Cinemas are shutting down all over the country, to find out what’s going on, our Writer at Large talks to the folk running the nation’s best loved movie-houses

Drawing an imaginary line in the air parallel to her chin, Allison Gardner says: “Our income is here. But our costs are here.” The line goes up, up, up, until it’s above her head.

It’s a neat visual metaphor for the rising tide that’s drowning cinemas across the country. Gardner should know. She runs the Glasgow Film Theatre, one of Scotland’s most beloved arthouse cinemas, and heads up the Glasgow Film Festival.

From the big multiplexes to the tiniest community movie house, the bricks and mortar of the cinema industry is crumbling across Scotland and the rest of Britain. When it comes to the big boys, the multiplex chains, Cineworld faced administration in 2023 as did Empire Cinemas, and Odeon has closed branches.

Beloved indie arthouses are collapsing too. The Edinburgh Filmhouse closed, as did Aberdeen’s Belmont. It’s grim. Covid brought the industry to its knees and the cost of living crisis laid it flat on the floor. Changing social norms don’t help: streaming services, home delivery, and a decline in people going out all ratchet up pain.

As the Glasgow Film Festival – Britain’s second largest after London – prepares to open for its 20th year, there’s really no better time to ask: “Can your local cinema survive?”

To find out, The Herald on Sunday sat down with the people who run Scotland’s best-loved independent cinemas. Alongside Gardner, there’s David Paton and Matt Buchanan – founder and manager respectively of the Montrose Playhouse – and Nicola White from Scotland’s smallest movie house, Cromarty Cinema.


Glasgow Film Festival director Allison Gardner at FI ahead of the opening premiere. STY Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times

Glasgow Film Festival director Allison Gardner at FI ahead of the opening premiere. STY Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times



So, what’s the outlook? “Many are feeling it really tough,” says Gardner. However, there’s a difference between what’s happening in cities and rural areas. City cinemas are struggling. In rural areas, it’s not so bleak.

White from Cromarty says: “The enthusiasm for cinema in [rural communities] is really high. We certainly haven’t seen a falling off, though that’s not to say it’s easy.”

Paton, who founded Montrose Playhouse, says that while rising costs pile on financial pressure, his cinema has a strong audience base. In a town of just 13,000, it has an astonishing 120,000 visitors annually.

“Indies” – arthouses like the GFT, and community cinemas like Montrose and Cromarty – are faring better than multiplexes. Multiplexes are dependent on Hollywood for “content”. The pandemic, and then the Hollywood writers’ strike, left big gaps in the market. Indie cinemas could fill those gaps with low-budget arthouse movies, and curated seasons of old classics.

Creative Scotland has warned of widespread “collapse” across the nation’s cultural landscape. “Cinema isn’t inured against that,” says Gardner. “But we’re able to ride the storm in different ways to multiplexes. We have a different boat. They’re like tankers – they easily take on water – while we’re more flexible, fleet of foot.”

Indie cinemas aren’t dependent on “London or LA”.

White says that during the writers’ strike when it was hard sourcing new films, Cromarty began showing movies which “30-somethings” fell in love with as children – like The Princess Bride, Little Miss Sunshine, and Clueless. That specially curated season of “uplifting” movies worked and kept punters coming.

These small community cinemas know their audiences “intimately”. It’s their secret survival weapon – while multiplexes just play the same material in every town.

Community cinemas like Montrose also plug geographical gaps in the market. There wasn’t a cinema between Aberdeen and Dundee. Montrose filled that niche.

While indie ticket prices aren’t much different than multiplexes, the cost of food and drink is where moviegoers win. Buchanan, manager at Montrose, says: “When I leave a multiplex, I feel ripped off. When I leave the Playhouse, I’ve paid £2.50 for chocolates, not £4 in the multiplex.”


BUCHANAN doesn’t even see multiplexes as “part of the cinema industry. They’re accountants. We want people to have a bloody good time. You could file [multiplexes] under ‘late-stage capitalism’. We’re the antidote, saying come and be treated like people, not wallets”.

Indie cinemas are spotlessly clean, he adds. “You’re greeted by someone who actually cares about you. That’s the difference. We’re friendly. You don’t mind paying the same [ticket price] if you’re having 10 times the experience.”

However, although they are all dismissive of the multiplex experience, none want to see any close. “We’re all part of an ecosystem,” Gardner says.

Not all indies are the same though. GFT is strictly arthouse. Montrose and Cromarty straddle mainstream and arthouse. They have to – they’re catering for areas where audiences have nowhere else to go.

The “most mainstream” movie you’ll find at GFT is an Oppenheimer or a Wes Anderson film. For the right arthouse movie, GFT is often the number one cinema across Britain.

When arthouse movies are thin on the ground, GFT is agile. It will screen a series by some great auteur, or classic star like Dolores Del Rio, so there’s always something keeping audiences satisfied.


Matt Buchanan, the manager of the Montrose Playhouse 2.

