If there is no end in sight over the fate of Edinburgh’s historic Filmhouse cinema, there is no doubt that a new chapter is about to unfold. I spent the best part of a day on the phone last week trying to figure out the current state of play over the boarded-up building on Lothian Road which has taken on increasingly symbolic significance to many of those immersed in the city’s cultural scene.
On the face of it, the situation appeared relatively simple, if positively bleak, for the many supporters of the prolonged efforts to get the cinema up and running again after its sudden closure in October when its operator went into administration. They have endured a frankly agonising ordeal waiting to find out who would win the battle to buy a building which had been home to the Filmhouse for more than 40 years.
Hopes were raised and dashed that an industry-backed bid supported by some of the biggest names in Scottish screen would be successful. The belated intervention, in public and private, of councillors and parliamentarians last month brought fresh hope that a reprieve could be possible.
But by the time the latest in a series of public protests was staged on the doorstep of the Filmhouse earlier this month, optimism had turned to despair as word spread that a deal to sell off the building to a pub operator appeared to have been done, despite the extensive efforts to persuade the administrators handling the sale to take a fresh look at the various bids to keep the cinema going.
Confirmation of the sale by the administrators seemed to set the scene for a prolonged battle over whether councillors should agree to give the new owners – widely believed to be Caledonian Heritable, owners of The Dome and Ryan’s Bar – a licence. However, word soon reached me that all was not necessarily lost over the prospects of the Filmhouse reopening.
Implausible though it sounded at first, the picture which gradually began to emerge was that the makings of a rescue deal were on the table. It has emerged from the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Scottish Government, the city council and Screen Scotland to explore options for reopening the Filmhouse – even if it was bought by a commercial company.
The situation, as I understand it, sounds simple. Caledonian Heritable is prepared to lease back the building it has just bought once an operator for the cinema is set up, as long as it can get a secure, long-term rental deal for its asset. The big drawback is that this would inevitably involve large sums of public money being ploughed into a commercial company – a prospect that is understandably difficult to swallow for the government and the council in particular.
The optimistic side of me believes a deal is likely to be struck given the cross-party political support for the Filmhouse to reopen. The pessimistic side of me can see the plan falling victim to red tape and a lack of leadership to break the apparent deadlock. The one thing I have no doubt on is that no stone should be left unturned to try to find a solution.