Edinburgh International Film Festival and Filmhouse collapse: Urgent review of Scottish cultural sector needed – Brian Ferguson

A packed house at the Filmhouse, the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (Picture: Chris Scott)A packed house at the Filmhouse, the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (Picture: Chris Scott)
A packed house at the Filmhouse, the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (Picture: Chris Scott)
It’s not unknown for me to shed a tear or two in the line of duty.

It has definitely happened after a powerful piece of theatre and there are certain songs which always seem to set me off, such as Auld Lang Syne.

But there is something about the cinema which always seems to set me off.

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I was reminded of a fairly recent occasion recently reading Jonathan Melville’s excellent book on the making of Local Hero in Scotland 40 years ago. I had forgotten how much of a sucker punch its finale was until I was sat in the Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh a few years ago, when director Bill Forsyth was the guest of honour.

I’m pretty sure the Filmhouse has been the arts venue in Scotland I’ve visited most since lockdown.

That's as much down to its terrific cafe-bar as its cinema programming. I’d only been back once to see a film before this year’s film festival, but the public screenings I attended were packed.

My last visit was after a press briefing at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on its 2023 programme. However artistic director David Greig talked at length about the theatre sector’s huge challenges, grappling with the impact of rising inflation and soaring energy bills, while trying to bring audience numbers back to pre-pandemic levels and dealing with an industry-wide shortage of skilled workers.

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Edinburgh International Film Festival and Filmhouse in administration: We must s...

It was a fairly grim, if realistic, assessment which I imagined might be replicated across the Scottish cultural landscape. I wasn’t wrong.

Within a week I heard from two different sources that the arts charity, Centre for the Moving Image, behind the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Filmhouse cinemas in Aberdeen and Edinburgh was at serious risk of insolvency.

Confirmation of administration came two days later along with news they had already ceased trading with 102 immediate redundancies. More than a few tears have been shed since then.

After ten rollercoaster years as an arts correspondent, I cannot recall any other story I’ve written that has triggered such an outpouring of emotion, ranging from disbelief and heartache to anger and a determination to salvage something from the wreckage.

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Two things have since become obvious. The vast majority of CMI staff were kept in the dark as to its perilous financial situation, but the alarm was being raised with the Scottish Government and its agencies for nearly a month.

It is perhaps understandable that 11-hour pleas for financial help were rebuffed, particularly given the CMI had received more than £5 million in support over the last three years.

But chief executive Ken Hay and his board have some serious explaining to do to, not least to those staff, on what went wrong, what was done to retrieve the situation and why they were left in the lurch.

Although other much-loved arts institutions have vanished in modern times, it’s hard to think of another Scottish cultural workforce treated so brutally.

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It should be made crystal clear to organisations in receipt of significant public funding how unacceptable this was.

The government and its quangos need to ensure further insolvencies and job losses are an absolute last resort.

That means putting urgent new processes in place across the sector to ensure all possible rescue plans can be fully explored before it is too late.

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