Birmingham – a cinematic backwater

(Trailer for Synecdoche, New York. I want to see this NOW)

First some nostalgia: I’ve been a Birmingham cinema-goer for a long time. Get me drunk enough and I’ll bore you to within an inch of your life by listing the films I’ve seen in cinemas now long gone. From The Towering Inferno in the upper circle of the ABC New Street to queuing round the block for Jaws at the Beaufort in Washwood Heath and watching Godzilla double-bills with my Mom at Ward End’s Capitol.

At some point in the mid-1980s I discovered ‘arthouse’ cinema. Or rather my brother did and I picked up his interest. The Triangle was our cinema of choice and it did that repertory thing of combining new leftfield film releases with retrospectives and cult movie double bills (I recall a packed 11pm screening of Taxi Driver and Hardcore).

One of the things I discovered as I combined a love of the mainstream with world/independent cinema is that the former would arrive in Brum on the week of release but the latter always tailed behind. I’d be getting excited by reviews of Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice only to realise that it wouldn’t be showing anywhere near here for a week or two or three after its initial release.

The reasons why were partly about the scarcity of prints and the whims of distributors but also to do with the pattern of regional film theatres established by the British Film Institute in the 1960s which effectively overlooked Birmingham as a regional centre for non-mainstream film viewing (see Terry Grimley’s excellent article in The Birmingham Post last year for more context).

This week I note that nothing’s changed. The list of non-London cities showing Charlie Kaufman’s highly-rated new film Synecdoche, New York in the week of its release include: Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Edinburgh, Glasgow. Birmingham’s not up there. Oh we’ll get it okay – as soon as next week at the superb Electric. But that’s not good enough. I’ve been waiting until next week since the mid-1980s and I’m sick to death of it. It may be just lack of venues and when the MAC is back on stream it’ll all be fine. Or maybe we don’t have the punters, maybe they’re a more eager, cultured lot over in Norwich. If so then let’s get some audience development initiatives underway.

I doubt it somehow – we’ve been seen as a second-run city for cinema for as long as I can remember and I’m really not sure how we can change that perception. Not even publicly subsidised digital distribution has helped. Ideas anyone?

8 thoughts on “Birmingham – a cinematic backwater

  1. On Sunday I very nearly caught the train to Nottingham for SNY at the Broadway. I know more dedicated film-buffs who regularly go off to Bristol or Leicester for a fix of decent films.

    And you’re right, it has been going on for ages. When I worked at Birmingham filmfest I was witness to endless manoeuvres and meetings towards a proper RFT/media centre in the city, and the closest we got was City Screen nearly opening a 3-screen cinema at the Mailbox (where the Beeb is now). I often wonder how such a cinema would’ve fared here.

    There is an audience for non-mainstream film in Brum – we’ve managed to get great crowds for all kinds of weird stuff. But thoughtful arthouse features often seem to be the toughest sell, and the cinemas showing that kind of film elsewhere are often playing to a disproportionately older audience. Nothing wrong with that, but opening a classy cappuccino picturehouse along the lines that Terry suggests in his article might not be our best solution long-term.

    A good deal of the digital revolution in UK cinemas seems to boil down to ‘same formula, different format’, and I think this city has an opportunity to do something more radical; a venue which combines the best bits of our Arts Lab/Triangle heritage (to think that you could once catch McCabe & Mrs Miller and Ivor Cutler on the same Sunday afternoon in Aston…) with contemporary genre-hopping/online/multidisciplinary fun & games. Although the kind of place I have in mind would probably still have a job getting Synecdoche New York on first run…

  2. Interesting thoughts Ian. Another guess of mine would be that this is a 45 year old (+) university-educated white/middle class audience being sought. This is a shrinking demographic in Birmingham, which is fast becoming a young non-white city – especialy in the inner city. Maybe there just isn’t an audience for this kind of thing in central Birmingham and that’s why we don’t get it? Maybe something in Moseley would be successful. Cannot see it working in Sutton or Solihull. I too like the Electric Cinema and its puts on a good mix.

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  4. Birmingham desperately needs a venue like the Broadway in Nottingham. The Electric is all well and good, but it’s just too small. Maybe the redevelopment of Digbeth will make some room for a venue like it (instead of yet more poorly soundproofed flats)

  5. I recently offered to host the French film festival in Solihull which was showing in Edinburgh, Manchester and London – they were not interested even when i offered to underwrite it. I quite agree, why is Birmingham so overlooked?

  6. If you have a taste for Arthouse & Foreign films, let me tell you that Birmingham International Film Society exists to bridge the gap.

    We’re based at the Library Theatre next to the Adrian Boult Hall and have weekly screenings. For the full programme, please look at our website;

    BIFS began as the Mac closed, to keep interesting and alternative films available to the public. We have been going for a year.

    None of this excuses Birmingham lacking in committed venues, but please, if you’re serious about film, come and watch something!

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