Matt Buchanan, the manager of the Montrose Playhouse 2.


Buchanan, from Montrose, adds: “We build audiences in a different way.” As multiplexes depend on Hollywood, they’re exposed to audience drift if good films aren’t hitting cinemas – just like the 1980s when numbers plummeted. Like the 1980s, arthouses tick over as there are always indie filmmakers to keep them buoyant.

With Montrose bridging the arthouse-mainstream divide, its biggest seller to date was Top Gun: Maverick.

But that allows it to show obscure “four-hour, black and white documentaries” that would otherwise never get aired.

At Cromarty, Top Gun Maverick was also a hit, but so are obscure movies from far-flung parts of the globe. “They get similar numbers, but different audiences,” White says.

Community cinemas can’t exclude anyone in their catchment area. They need both mainstream viewers and arthouse lovers.

City-based arthouses like GFT, however, would be mad to air mainstream movies and try to compete with multiplexes, Gardner points out.

“There’s an 18-screen [multiplex] down the road from us. There’s no need for us to show the same films. Why would we butt up against the multiplexes?”

Crucially, though, the indie movies that are successful at GFT and Glasgow’s Film Festival get picked up by community cinemas like Montrose and Cromarty, as they’re proven hits that will bring in money, rather than play to empty screens. “We’re the R&D [research and development] of the sector,” Gardner says.


WHILE cinemas may be closing, Montrose’s Buchanan is increasingly contacted by people from small towns planning to create their own movie house. He’s had enquires from Prestwick, Dunfermline, Elgin – all across Scotland. It makes sense. Once a big multiplex goes, people in small towns are cut off from cinema. Smart entrepreneurs see the niche.

“The model for cinema survival is community-based,” Buchanan says. White from Cromarty adds: “There’s an urban-rural divide. The losses have been mainly urban.”

GFT, by sticking to its proven arthouse formula, dodges the pain of city multiplexes. “We’re back to 96% of pre-Covid admission levels,” points out Gardner.

The fear comes from that differential between costs and income which Gardner pointed to earlier. Heating is expensive. Concession costs have leapt.

Movie attendance figures, according to the UK Cinema Association, show that in 2022 there were 117 million admissions across Britain. That’s puny compared to the mid-1940s Golden Age when 1.6 billion went to the movies, yet much higher than the mid-1980s low point of 54 million. Pre-Covid, in 2019, attendance was 176 million. So there’s been significant decline between then and now.

Currently the diagnosis is “good but not great”. Rumours of the death of cinema are premature, though. Gardner says she’s been hearing that since the days of “Blockbuster”.

Indie cinemas add lots of bells and whistles compared to multiplexes. They have become more than just movie houses. Most are essential parts of the community. This week, Montrose has tai chi, pilates, breastfeeding support, yoga, and poker nights. It stages live music, talks and food tastings, and runs cheap kids’ club screenings to “make sure there’s a pipeline to the next generation of audience”.

If they can’t hook you with good films, they’ll get you in the door some other way. Most indies live stream theatre as well.


BUT if nightclubs and bars are suffering post-Covid, as people change habits and stay at home, why are indies seemingly suffering less?

The group thinks it’s probably down to the halfway house cinema provides. It’s semi-social. You go with friends, there are other people around, but, says Paton from Montrose, it doesn’t have the same level of “interaction” as bars or nightclubs.

Young people drink less than previous generations, but are increasingly movie-literate thanks to streaming services showing obscure and foreign movies.

“It’s the most accessible art form on Earth,” says Gardner. Post-Covid, her audience numbers may have bounced back but “what they spend at the bar has gone down”.

To Cromarty’s White, the secret to success is “the experience” indie cinemas offer. People come from all over the Black Isle – even Inverness and Forres – to visit her tiny 30-seater. They visit the seaside, eat pizza, and catch a film. “The multiplexes are simply commercial – there to take money from you. We’re a labour of love. People are looking for that connection.”

She’s right. Increasingly, business success depends on the human touch, whether it’s handmade goods or impeccable personal service from someone who loves their craft.

Buchanan thinks rural community cinemas like Montrose and Cromarty tap into the spirit of the “15-minute neighbourhood”, where people increasingly want to drink, shop and socialise near home.

Montrose has a “community fridge where people can come without judgement and take a meal. We’ve tried to place ourselves at the heart of our community”.

His cinema, like GFT, is a charity, investing money back into Montrose. You can see why people take indies to their hearts, and why, when it comes to affection and loyalty, multiplexes don’t have a hope.

Indie cinemas cast their net wide. They provide cinema for dementia suffers, people with autism, and the deaf. “It’s about serving many communities, as opposed to one geographical community,” adds Gardner. Many indie ideas are now copied by multiplexes.


Glasgow’s Film Festival puts GFT in a league of its own. Gardner travels to Cannes and the Venice film festivals to select the films she shows, and tailors screenings to her audiences’s taste. She saw Poor Things first at Venice and knew immediately Glasgow would lap it up. So she gave it a three-week run.

