When the lights go down
Now you see it now you don’t. There should have been crime scene tape wrapped around the Filmhouse rather than shutters to prevent break ins, along with the posters for films that will never play here, if the current situation persists.
The way that Filmhouse closed was swift and deliberate. Over 100 of its’ workers were not even given a week’s notice when they were told they longer had a job. In their turn, Edinburgh film lovers no longer had a venue, which not only showed films that other cinemas didn’t but also acted as a clubhouse offering extracurricular activities for aficionados of film. And its’ well-loved café and bar for those meeting for a city centre catch up.
Covid, of course, took a fair share of the blame, but there is much more to this story than that bald fact.
It could’ve been very different, from 2012-17 I served as vice-convenor of the Economy Committee on the City of Edinburgh Council. During that time, I was aware of two different potential futures for Filmhouse. The first of these was via the Council’s arm’s length property company EDI.
In essence the offer was a built to specification venue for Filmhouse as part of the Fountainbridge development beside the canal, which would have had a fine South facing and waterside location. The potential of linking up with the Fountain Park cinema site for the International Film Festival was part of the process that could have been realised with this move.
In exchange the building now closed to all would have been rebuilt by EDI as office space making a cost neutral move to its new home for Filmhouse. It is unclear in what depth this idea was discussed by Filmhouse and whether or not a board meeting took place to deliberate on the offer. In any case, the offer was rejected.
The second possibility came during the early discussions on the development of the St. James Centre. The potential for screening not just indoors but outdoors was considered. Indeed, I recall the idea of a live outdoor screening of a Wimbledon final as an example.
The prospect of linking with the Omni across the road for the International Film Festival was mentioned. I can recall attending the Film Festival at the Playhouse for the European Premiere of ET and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence so there was further potential along those lines that could have been explored, if the move had happened.
Once again, a purpose-built venue was on offer and once again it was rejected. The reasons were vague, of course, the space is now taken up by Everyman. It remains unclear if there was ever a discussion at board level about the offer or whether this was a management decision.
Further plans were trailed in early 2020, the organisation behind the Edinburgh Film Festival submitted a planning application for an 11-floor, multiple use £50m building in Festival Square.
I never thought this a good idea, nevertheless it got to the stage where plans were commissioned and discussions held with City of Edinburgh Council planners with a planning submission following on 9th December. The work to get this far stage will not have been cheap. It takes a fair chunk of resources to get as far as submitting a planning application. Again, discussions must have taken place at some level held, to agree this way forward.
This level of activity during the Covid epidemic has to be admired but the reality of the situation at the time and that of the finances of the organisation would surely have been taken into consideration?
If you look online you will find that the application was withdrawn on Friday 10th February 2023. A decision probably taken by the administrators reflecting the reality of the situation they faced.
Taking the current situation into account and the above, it does raise questions as to how a key cultural asset (not just for Edinburgh but also for Scotland and the EIFF, the World’s oldest film festival) could be lost.
The news that it will be part of the official Edinburgh International Festival this year is welcome but it should never have been allowed to come to this point.
The report to the Culture committee of the council on 7th March gives some of the reasons in its background report. But it offers no explanation as to how it came to this point (despite £476,998 of Council funding being allocated between 2019/19 and 2022/23).
A clue as to the financial problems may surface through the amalgamation of funds for Filmhouse and the Film Festival from 2020-21 onwards. The same period in which plans for the new building were being progressed. Which raises serious questions about governance, financial management and reporting that need investigation and answers.
Should the campaign to save Filmhouse succeed - and I hope it does - it needs to be informed by the past so that it does not occur again. ■
Info: Gordon Munro is a lifelong member of Filmhouse and never thought his membership would expire before he did
Gregory’s Girl on the shuttered Filmhouse facade