Why are cinemas disappearing from our high streets?

Picture houses used to be at the heart of communities; now they're almost invisible


How encouraging that film exhibition in the UK is no longer facing the threat of extinction that loomed in the 1980s. Back then, the video revolution ate into audience numbers with its big, chomping top-loader mouth, and many towns woke to discover they were in possession of a brand new bingo hall, but were also one cinema the poorer.

So audiences are going to cinemas now. But where are the cinemas going? The dominance of the multiplexes has had the strange effect of pushing the cinema into the closet — or, more accurately, into the shopping centre. I’m not here to take issue with the mall multiplex, a phenomenon that began in the US, or with its occasional technical shortcomings, poor staffing issues and so on. But what its popularity has done is to remove cinema from the physical architecture of our towns and cities. Oh, there are exceptions — the Curzon, Everyman and Picturehouse chains, as well as thriving cinemas such as Brighton’s Duke of York (now owned by Picturehouse) or the Glasgow Film Theatre — but for the most part it remains an exotic experience to drive or walk through a town outside London and actually pass a cinema. A functioning cinema, that is. With a marquee [a text display of the films showing above the entrance of the cinema].

A director described to me recently the disheartening feeling each time he turned up to introduce films or conduct Q&A sessions at a US cinema, only to find that each one was in a mall, or nestled within some concrete structure not visible from the street. We tuck most of our cinemas away now as though we are ashamed of them. Many of the others are derelict and/or barricaded (like the much-fought-for EMD cinema in Walthamstow, which I have written about here before), or else remodelled into other businesses (such as the gym on London’s St Martin’s Lane, WC2, which was once the city’s plushest arthouse venue, the subterranean Lumiere Cinema, where I used to go to see first runs of Peter Greenaway films — and, more importantly, to see disgusted patrons walk out of those same Peter Greenaway films).

Time presses on. And this is no lament for that fact. But couldn’t we make more of a fuss of the cinemas that we do have left? I’ll give you an example: my local Odeon, in South Woodford, east London. Admittedly I have a sentimental attachment to this particular cinema, since it was the site of many formative experiences for me from childhood (when it was The Majestic, and then the ABC) and throughout my adolescence. Even setting that aside, it’s hard for a cinema lover not to be appalled by the cinema’s recent decision to throw in the towel.

Oh, it’s still open. But the posters, those titillating mementoes, are all out of sight, and the one display visible from the street shows some tatty standees behind a dirty window. Worst of all, the cinema has given up on its own marquee. Do films come and go so quickly now that there’s simply no point advertising their existence? I’m inclined to think it’s more about the move of cinemas toward anonymity, facelessness, anything but the demonstrative beauty of the art deco picture palaces.

I used to love the marquee display — those big, clunky letters strung up on the illuminated frontage so that the titles of the films could be seen from neighbouring postcodes. The spookiest sensation of all was when you emerged from the cinema after the last show on a Thursday night, only to find that all trace of the film which had just ended had been removed by the cinema employees, who had hung in its place on the marquee the title of the new week’s attractions. You had only your fragile memory of what you had just seen to prove you had even been there at all.

There’s no marquee now, just a message in capital letters that reads: check our website or call for listings. They could have saved even more letters, even more manpower, had they opted for a more candid declaration, something along the lines of Odeon: we can't be arsed.

A cinema in the Forties in Derbyshire. Credit: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Befriending barn owls - the spirits of the night

The Polish for “barn owl”, płomykówka, evokes the birds’ flame-like plumage - and their presence evokes old magic.

Not long ago, at the cool end of an autumn afternoon, I met a woman on the street in the Polish resort town of Sopot. She was young in the face, almost boyish, her dark-gold hair intricately plaited, the light in her eyes as brown as the wing of the barn owl perched on her arm. For a moment, I thought it wasn’t real, something virtual, perhaps some new and elaborate form of accessory. Then it moved and I felt the life of it, a vivid yet contained field of resonance.

I stopped walking and the woman stopped to let me see: the bird was young but it was not at all disturbed by the people going by, its head turning this way and that to take everything in. It was simply, starkly beautiful; but without the necessary words to ask a question, or address a compliment to either bird or woman, all I could do was smile and the woman smiled back, nodding slightly before she went on her way – a fleeting encounter, no doubt, but for the rest of the day I belonged to a different world, a place touched with an old magic, a world where a woman could befriend a spirit of the night time and carry it with her through the glare of day.

When I told a Polish friend about this encounter, she said that the word in her language for “barn owl”, płomykówka, was particularly beautiful: płomyk, she said, is a “little flame” (my dictionary also gave “glimmer”) and my first thought was that the name was derived from the white of the owl’s face, glimmering in the dark as it hunted, an eerie white that, once seen, is never forgotten. Yet my encounter with the woman in Sopot suggested another possibility: look closely at a barn owl as it flies and, even as it shifts and shimmers away, vanishing here and reappearing elsewhere, there is most definitely a hint of cold blue fire in the plumage, a chill cyan, like the blue at the centre of a candle flame. (This blue is clearly visible, though less spectral, when the bird is at rest.)

A few days later, I found myself in Gdansk, talking to one of those artists who sell their work in the city squares of tourist towns all across Europe. Most of the stalls here were dedicated to views of the city or architectural details of the great buildings, destroyed during the Second World War, then lovingly rebuilt with the care that only a ruinously damaged but undefeated people can muster. This man, however, was different: a practitioner of a certain variety of mid-European surrealism, he made prints of a highly symbolic and occasionally disturbing nature – and a central feature of this art was the płomykówka.

The owls were beautifully, intricately drawn and pictured in various situations, both in flight and at rest, but one image in particular caught my eye. The bird occupied the foreground, staring out at the viewer, as if offering a challenge; behind it, in an old, partially ruined castle, a dark entrance loomed, at once inviting and remote, like a doorway in a dream. I asked what the picture meant. The man replied that the door in the wall was wisdom but to reach it you had to befriend the owl – which is to say, you had to become equal to the night.

I nodded but I hadn’t really understood and he sensed that, as I stood gazing at the picture, trying to figure out what “equal” actually meant. He laid his hand on my arm. “You have to befriend the owl,” he said. “That’s all.” He took the print down and handed it to me. “You befriend the owl, then you enter the castle.”

I nodded and thought again of the woman I had met in Sopot and of the feeling I had come away with, a passing sense of the old pagan life that, long ago, before the fall, had brightened Europe from Delphi to Donegal – and it thrilled me, suddenly, to imagine that this flame still glimmers here and there, like the little fire in the wings of
a hunting owl.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State