Former Edinburgh film festival chief brands new £60m building 'misguided'

A former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) has cast doubt on the viability of its proposed new £60 million building based in the city’s cultural quarter.

Hannah McGill has branded the vision for a new Filmhouse, a nine-storey building earmarked for Festival Square, "misguided”.

She suggested that pursuing the project now was the equivalent of "bringing umbrellas to a drought" due to the global slump in the cinema industry triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), which runs the 74-year-old festival and the 43-year-old Filmhouse, hopes to start work in 2023 and open the new complex by 2025 if planning permission and funding can be secured.

However, Ms McGill, who was the festival’s artistic director for four years, suggested the complex had been a long-time “preoccupation” of its management, which have predicted it will attract 800,000 visitors a year.

The writer and film critic raised concerns the complex, which would have almost twice as many seats as the existing building, was unrealistic because of its cost and the fact the city was already “massively over-screened” with existing cinemas.

Speaking on the Talk Media podcast, Ms McGill said the plans, designed by award-winning Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy, failed to take into account the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the film industry, with growing numbers of studios putting new releases out on streaming services.

She also suggested the changes sweeping through the cinema industry could mean events like the EIFF struggling to find new films to premiere each year.

Ms McGill said: “A new centre for cinema has been a preoccupation of people involved with the Filmhouse and the film festival for a long, long time. They think it's a necessity. That's not really backed up by how many cinema screens we have in Edinburgh or how much people attend cinema.

"I completely sympathise with the fact that the facilities at Filmhouse are inadequate – they have been for a really long time. What is misguided is the idea that a new building will reinforce the purpose or strategy of the festival or that Edinburgh is crying out for new cinema screens. It’s actually a massively over-screened city.

"You could ask anybody in the world about investing in big-screen exhibition right now and they would tell you it was a strange thing to do. To propose a new five-screen cinema is like bringing umbrellas to a drought.

"There's a lot of sort of romantic ideas that are just not really going to get us anywhere. It's all very well saying ‘we all just want to be together and watch a film on the big screen’, but there are so many reasons why that’s not a safe commercial model at the moment.”

The new Filmhouse will dominate Festival Square, which is located between the Sheraton Grand Hotel and the Usher Hall.

CMI chief executive Ken Hay said: “Filmhouse is not just another cinema. Its independence of programming, spirit and identity make it unique.

"This isn’t a short-term fix – this is about creating something inspiring and sustainable for the long term.

"What Covid-19 has also taught us is that whatever technology we have at home, what we miss beyond everything else is the collective experience, that coming together to share in storytelling and an exchange of ideas and cultures, which is crucial to our social wellbeing and society’s health.”

A message from the Editor:

Hannah McGill was artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival from 2006-2010.

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It is hoped the new Filmhouse will be up and running by 2025.

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