The Big Sleep
As coronavirus hit, Edinburgh’s cinemas were forced to close their doors and furlough staff. Now, signs of life are stirring. Dr Sarah Lonsdale, journalist and senior lecturer at City UoL, discusses.
It was four days before the spring Equinox, traditionally a time of hope. March this year was unseasonably mild in Edinburgh and the little soft leaf bud eruptions, breaking the smooth lines of the birch and early cherry tree branches, spoke of rising sap and bright days ahead.
It was an especially hopeful time for Edinburgh filmmaking and cinemas. That week witnessed two major developments: new production studios at Leith Docks, and plans for a superb new home for the independent Filmhouse, which had outgrown the 200-year-old church premises it had occupied for 40 years. Both were eagerly discussed in bars and coffeeshops of the Old Town.
But if April is the cruellest month, then 17 March 2020 was something worse.
“I had come to work in the dark and left for home in the dark, too; it was raining most of the day,” says Dougie Cameron, Chief Operating Officer at Filmhouse in Lothian Road.
“We screened Portrait of a Lady on Fire at 8.40 pm. Four people came to see it. We haven’t opened since. I’ve been coming in to check up, and it’s like a post-apocalyptic movie. Week after week, nothing changed. The same posters advertising films screened in February and March were there in May, June, July. The bar was swathed in ghostly sheets. Emergency lighting illuminated everything with an eery glow.”
Of the 122 staff, from ushers to chefs, 112 have been furloughed.
Saddest of all, the grand old barrel-vaulted auditorium, with its unmistakeable slender cast iron pillars and Hollywood Golden Age heavy crimson curtains, was empty and quiet. Four months on, it still is. No music, no words of passionate love, no laughter, no thrilled expectation as the lights dim and a rapt audience hangs up its disbelief for the next two hours. Just the weeds outside on the terrace continue to grow.
It’s the same for Edinburgh’s other small and independent cinemas: the smart art deco Dominion in Morningside, with its First Class Airline-style creamy leather armchairs, and the deceptively tiny-fronted Cameo in Tollcross with its First World War-era plaster stucco ceiling and fluted pillars. taking film-lovers back to the days of early cinema.
“My grandparents used to go to the Cameo and Dominion when they were courting in 1952,” says James Thomson, an Edinburgh-based film director and founder of Melt Films.
“I love the Cameo, it takes you back in time, and as I sit in its seats I wonder if these were the seats my grandparents sat in while they were falling in love in the dark.”
Screen Scotland and other bodies are offering filmmakers like James support in the form of grants during lockdown. “There may not be any public film showings, but Edinburgh is a good place to think; your brain can really breathe; the city has a nurturing, creative atmosphere that we all absorb,” says Thomson. “Who knows, this may be a time we look back on when new ways of making and seeing films were born. As filmmakers, we’re thinking of the future of cinema; maybe new ways of using cameras and film might emerge and make features and documentaries more accessible to more people.”
With development support from Screen Scotland, Thomson and his team are working on a film called Nucleus — a tale of two islands exploring the legacy of nuclear weapons testing.
And now, other rustles of activity can be detected from behind those closed and shuttered doors. Back at the Filmhouse, deep cleaning has begun, ready for a 1 September reopening. The café-bar is due to reopen slightly earlier and will still be serving its famous chickpea curry that spreads its soft, savoury aroma through the underground space during opening hours.
While the bar will be able to operate at one metre social distancing rules, at present the rules for the auditorium are at two metres. The main screen’s current capacity is 282. If social distancing is kept to two metres, just 29 people will be able to sit in the auditorium at once. “With that kind of number, it’s not clear whether we will be able to open at all as it costs so much per viewing,” says Cameron. “At one metre, we can sit 49 people and we will just about make a go of it. We are literally living hand to mouth. Things are far from clear.”
Other venues are having the same quandary. The new Scotsman Picturehouse, a tiny venue with just 48 seats cannot, under present rules, consider reopening.
But this is not an obituary. The Edinburgh International Film Festival is putting on a series of drive-in screenings at Edinburgh Airport at the end of August and September (including, ironically, the disaster movie Airplane!). The people of Edinburgh truly love their cinemas — so much so that, at the end of June, Filmhouse launched a GoFundMe page to help it find the £60,000 needed to reopen safely. A month later, it had already hit its target, with donations still pouring in.
“What was really moving was reading the letters that came with the cheques,” says Cameron. “People want us to survive; they are willing us to get through this time.”
And they will survive. The big screen may now be different and distanced, but we need magic and escape in our lives, now more than ever; and nothing does that quite like the swish of the curtains, the darkening auditorium, the rolling, bone-trembling crescendo of sound, that leads us into other worlds.