John Walsh: 'Who decided to phase out celluloid projection, like Kodak camera film?'

Tales of the City

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:50

The death of the nation's independent cinemas has been predicted so often that hearing the news of another imminent demise is like seeing another re-run of The Great Escape. Britain's old movie palaces have been heading the way of the stegosaurus for half a century, scuppered by television, bingo parlours, dwindling visitor numbers, too many crap movies chasing too few screens, and the rise of the all-conquering DVD. But I still wipe away a tear on hearing that the switch from celluloid to digital projectors and servers may drive smaller cinemas out of business.

I grew up surrounded by cinemas, and loved their plush, sleazy grandeur. There were three in a single road near where I grew up in Battersea. The Granada became a bingo hall, the Essoldo mutated into a rock venue, and the smallest, the Imperial, became, counter-intuitively, head office of Weidenfeld & Nicholson. These were tragic "changes of usage" for what were, for us, secular churches of dreams.

I've wept buckets, as a result, over movies that feature moribund cinemas: Peter Bogdanovitch's The Last Picture Show, Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso and the frightfully starchy 1957 comedy The Smallest Show on Earth, in which Virginia Travers and Bill McKenna inherit a titchy fleapit called the Bijou, and fight to stop it being taken over by the monopolistic mega-bastard cinema down the road.

Now, upwards of 300 cinemas are, according to Peter Buckingham of the UK Film Council, "in serious danger of closing because they won't be able to afford digital, and if they haven't got digital, they aren't going to have anything to show in five years' time."

One strives to adopt a stoic attitude to this new skirmish in the digitech revolution. But just a goddamned minute. Did British cinema staff know they were going to be left without a choice? Who decided that celluloid projection would be phased out, like Kodak camera film and cheque books? It seems that the big chains, the Odeon and Vue multiplexes that are responsible for 80 per cent of the British box office, can afford to make the switchover – at a rate of £50,000 per screen – but the art houses and independents can't. If they can link up with the chains to make joint deals, they may survive; if not, not.

You know where this is going, don't you? It's the Net Book Agreement all over again. Just as that infamous agreement allowed bookshops to cut prices of new books, so that they ended up with groaning tables of three-for-two, heftily marketed schlock, and tiny sales of less commercial works, the digital conversion will mean that $100m Hollywood crashbangwallop-busters such as Angelina Jolie's Wanted will become the only fare available to cinema-goers, while foreign movies and art-house experiments like Hunger, Steve McQueen's harrowing study of the Bobby Sands hunger strike, will languish unseen except in some one-off, subsidised London venues.

Phil Clapp from the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, has opined, "I have... faith that the industry will recognise the value of maintaining cinema-going in small towns and rural areas." The industry may recognise it, Phillip, but without steering some actual government money straight at the movie parlours, we'll soon be looking at 300 empty and desirable barn-sized properties, slightly redolent of popcorn, and that will be all that's left of the places where once we sat and watched Faye Dunaway's ravishing face, 20ft high, in Bonnie and Clyde, and dreamed our lives away.

* Feline was the word for Pat Kavanagh, doyenne of literary agents, who died yesterday. She had watchful eyes that regarded literary journalists with wary amusement and was lioness-ily defensive about her authors. Publishers learnt to dread "the Kavanagh silence" in negotiations. They would mention a figure as an advance; from the other end of the phone only a contemptuous silence could be heard. Invariably, the figure would rise by £10,000. Outwardly strict, she was warm and confiding company. The novelist William Trevor once told me he'd been approached by many agents – "but if I have to sit over lunch with someone and talk money and books, I'd rather it was Pat." Her husband, Julian Barnes, dedicated his books to her; the most recent, Nothing to be Frightened of, on death, was inscribed just "to P."

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