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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Not coming to a cinema near you?

The curtain will rise at the Oscars amid the usual expectation, excitement and fanfare that the world’s most glittering awards ceremony brings.

John Hurt photo
John Hurt outside Keswick's Alhambra cinema

The Artist, The Descendants, and Moneyball are set to battle it out for the best picture, while George Clooney, Gary Oldman and Brad Pitt compete for the best leading actor.

Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams and Glenn Close will vie to be best actress alongside Michel Hazanavicius, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese who bid to be crowned best director.

The show will be watched by millions of viewers across the world and all the usual stars will be in attendance.

In Cumbria, the weekend brings a more conflicting story of the state of cinema.

On one hand Keswick Film Festival opened on Thursday with an appearance from universally respected and globally-popular actor John Hurt, who has spoken of the importance of the independent cinema.

On the other hand, The Artist finally had its Carlisle debut yesterday, a full seven weeks after its UK release.

Keswick resident Tom Rennie, 69, runs the Alhambra cinema which is co-hosting the town’s film festival, which has been running annually for 13 years and sells around 3,000 tickets a year.

Understandably, given the success of the festival, he isn’t too downbeat about the state of cinema in the county.

He says: “Cinema in Cumbria is not in decline now, but it’s static.

“The industry is cyclical and there are peaks and troughs.

“We have had attendances of up to 36,000 a year although at the moment we’re getting about 25,000 a year.

“I would like to ease it back up to 30,000 a year.”

Mr Rennie acknowledges that part of the challenge is due to Keswick not having a typical cinema crowd.

He explains: “Cumbria is a very sparsely-populated county and Keswick is a small town in it.

“A problem is that the cinema isn’t quite the ‘in’ place that it used to be.

“Ten years ago I would be tearing my hair out telling young people to be quiet and stop throwing popcorn.

“We have got to address people that are in this catchment and most of the people in Keswick are not thrill-seeking youngsters.

“They are people who have a relatively quiet time in the town.”

The lack of a younger audience doesn’t stop the Alhambra bringing in blockbusters now and again though.

Mr Rennie says: “If people know that we are getting a big box office film they will wait and not go elsewhere.

“We can now negotiate and try and get releases earlier.

“If we get things like the Twilight releases we will show them as long as we profitably can.

“When we have things like Twilight on I always wonder where all the young people come from!”

Although Mr Rennie is not a film buff himself, he has many years of experience of managing the cinema since moving to Keswick in 1989 and last year took over the reigns of the Alhambra cinema from Alan Towers, who runs the cinema in Penrith and was the man behind the former Lonsdale Cinema in Carlisle.

Advertising is a route that he will be going into, as well as emphasising different aspects of the cinema experience.

“We have to promote the social aspect of it,” Mr Rennie said.

“We’re opening up deals with restaurants where you get a free ticket with a meal.

“The idea is to go along with a friend an have a drink afterwards and a chat about the film.

“If we find out we are getting a good response then we can develop that market.”

Despite this optimism, Mr Rennie’s voice gives off a note of sadness and resignation as he talks about the changes coming for the cinema.

He explains: “The big change is digital cinema. The media have been predicting the demise of 35mm prints for eight to 10 years now, and we’ve been told we will receive no more 35mm prints from about July 2014. Forty-eight per cent of cinemas have not yet converted to digital and we are one of them.

“It’s very expensive to convert – about £60,000 a screen.

“Things move on and it seems as though digital is the way forward.”

Mr Rennie also acknowledges that it’s partly because of his age that he’s so at home running the cinema.

He says: “Under the previous owner it was running at a loss and I’d like to make a very modest profit.

“I’d be very apprehensive if I was in my 20s or 30s and wanting to take over a cinema and make “£30,000 a year.

“If I make £15,000 a year I would be very happy with that.

“I’m 69 now and the cinema is 99.

“I’m going to see it through its 100th year. We’re going to stagger over together for a memorable birthday.”

Robert Charters, principal lecturer in visual and written media at the University of Cumbria, has his own theory as to why Cumbrian cinema has seen better days.

He says that the problem is the lack of British productions being available in cinemas.

“What’s happened in the last 20 years is a reduction in the variety of different films,” Mr Charters said. “We don’t see ourselves and our culture on screen very much.

“There are lots of American films, and you don’t see British people very much. The British people that you do see are through the lens of an American.”

There’s also the difference between the outlook of Americans and Brits.

“American films are about saving the world – British films are about saving a supermarket,” he said.

Another problem is the price of films and increase in readily-available technology.

Mr Charters explains: “People are going to the cinema less because of the cost. I took my daughter to see War Horse and by the time I’d bought decent tickets and popcorn it cost £30.

“People have HDTVs and Blu-ray players now, and going to the cinema ceases to be as much of an occasion.

“Cinema is aimed at 14 to 25-year-olds because they still use the cinema as somewhere to go and snog.

“Older people have places of their own.”

Across the county, Whitehaven resident Richard Adair is organising a campaign to reinvigorate interest in a cinema in Whitehaven.

Thirty-year-old Richard, a electrical engineering student and Sellafield employee, says that Whitehaven needs a cinema to revitalise the town.

He said: “I was watching the BAFTAs a few weeks ago and Stephen Fry mentioned that everyone should support their cinema.

“That made me think that we should have one – it would be very good for the town.”

Richard has set up a Facebook page to gather support for bringing the silver screen back to the coastal town.

In less than a week, more than 140 people have ‘liked’ the page, and Richard hopes that this shows a level of interest in his idea.

He says: “I don’t know about the financial aspects of it but I was just seeing if there’s a demand.

“We’ve had a cinema in the past so I hope there can be one in the future.”

He also feels that the lack of a cinema is part of a wider problem in the town, and Cumbria as a whole.

He says: “I just like watching films, and I think everyone does.

“Films can unite people and bring them together.

“A lot of buildings aren’t being used and the town needs better shops – many northern towns have the same problem.

“There are also rumours of sporting development and I think both would be great.

“I really hope something can happen and bring a bit of life into the town.

“If we can do this, what else can we do?”

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