Please don’t screw-up Edinburgh’s film future, support the Filmhouse plans

Please don’t screw-up Edinburgh’s film future, support the Filmhouse plans

by Alan Grant
article from Saturday 14, March, 2020

AS MUCH AS it may upset regular readers to hear, Think Scotland is not the only place that you can find my semi-regular cinematic musings. Occasionally, when I’m quick enough off the mark to bagsy a new release, I’ll review the odd film for that other stupendous compendium of art and culture, The Wee Review, which invariably means taking a trip to that lovely institution in our fair capital, the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

The Filmhouse is a sublime place to enjoy cinema, especially if you’ve a penchant for the nostalgic. There are no steep auditorium layouts with luxurious reclining chairs or slightly over-chipper twenty-somethings wishing you a ‘nice day’, whatever that means. Nope, the Filmhouse keeps things traditional arthouse style with smaller screens, paper tickets, and an honest-to-god red curtain that slides back when it’s time for the main feature. 

When describing the Filmhouse, the words that come to mind most are “quaint” and “old-fashioned”, often followed by “if that moron in front of me doesn’t take off his bloody had then this French comedy is going to turn into a Scottish slasher flick with a shift in tone as jarring as splicing in thirty seconds of A Serbian Film into the middle of Cars 2 really quickly!”  

The general point is that, while what happens at the Edinburgh Filmhouse is rightly lionised as a gem in Edinburgh’s cultural crown, the old gal just isn’t fit for purpose any more. Every time I walk through the doors, there is the sinking feeling that more could be done to bring this experience of taking part in the epicentre of Scottish film life into the modern era. Lately, it has felt more like an urgent necessity than a luxury.

Therefore, you can imagine my delight when plans for a £50million “landmark home for film and screen culture” were unveiled for Festival Square, directly opposite the Usher Hall.

Reading through the list of what is to be offered, when the five-year construction period finishes, by this new facility is enough to reignite even the most lapsed movie-goers interest. Six new screens, ranging across 4K digital, 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm film, space for expanded festivals, and all rounded off with new café and restaurant facilities are among some of the tantalising delights on off if this ambitious project is seen through to its conclusion.

If it’s not already apparent, as a critic and movie-goer myself, I’m massively in-favour of the project. I think the offering is excellent, timely, and ambitious, I love the design of the building (of which, more later), and the phrase “a 21st century temple for film”, as coined by Centre for the Moving Image (inc Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival) CEO, Ken Hay, sends the kind of warm fuzzy shiver down my spine that the most dedicated ASMR creator could only wish to inspire in their audience.

I’m in. Sold. Lock Stock and (Two Smoking?) Barrel(s) Where do I sign?

However, some people have not been so keen to support the Filmhouse plans. A quick glance at the Twitter responses to the Evening News article on the announcement throws up phrases like “ugly carbuncle”, “inappropriate and unnecessary”, and “utterly hideous”. Even my own bit of mini-research on social media threw up (vomited?) some irate responses, based mostly on the way the new building will look. Personally, I think it’s striking and, while it would look out of place in Marchmont or Morningside, it suits the landscape but others disagree – as is their right to do.

Those who disagree with me on this do so almost universally based on aesthetics. Now, I don’t doubt that aesthetics is important – it is vital to the happiness and sense of community in any city or town – but I do doubt how sincere these objections are. I doubt them because I suspect that, no matter what design were proposed, the NIMBY response would be exactly the same. 

Therefore, I would suggest that, since there is most likely no possible version of the project that would satisfy its detractors and given how lofty the prize of becoming a true world-leader in film is to our city (especially with plans for a new studio in Leith in the works, to which the same motley crew of myopic moaners will probably object) then no quarter should be given on whether or not its going ahead. Of course, at that point, concerns can and ought to be seriously listened to but it’s important to reinforce that while accommodations may be made there is a “21st century temple for film” coming to central Edinburgh – no negotiation!

Perhaps most telling reaction in the early-days debate over the future of the Filmhouse comes from the Cockburn Association, the charity dedicated to “protecting and enhancing the beauty of Edinburgh”, whose director, Terry Levinthal, has said that the organisation, which has a change-averse record, has an “open mind” on the development and has described the conversation his organisation has had with the Film Festival over the 121ft tall construction as “encouraging and positive”.

With this mild-mannered and considered reaction coming from the people that one might reasonably have expected to be the most trenchant and ardent opponents, it is difficult to infer that the other objections are anything other than NIMBYism of the most predictably kind.

Ignore the Twitter mob and build, I say!

However, while this column and this columnist are, as has hopefully been made abundantly clear, emphatically in favour of the ambition of this exciting project, I do have a one concern.

This is an opportunity for the Filmhouse and the Film Festival to become more accessible and open to all – and it cannot afford to miss it. This is not to say that it currently doesn’t do very well in terms of physical access, it does as well as can be expected, and the new building will obviously be better by being built to modern specifications.

Rather, the kind of accessibility and openness I, and many others, will be looking for is more an ‘everyone is welcome’ attitude that is often at odds with an arthouse style of cinema. Essentially, there’s snobbishness and elitism there that must be fought and extinguished!

If the city is to trust its film community, led by the Filmhouse, with such a prominent part of the skyline then we need to show that are worthy of trust. I shall leave it up to the operators to decide how to implement this, but a few more mainstream showings, outreach programmes in local schools, locals’ discounts and previews, and a heavy discount for local colleges, universities, workplaces, and others would seem like a good start to me. 

Arthouse cinema has a reputation for snobbishness rivalling Edinburgh’s own – both deserved and undeserved in equal measure – this project is the chance to deliver a fatal blow, it ought not to be missed.


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