The joy of indie cinema comes from the eclectic mix of films, hand-curated by people who simply love movies. White championed the little-known Bhutanese movie Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom – adored internationally by reviewers but basically unknown here. It sold out.

“People are smart. If a film is good, they’ll come and see it. We had to bring it back twice.”

Clearly, if the only place showing a film like Lunana is Cromarty, people in the know will travel from afar to see it. Word of mouth will spread that your cinema is the place to go.

Montrose likes to think it offers both “fillet steak and dirty burgers” – the whole gamut of cinema, from Oppenheimer to Barbie and indie arthouse to the latest superhero franchise.

Paton says: “Our community likes that balance.”

But dirty burgers aren’t for Gardner. “We understand our audience too,” she adds. They want cult movies, experimental films and old classics like It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmastime. Nothing mainstream. So, when she aired Oppenheimer, the 70mm version, for purists, “far outstripped the digital screening”.

“We’d never do Marvel films,” she adds. “There’s literally no point.”

So, what about the state of cinema – not bricks-and-mortar movie houses, but what’s shown on the silver screen?


David Paton - Playhouse-1.

David Paton - Playhouse-1.


Paton loves superhero movies but he’s sick of CGI. Big studios “are churning out all these films so much so that they’re not caring about the quality”. The night he opened the Playhouse in 2021, “I publicly took out my Odeon card and cut it in half”.

Buchanan says the anti-Marvel “backlash was inevitable”. But he’s more worried about “mid-range dramas” becoming dominated by Netflix and Prime. These streaming services don’t just show these films but make them as well. “That’s where cinemas lose out.”

White feels there’s “real scarcity in good films for children”. Most are derivative and “saccharine”. The rare exception is Japan’s Studio Ghibli, films like Spirited Away, though even they’re aimed at older teens.

She feels cinema “still isn’t there yet” when it comes to films by women, “and in terms of racial diversity, we aren’t there at all”, although more audiences are embracing foreign language films. That’s down to the ubiquity of subtitles on streaming services. “It’s normalised.”

Gardner hasn’t watched mainstream movies since her kids last dragged her along. “But they’re now 29 and 24 so they aren’t dragging me anywhere anymore.” She simply hasn’t got time. GFT shows 700 films from 60 countries annually and she must watch every one.


BUCHANAN dismisses claims that cinema is “wokeified” as “nonsense”. He quotes the famous movie critic Roger Ebert: “Movies are machines that generate empathy.” Films, he believes, let us walk in the shoes of people of “different races, genders, economic classes. The more diversity the better”.

There’s some disagreement over the issue of class, however. A question is posed about the seeming predominance of British filmmakers and actors from public school.

Saltburn is cited. It was made by Emerald Fennel. Her 18th birthday was documented by the high-society magazine Tatler. She attended private school and Oxford.

Gardner thinks “that’s a bit harsh on Emerald. She’s a nice person. She’s allowed to make films”.

But isn’t it true that there are few working-class voices in British cinema? “Not as many as there should be,” Gardner says.

“I’d definitely agree with that.”

White adds: “It’s a problem – and a problem across all the arts.”

Buchanan hopes the issue of class “will balance itself out. If you keep making [films] that are only about the stuff you know, and you’re in a minority – as let’s be honest, there’s less of the upper class than us proles – then you’re not making content people want to see, as it isn’t reflecting them. It’s nice to watch Saltburn, and see how the other half allegedly live, but the reality is that’s not most people’s lives.”

Does the Scottish Government do enough for the film industry? Gardner isn’t “a big fan of any government” but Screen Scotland has “done a good job trying to get films into production”.

Crucially, Scottish audiences want to see Scottish films. Last summer, Gregory’s Girl sold out in seven minutes at GFT, becoming one of its top 10 movies of the year. It’s 44 years old.

The problem is cash. In a cost of living crisis, culture is low on the list of government priorities. Gardner says Screen Scotland and the Scottish Government “take cinema seriously, but there’s not much money sloshing around. To have a sustainable, long-term, profitable film industry in a small country you need infrastructure”.

White adds: “There’s no real production base here. But demand is huge. Anytime we show a film even ‘kind of’ filmed in Scotland, it’ll have significantly more of an audience.” Part of the problem, she feels, is that in Britain, London is “the centre”.

Even though seas are stormy for cinemas, the success of the Glasgow Film Festival proves indie movie houses are weathering the tempest … for now.

The festival will show films from 44 countries, and host 69 UK premiers and 11 world premiers. But guess what the biggest hit already is and the festival hasn’t even opened? The remastering of Billy Connolly’s Big Banana Feet.

They might not agree on everything, but this bunch of cinephiles are in accord on this: Scotland wants to see itself reflected back from the silver screen, and the more that happens, the safer the future for our best-loved cinemas.