Film: Not at a screen near you

Cinemas specialising in art-house films are dying. Who's to blame and what's to be done?
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The Independent Culture
The Tricycle in Kilburn is a gorgeous new cinema. With its foyer dressed in cool white Portuguese limestone, its sleek steel fittings, acres of glass, sizzling blue neon and comfy, state-of-the-art auditorium, it is the epitome of a modern picture palace. Fittingly, the pounds 2.8m, mainly lottery-funded, 300-seat cinema opened this month with a big party and the unveiling of a plaque by Emma Thompson, who enthused: "It's so great to be opening a beautiful new cinema rather than seeing another one close."

It would be nice to think that this community-oriented cinema, which is attached to an innovative, award-winning small theatre and situated in a part of inner London best known for its kebab shops, Irish bars and pounding traffic, was a sign of good times ahead for British independent cinemas. Nice, but perhaps misleading. In one sense, cinema in Britain is thriving as never before. There have never been more screens and new ones are opening all the time - 200 already this year. But the vast majority of these are in multiplexes, mostly all showing the same Hollywood films.

Diversity in the shape of art house and foreign language films has become an endangered species. As Karsten Grummitt, an industry analyst at Dodona Research, puts it: "The art-house sector is falling off the cliff. It's a fashion change: young people today just don't like proper films. There's been a shift in sensibilities."

Those behind the Tricycle Cinema are bearing this in mind. The Tricycle Theatre, the cinema's sister company, is renowned for its innovative, challenging drama. Its director, Nick Kent, says he wants to provide as varied, stimulating and exciting a programme as possible. But he adds: "We are not going to be an art house. No way. We are going to push the envelope, but I want to get an audience first."

There will be some niche marketing. They will screen classics such as The Third Man on Thursday afternoons, aimed at local pensioners, and, on Sundays, Bollywood in the morning and a subtitled art film in the afternoon. Once or twice a month, special events will be linked to the theatre next door, and seasons of Irish and Afro-Caribbean films, reflecting the local community, are planned.

Across the capital, London's once thriving art-house circuit is decaying. The elegant Academy in Oxford Street and the punkish Scala at King's Cross are long gone. The once-glorious Art Deco Camden Plaza is now a rotting shell. One morning five years ago, the Plaza's operators, Artificial Eye, arrived to find themselves evicted and the building padlocked against them by their landlords. Projectors, wood panelling and red plush seats were stripped out. Once home to the visions of Tarkovsky and Wajda, the Plaza is currently available as "30,000ft of retail space" and tramps and market traders have taken over the entrance.

Andi Engel, co-owner of Artificial Eye, says that the Renoir, one of the company's two remaining cinemas, may now also be under threat. The Brunswick Centre's new landlords, he says, would like to see the Renoir make way for a more popular cinema showing multiplex movies.

Meanwhile, repertory cinemas, once the cutting edge of the art houses, seem on the verge of extinction. A watershed came, largely unnoticed, last June when the flagship Everyman - "the oldest repertory cinema in the world" - was shut for repairs by its new owners. The staff, including the programmer Peter Howden, were made redundant; they were later told that they could reapply for their old jobs.

The Everyman was in such a state of disrepair that it was refused its cinema exhibition licence. The building is now due to reopen in February as the Pullman Everyman, an art house with new seating, screen and sound system, a cafe/bar and a film bookshop in the basement. The new approach will be "independent and eclectic", promise the owners.

But it will not be a rep. Pullman's Jane Kelly says that the old style of repertory programming - which involves moving up to four films in and out of the building every day - is simply not economically viable. "You need public funding to keep up that intensity of different films. We've tried to bring in public funding but the money is just not available."

In the Sixties, Howden was one of the pioneers of rep at the Electric in Notting Hill, which is also shut but due to reopen as a Pullman late next year. He and Pullman have fallen out. He insists that the new policy will offer little of cultural significance.

"The repertory cinemas were how a whole generation of British film-makers and producers became interested in film. At the Everyman and the Electric, people saw the whole 100-year history of film. Other than on TV or video, how are you going to see that stuff now? And I don't think watching these things on a small screen is going to inspire anyone to go out and make movies.

"There are enough screens around, but they're all showing the same stuff. I've been in the business 30 years and it's getting worse. There's very little left. The Riverside is still the only place where you can see a real double bill. The NFT's not what it was. There's the Duke of York's in Brighton. And that's about it. London's not Paris and never was, but it's still pathetic for what is supposed to be a great cultural centre of the world. We're being culturally impoverished."

Liz Wrenn, managing director of the independent distributors Alliance Releasing, which ran the Everyman, Electric and Barbican in the Eighties, believes that rep is finished, but should not necessarily be mourned.

"Repertory cinemas are a lot of work for not a lot of money. They're very labour-intensive and since they have begun to make less and less money, fewer intelligent, educated people have been attracted to do that work. It was too marginal as a business. You can't lament their passing. It was a great time, but you won't be able to sit and watch six hours of films back-to-back any longer. That experience is just not available or needed any more."

She cites the Curzon Soho, which reopened last month after a pounds 2m refurbishment as the model for the successful art cinema of the future: a luxurious three screens with two cafes, bars, and comfortable seating.

The new Curzon is managed and programmed by Tony Jones, the energetic co-director of City Screen, which also runs the Clapham Picture House, and cinemas in Stratford, Ely, Haverhill, East Grinstead and Chichester. If art cinema is to flourish again, Jones and the handful of BFI-funded regional cinemas such as the Watershed in Bristol and the excellent Showroom in Sheffield will have a hand in it.

"What happens in London is crucial," he says. "The battle is to bring more foreign language and independent US films into the UK. There are plenty of cinemas showing crossover titles and mainstream crap. But interesting foreign titles that deserve to be brought over are not getting here. Unfortunately, it doesn't look as though the Tricycle will be doing much of that."