With society ever so slightly returning back to normal and cinemas finally allowed to reopen again, the past couple of weeks have been incredibly special for cinephiles the world over. Although that special feeling of experiencing a film with a room full of strangers may not have made a complete return as of yet due limits put in place as a result of the pandemic, cinemas are back.
Filmhounds’ A Celebration of Cinemas seeks to spotlight some of the team’s greatest and most adored cinemas, to champion these spaces and uplift them as cultural beacons of brilliance. With that in mind I chose Edinburgh Filmhouse. As an Edinburgh native, and a film buff, there was no choice more obvious than the Filmhouse. Itself a cinematic landmark within Edinburgh that represents the Scottish capital’s relationship with cinema over the years.
Having been a customer and fan of the Filmhouse since my first visit there in 2013, it was an immense pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Yvonne Smith, a member of the Filmhouse team, in which we discussed the cinema, reopening plans, the future of cinema and more.
It’s lovely to meet you and thanks again for taking time out of your day for this interview – I can only assume how busy you all must be with cinemas reopening. So firstly would you like to introduce yourself and your role within the cinema?
Sure! So my name is Yvonne Smith and I am head of cinema operations at Filmhouse and I also work for the Edinburgh Film Festival.
And just for any of the readers who are unaware, what exactly does the role of head of cinema operations entail? Whether that be for Filmhouse or for the film festival?
So I manage the box office staff and the usherers and the duty managers in the building and we manage the box office system, so a lot of the sort of customer experience stuff comes under me. I am also responsible for health and safety, security and legislation type of stuff, policy development. Yeah, that type of thing. I also act as the company lead for equality, diversity and inclusion, so accessibility and things like that.
Ah wow, that’s really lovely! So there may be some readers who have never been to Edinburgh Filmhouse, or maybe even never heard of it. In your own words could you give them an idea of what it’s like and what it stands for?
So it’s independent cinema, it’s arthouse cinema. We show a lot of independent films, a lot of films from around the world. In normal pre-COVID times we have 30 festival partners every year. So we have 30 mini-festivals come into the Filmhouse as well, so Take One Action, Africa in Motion are the 2 big ones. French Film Festival, German Film Festival, Italian Film Festival (laughs), all of those kind of country festivals. Also we are home of the Edinburgh International Film Festival which is a huge film festival which happens ordinarily in June but it’s going to be happening in August this year. Yeah, we have a really kind of niche programme.
We think that outside of the BFI we have maybe the most diverse programme in the country so we have a really good, keen audience who are willing to take risks with us. Often we are able to get like 100 people in for a film that other cinemas around the country would maybe get 10 for because they are quite niche and weird films. We’re a charity and we’re funded by Screen Scotland and part of the funding is so we don’t always have to make commercial decisions about films, so we can show films that even though we know not everyone is going to flood to see we think they’re important and we think it’s important that they get a screening in Edinburgh. That can be films by Scottish filmmakers or diverse filmmakers or diverse voices.
It’s good to have places that champion maybe better made films rather than the most popular films. All of that does kind of answer my next question. I was going to ask what Filmhouse does to stand out against the increasing number of multiplexes; however I think you covered that in your previous answer. Unless there is anything you would like to add?
Yeah. I think the only other thing is that we have memberships? I guess multiplexes have members as well but I think that the number of memberships we have makes us pretty special as an independent cinema and that keeps us going as well.
Did you begin as a customer of Filmhouse or did you become a customer along with the job?
I moved to Edinburgh to work here. I went to uni in Dundee and I worked for Dundee Contemporary Arts and I worked in the box office there. That was my first time seeing foreign language films and understanding the concept of an independent cinema. That kind of got me started and then I worked in cinema from there on but yeah, I moved to Edinburgh especially to work for Filmhouse. Before that I’d never been, I had only heard of the Cameo and that’s so annoying now (laughs).
(Laughs) I get what you mean. Because Cameo and Filmhouse are both kind of the only two independent cinemas in Edinburgh. There is also the Dominion too! I was wondering if there was any reason as to why you wanted to work specifically for the Filmhouse, was there anything that pushed you towards them instead of another cinema?
No, I guess the job kind of matched my experience more but ever since Dundee Contemporary Arts I’ve always worked in the arts and I’ve theatre for a while which I really enjoyed and just before I came to work for Filmhouse I was working for Glasgow Sculpture Studios so I in kind of a visual art. I really loved that. It was really fun because you saw everyone making things all the time but when the job came up I wanted to work there because cinemas are entirely staffed by nerds and really enjoy that environment. I wanted to work in that environment where everyone wants to talk about film all the time, obviously because it would be very fun and you also don’t get that very much in the visual arts.
So, speaking of the arts and wanting to work in a cinema, was there any specific moment or moments for you that ignited that love for cinema and made you want to work in that area?
