Is the London art cinema scene in crisis?

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Two of London’s key independent cinemas, the Barbican Centre and the ICA, face an uncertain future this month as the city looks set to lose several screens and screening slots

A mood of doom and gloom has descended over the London film scene this month. As Time Out exclusively reported last December, the Barbican Centre has confirmed that it will close two of its three existing cinemas at the end of March and is unlikely to reopen them until 2012. More critically, the future of the two cinemas at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on The Mall also hangs in the balance as the 63-year-old cultural mainstay undergoes a top-to-bottom shake-up prompted by recessionary debt and the need to cut as many as 16 jobs.

The Barbican’s two smaller screens – known as Barbican 2 and 3 – will close in March. The closure relates to the development of flats in the housing estate above the cinemas: last year, tests revealed levels of sound pollution  judged to be unacceptable to tenants in Frobisher Crescent, a new development of luxury apartments. Last week a spokesperson for the Barbican reassured Time Out that there are plans to open two replacement screens by early 2012 on the site of the Barbican Exhibition Hall, which sits separately from the main arts centre on the corner of Whitecross Street and Beech Street. But the Barbican is still seeking consent for the plans.The spokesperson also confirmed that the remaining, largest Barbican cinema ‘will continue to offer the same mix of arthouse films, special seasons and new releases’, while admitting that there will be fewer screenings overall. ‘It’s hoped that the cinemas we plan to open in 2012 will have a greater street presence and also offer all the latest screening technology,’ she explained. ‘This closure is unfortunate, but it should allow us to achieve changes we’ve been pursuing for a long time.’

Over at the ICA, a spokesperson was cagey about discussing changes to the centre’s cinemas as management are still consulting on redundancies which may affect their theatrical and DVD film operations. However, it is believed that at least one of the two current cinema programmers faces redundancy, and it has been mooted that the centre could potentially be closed two days a week.

However, the spokesperson admitted that ‘the ICA may have to drop the number of screenings each day’. Another source at the ICA revealed that the ICA’s DVD and film distribution arm will close, meaning that any new films shown would be courtesy of other distributors, not sourced directly by the ICA’s own programmers. A significant number of films screened in the ICA’s cinemas are currently from the in-house distributor, although its past reputation for introducing new filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Takeshi Kitano to London audiences has diminished greatly in recent years.

Many critics and filmmakers agree that the ICA’s cinemas have failed to maintain their unique identity. The next ICA Films release, on February 19, is Samantha Morton’s ‘The Unloved’, a film which had its premiere on television back in May 2009. ‘Is this what the ICA is for?’ asked one critic. ‘The ICA’s cinemas have lost their way.’ Several newspaper reports have also questioned the leadership of Ekow Eshun, who was appointed the ICA’s artistic director back in 2005.

Supporters of the ICA are optimistic. They hope this latest crisis may be an opportunity for the centre’s cinemas to find a new direction and redefine themselves once more as an important force on London’s cultural scene.

Got any thoughts on the state of London's independent cinemas? Leave a comment below.

Author: Dave Calhoun and David Jenkins



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