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Too posh for popcorn

Independent cinemas once provided affordable art for all. Now, a growing number offer audiences a lu

Hampstead, some time in the 1990s: a gruff, possibly hung-over thirtysomething proffers what looks like a pink raffle ticket. "Your membership card," he explains, as he starts to serve the stern-faced Hal Hartley fan who is fidgeting behind you. It's a short climb of the stairs to the sunken seats of the auditorium, above which the barrel-like ceiling looms as if you were in the belly of the Biblical whale. There's a soft murmur in the stalls but it's not the usual sugar-rushed, pre-film chatter of those wanting to zone out into the banal escapism of a summer blockbuster. The room is buzzing with a palpable sense of excitement and it's all for a triple bill of indie pictures starring the floppy-haired hipster icon Martin Donovan.

There was a time when Hampstead's Everyman Cinema was the epitome of the art-house and repertory fleapit. With its cheap tickets and daring programming, the sticky-floored environs of the 19th-century drill hall that the cinema still occupies served as one of London's few sanctuaries for the art movie. Screening films since 1933, it remains the longest-running independent cinema in Britain and is also one of the oldest active picture houses in the world. But something has changed. Once home to Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, last month, it was showing Hellboy II and The Dark Knight.

Outside the polished glass entrance are brass stands with thick, red ropes linking them, as if this were the queue outside a swanky nightclub. Over-friendly attendants greet you as you enter, leading you to the reception area, where the booze and snacks are worth their weight in gold: I opted for a small tub of chocolate-covered raisins, which came to £4. There's even a faintly absurd waiting service in the auditorium. Glowing blue buttons are built in to the mini-tables that separate the seats, so that you can summon a waiter and order Belgian chocolates before and after the screening. "Indulge" is the motto of the new Everyman, which takes no half-measures when it comes to comfort. Its official brochure boasts an endorsement from Paul McCartney, who "loved the experience - it's too posh for popcorn". At between £12 and £15 per ticket, it had better be.

"Never let a film-lover run a cinema," says Daniel Broch, founder and chief executive of the Everyman Media Group (EMG). Since suffering financial difficulties following a failed £800,000 revamp in 1999, the cinema has been taken over by new faces. "I bought it from the administrators after it had been bankrupt for the second time," explains Broch, who cites Rupert Murdoch and Crocs sandals as precedents for his business strategy. He insists that a film-centric attitude is "where people in the industry went wrong": "Independent cinemas became tethered to content." Divorcing the independent cinema from its responsibilities as a cultural institution, Broch's Everyman has become a purveyor of what he calls "filmtertainment". "Lifestyle's the key word," he tells me, and I imagine hula girls fanning him as he rests his feet on discarded reels of Fassbinder.

In March, EMG announced that it had acquired the Screen group, a rival chain of cinemas. Seven new sites came under its control and the plan is to open 50 further Everyman cinemas within the next five years. The first of the Screen group sites to receive the "boutique" makeover will be Belsize Park's much-loved Screen on the Hill, which Broch boasts will be a "progression on Hampstead". But what does this mean for the film-lover? I ask him whether the era of the indie rep cinema has passed. "Absolutely. It was over 15 years ago."

Damien Sanville, owner of the Close-Up film library on Brick Lane in London's East End and its affiliated distribution network, agrees that times have changed. What he finds most dispiriting is "the disintegration and disappearance of what cinema was about" - namely, its social function as an affordable, democratic art form. "The beauty of the cinema," he explains, "was the simple fact that, without paying much money, you could go out on a Sunday afternoon and discover anything from the Hollywood greats to Pasolini." Where in France, large chains such as Marin Karmitz's MK2 franchise thrive even today on a diet of "auteurist" cinema, the British art-house scene is far less secure. "You can blame it on the lack of curiosity of people in general, or you can blame the distributors," says Sanville. "It's the chicken or the egg."

The internet, too, plays a part. Films that were almost impossible to locate in any domestic format ten years ago can easily be snapped up on eBay or Amazon or even streamed straight from YouTube. More specialist sites such as UbuWeb, founded in 1996 as an online repository for all things avant-garde in film, offer a wide range of shorts and fragments that can be downloaded for free. Sanville thinks "they're absolutely phenomenal" but still believes that there is a need for a thriving independent cinema scene. He says that, without a guiding hand, the "volume" of what is available makes it hard to sift the wheat from the chaff: "They have interviews with Godard from the 1960s but you have to be searching for Godard in the first place to find them." As ever fewer people chance upon the greats at the cinema, there is a danger that the art film will become even more marginalised than it is already.

So is it really all doom and gloom? Paul Homer, manager of the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, remains optimistic. The audiences that frequent the Phoenix are "looking to be provoked, they're looking to be challenged and they're also looking for quality art. For us," he explains, "the experience starts with the film." The cinema's eclectic programme reflects this comparatively purist attitude, encompassing little-seen gems from around the world as well as forgotten classics, often bundled into affordable double bills. "Just because film can be a commercial art form, it doesn't mean it should be," Homer argues, though he concedes: "We're commercially more canny than we used to be." As a registered charity, the Phoenix is free from the demands of "directors and shareholders". And, collaborating with the ever-reliable City Screen distributors, it continues to fly the flag for quality fringe cinema.

In stark contrast to "boutique" indies such as the Everyman, Homer is keen to keep prices low. "Our business model is not to have fewer people at a higher ticket price; it's to have more people at a lower ticket price." The Close-Up library operates to a similar ethic and runs as a non-profit organisation, despite the constant threat of closure. Spending almost all profits on expanding its 11,000-strong collection, Sanville considers his private enterprise a public resource. "I don't try to change the world," he says, "but there are a few things that I think are beautiful art pieces and if we can make them accessible one way or another, the job's done." Sanville's popular repertory screenings in temporary East End locations, run in conjunction with fellow movie missionaries, attest to the enduring appeal of the film-lover's film club.

I ask him why he does it. "Sharing," he says. "It's pretty straightforward."

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.