The last picture show for Highland cinema?

THE cinema industry may be going through a renaissance, but there is one Scottish filmhouse where the latest blockbusters are being screened to a completely empty hall.

• Empty seats: The Highland Theatre has screened many recent blockbusters to an unenthusiastic Oban

The Highland Theatre in Oban, is the last remaining independent cinema in the west Highlands, and the only one for 100 miles. But some of the latest Hollywood releases are failing to attract a single customer, raising fears the cinema could be forced to close.

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Earlier this month, it attracted its smallest audience ever – only two customers turned up for a showing of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus starring the late Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp.

Attendances were even worse for The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey jnr, and Nine, with Nicole Kidman, where not a single ticket was sold for some performances.

Gavin Fraser, the owner of the cinema, put the dearth of customers down to the "Highland mentality".

He said locals were loath to leave their homes and go out, especially in the colder, darker months.

He said: "It's a west coast thing where people find it difficult to motivate themselves to go out unless it's to the pub. I grew up in Laggan, near Newtonmore, so I know what I'm talking about, and I'm not getting at anyone.

"People have just got out of the habit of going to the cinema," he added. "We always manage to attract big crowds for really big films, like Harry Potter or the Bond movies, or women's films, like Sex and the City, and in the summer we get all the tourists.

"Yet when the weather changes the locals just disappear and it's hard to get them to leave their homes. I think they just take it for granted the cinema will always be here."

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Mr Fraser, 39, a film fanatic and former architect who bought the run-down cinema two years ago, added: "It's been an uphill struggle to revamp the cinema, and I don't have masses of money to keep it going.

"Unless people start buying tickets we won't be able to afford to stay open the seven days a week we have to in order to get the latest releases. We can't survive on just six 'good' films a year."

Mr Fraser, who has tried a number of initiatives, such as arthouse, parent-and-child and OAP sessions, said he had a "hunch" the rise of internet piracy, especially in films aimed at teenage boys, was another factor affecting audience numbers. He added: "We always try to get the latest films as quickly as possible, but even if there is a delay of three weeks, attendances are much lower for blockbusters – they can't all be going 95 miles away to Glasgow."

The cinema is currently showing the newly released The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring Ewan McGregor and George Clooney, and The Twilight Saga – New Moon starring Robert Pattinson,

Screen Scotland director Ron Inglis said: "Gavin has put his heart and soul into this cinema, but he's in vulnerable situation with film distributors being governed by dollar signs rather than the needs of rural communities.

"To a certain extent, any delay in getting the latest releases and audience numbers is linked.

"A lot of films have a shelf life of only a few weeks, with audiences declining by 50 per cent each week.

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"I'd agree that computer downloading of films is an issue, but I don't know about the 'Highland mentality'.

"People will turn out for certain things. Also, they do go to cities and understand what's on offer elsewhere.

"If their local pub or restaurant is not up to scratch they won't go. I've often had people in remote areas say they would rather have a day out in Glasgow, or wherever, and watch a film there in comfort."

Local councillor Neil Mackay said the cinema was an important asset to the town.

He added: "The cinema must not go. Earlier this year we used the cinema to premire a film, and it was also used at the Mod for competitions.

"So maybe there are other ways forward for the cinema, alongside viewing films.

"Oban has to recognise the cinema as a community asset – we don't want another attraction in the town to go."