinema or a community hall, it emulates the communal fire around which we as humans instinctively gather to hear and share our stories.

But we’ve always known that, I hear you cry – it’s what Hollywood was built on. But I believe that ­particularly in Scotland we are ­riding high on a movement of big screen experiences opening our eyes, ears and hearts to stories and voices ­different from the dominant US/European output.

This movement is supported by bodies like Film Hub Scotland (part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network) and reinforced by Regional Screen Scotland’s Your Cinema, Your Community 2016 report demonstrating the high value sample audiences from Stromness to Dumfries attached to shared screen experiences.

In 2018 alone, you can watch a silent film with live music on Tiree (Screen Argyll), share a curry over a movie on the Black Isle (Cromarty Film Festival), discuss the role of women’s work in Lerwick (Screenplay), and watch a film on the side of a tower block in Edinburgh (Leith Creative). And that’s just a sample.

This October, the second Central Scotland Documentary Festival will take place in the Macrobert Arts ­Centre. I’ll be doing an A Kind of Seeing event showing archive films that can only be seen on the big screen, and I know there’s going to be a line-up of documentaries that will ­definitely get a blether going on in the room.

Join us – and join the movement making big screens big (again).

Shona Thomson is an award-winning curator/producer and founder of A Kind of Seeing,