Multimillion-pound boost for independent cinemas

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Independent cinemas are to get millions of pounds of National Lottery money to help them fend off the onslaught of the giant multiplexes.

In a plan that offers audiences an escape from a ceaseless diet of Hollywood blockbusters, the Film Council has set up a £17m fund for small picture houses.

The council, founded in 2000 by the Government with a three-year budget of £150m partly funded by the Lottery, has helped to fund recent British releases including the highly successful Gosford Park and controversial Bloody Sunday. It hopes the money will increase the range of films on offer across the UK meeting the growing diversity of tastes among British cinemagoers.

John Woodward, the council's chief executive, said: "It has long been clear that there has been a failure of the market to meet the audience appetite across the UK for a broader range of films. The aim is to address the cultural needs of audiences and learners."

Most of the Lottery money, £14m, will be invested in a series of screens dedicated to "specialised" films, to form a new network where films can be centrally booked, ensuring runs in a number of different theatres.

They include factual or fictional movies, ethnic or foreign-language cinema, archived or restored classics and those that appeal to any under-served audience.

For some time, the country's smaller art houses have been battling to compete with multiscreen cinemas sprouting up in most neighbourhoods and serving a staple diet of mainstream films.

The situation has been aggravated by the growth of out of town "leisure parks", that have been drawing people away from city centres. Last year, it was estimated 60 per cent of all screens in the UK were owned by five big companies, with independent cinemas fighting to compete.

One of the most common complaints of independent film makers is that once their movies are produced they face an uphill battle to get them shown.

The Film Council's Cinema Fund – in association with the Arts Council of England –will, it said yesterday, increase access to a larger variety of films by spending cash on refurbishing existing screens and building new ones where necessary.

Mr Woodward said: "Opting for a screen network dedicated to specialised film is a calculated risk but it is clear public-sector investment is vital if we are to deliver a broader range of audiences."

The fund will be accessible to all English regions and the council is in discussion with the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission, Scottish Screen and Sgrîn (Wales) about opening up its network across the UK.

The remaining £3m will be split evenly on boosting marketing, the use of digital equipment and film education.

It will be spent on subsidising the costs of marketing new releases as well as investing in digital equipment for outlets such as film societies and clubs, enabling screenings in remote areas where cinemas are limited or non-existent.

It will also go towards a Cinema Education Fund supporting imaginative and innovative initiatives on a local or national scale. These could include touring film programmes, conferences, special screenings for children or evening classes.

The council said its decision had been made after an "extensive and intensive" six-month consultation of people in the industry.

A spokeswoman for UGC Cinemas, the biggest chain in Europe and second in the UK, insisted it was committed to showing a broad range of films in its cinemas.

Picture Palace: The Phoenix, Finchley, North London

Almost a century after it opened as The East Finchley Picturedrome, the Phoenix Cinema prides itself that it is still going.

Ruth Mulandi, the general manager, said: "It is believed to be the oldest serving, purpose-built cinema in the country and has only been closed for refurbishment."

But, today, it has a hand-to-mouth existence, kept going by a faithful community trust formed in 1985. While the cinema continues to show some mainstream films its raison d'être is to offer its audiences lesser-known independent movies.

Ms Mulandi described the recent Richard Linklater film Waking Life as an example of the "gems" the British public would be missing out on without specialised cinemas. Described as "challenging, thoughtful and imaginative", it entranced the critics.

"I feel quite strongly that cinemas like the Phoenix have to keep giving people the opportunity to watch these gems. But specialist cinemas are struggling," explained Ms Mulandi.

Yet Waking Life, shown over a week recently at the Phoenix, failed to fill the house. For that reason, Ms Mulandi is fully supportive of the Film Council's fund.

"We do spend money on advertising. We have an ad in the local paper. People are always complaining it is only tiny but it is all we can afford."

While it recently received an £85,000 lottery grant for refurbishment, the Phoenix has largely existed on its own income and is non-profit making.

With tickets ranging from £3.50 to £6, comparable with many multiplexes, little money is left for anything other than day-to-day running expenses.

"It has been quite tight, quite a challenge," said Ms Mulandi. "It is very difficult because the way the distribution system works, it is dominated by the chains. We really need the funding and will certainly be applying for some from the Film Council."