The year I started working at Dundee Contemporary Arts, having never seen a film that wasn’t super mainstream, they had films like Amélie and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Pawlikowski film Last Resort which is just an absolutely stunning film with Paddy Considine. Just all the good films (laughs). It was just so exciting and such an exciting time to work and obviously I had to usher those films a hundred times so I kind of developed a bit of film literacy from that. That definitely ignited it for me.
So of course since working for the Filmhouse you have been a customer. What are some of you favourite Filmhouse moments? Whether that is a specific film or getting to work with certain people or anything like that.
A favourite moment (pauses). I’m a huge Jaws fan and I remember one year we had Richard Dreyfuss at the film festival. I remember I had to run frantically through the filmhouse to draft lemonade for Richard Dreyfuss which was a bit of a weird film festival moment (laughs). Neil Gaimman came to the film festival one year. Just to watch a film, he was speaking or anything but I had a bit of an interaction with him. I’ve served Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. Separately, but I like that the kind of thing about working at the Filmhouse, there’s just always random famous people just wandering around in the foyer (laughs). I guess, it’s a bit artsy but we did a retrospective and we showed that Zidane film.
Focusing again on multiplexes and independent cinemas, unfortunately even the biggest cinema chains are struggling at the minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How has Filmhouse coped during this time?
We’ve been ok so far. It’s been really expensive, obviously. We have a really busy, popular cafe bar and that really supports the building a lot but obviously that’s been closed as well. We signed up to real living wage just before lockdown so we’ve been able to keep paying everyone at least real living wage throughout lockdown. Managers and stuff have had some small pay cuts at times which has been quite tricky but it’s fine and fair. We’ve had government support and some funding from Screen Scotland which has been really helpful but it’s been really expensive. During our reopening last time we spent a lot of money get everything clean and renovated, installing sanitisation stations so it has definitely been expensive. At the moment we’ve got furlough so we’re good but if furlough ends in September and social distancing hasn’t gone away then we are in trouble I think. (Pauses). I think what keeps happening is that it keeps feeling like there’s this big cliff edge coming and then something happens like furlough or we’ll get funding or the government will announce more money for the arts. So something has always come along in time.
Hopefully with being able to open that will help, though it is really good to hear about the funding from the government or Screen Scotland. I had no clue anything like that was happening at the minute!
Yeah we were given some funding around November/December last year and then we were given further funding a few months ago. It’s literally just to keep paying wages. That’s what they are telling us to use it for.
I know last year Edinburgh International Film Festival was all online and that is the case for this year but I know that you also launched the Filmhouse at Home streaming site as well. So, with the pandemic there are the regular cries of “cinema is dying”. How do you feel about the future of cinemas? Whether that be just in the UK or worldwide?
I don’t in any way buy this “cinema is dead” thing because I worked in a theater for years and cinema would have killed theater right? We still have theater’s. TV didn’t kill cinema and actually I think that streaming now is getting worse because you need to own like 20 streaming platforms to be able to see the widest range of films. I just think even if you have the projector, even if you have your friends round and you have the best sound system it’s just different watching films with strangers at a cinema. You just can’t replicate it at home. I just don’t think it’s as worrying as those who don’t love or work in cinema think it is.
Amazing! So, that is all of the questions I had for yourself today. Is there anything else you would like to mention for the readers of Filmhounds?
We applied for planning permission to build a completely new building. We don’t know if we’ll get that planning permission or not but it’s bigger, it’s got 6 screens, it would mean the programme would be bigger and wider but also it would bring in a lot of co-curation which isn’t something we do a lot at the moment so something we are thinking of is becoming more of the community’s cinema. The building design is quite tall and people hate tall buildings in Edinburgh (laughs) but people keep saying “why does a cinema need windows” but for us so much of the experience is the bit before you go in and after you’ve come out, talking about the films. We try to show films where you can enjoy half an hour chatting about them after so that’s why we do think cinemas need windows I guess (laughs).
Yeah and earlier you mentioned the cafe which, more often than not, is incredibly busy no matter what time of year so even a bigger space for the cafe is a great idea. Hopefully the plans are approved.
Yeah. Of course, public space has been super valuable over the pandemic and that might affect the plans. If so I could understand that.
Yeah true. I am personally looking forward to it, my only issue with the building is that I need to wait for it (laughs). When is it due again? 2023?
No, 2025. Maybe 2026 now with all the delays, that is only if a million little things all happen very quickly.
Yeah, so many hoops to jump through. Hopefully it all goes well though! There aren’t too many cinemas in Edinburgh so more are always welcome, in my eyes.
Yeah. Even if there are a lot of cinemas no one complains that there are too many gig venues in Glasgow. Glasgow is amazing because of the amount of venues. It’s the same with cinemas and everywhere shows something different. I think certain films fit certain cinemas too. Like, The Meg suits Cineworld but it maybe wouldn’t suit Filmhouse (laughs).