Although its land mass makes up more than 50% of the country, the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland is home to just 368,000 people, with only four full-time cinemas available outside Inverness.
Thankfully, for those unable to easily enjoy the big screen experience, help is at hand from the Screen Machine, a mobile cinema which travels around much of the rural west coast of Scotland throughout the year.
Jonathan Melville spoke to Screen Machine Development Manager, Graham Campbell, about the early days of the project and how the service is used by its customers.
Jonathan Melville: How did the Screen Machine first come to the Highlands and Islands?
Graham Campbell: It was Dick Penny at the British Film Institute (BFI) who commissioned a study into a mobile cinema set-up for the UK in 1994, based on what they were doing in France. There, the emphasis was on showing French and non-American movies. They thought this was something that could work in rural areas of the UK as a whole.
The study was picked up by the Scottish Film Council who at the time thought it was a great thing for the Highlands. They approached Highland Council, who were in the process of going from a two tier authority to a single one, as they are now. They really liked the idea but, because they didn’t want to burden the incoming council with this new machine, they didn’t get too involved and looked into getting someone else to share the project.
HI~Arts, the arts and cultural development agency for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, were asked if they wanted to take the project forward as they could work across different boundaries, because you had areas such as Inverness, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness, and at the time the council weren’t sure how to do it.
Screen Machine was one of the first large-scale projects to receive Lottery funding. The idea was that we would buy the French off-the-shelf product, the CineMobile, and we approached French company Toutenkamion to build Screen Machine One, on the basis that one of their mobile cinemas had been to Scotland already.
But Toutenkamion worked out that their design didn’t really work that well on Scottish roads as it had a huge overhang at the back, it was about 60cm higher than Scottish trucks and it wouldn’t go on ferries.
I was brought in to do the final bit of research to find out if the end user wanted it, which was a bit like asking if people liked jelly and ice cream and, unsurprisingly everywhere we went people did want it.
How is the Screen Machine funded today?
In terms of public funding, we receive money from Creative Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, North Ayrshire Council, Western Isles Council. Our main sponsor is the Royal Bank of Scotland. We’ve also got a new sponsor in Highland Fuels.
Creative Scotland fund us on the basis that essentially we are a bit like Glasgow Film Theatre or Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, in that we are providing a service more than anything else and that there’s no opportunity for people in the area we visit to see films at the cinema.
The Government funds people to see non-mainstream films in big cities, and if it’s seen as a good thing for people to see films, then surely it’s a bad thing not to see them. We’re funded on the basis that Creative Scotland have a nation-wide responsibility and that large parts of Scotland are currently without any cinema provision.
There’s a huge chunk of Scotland where people pay tax “ if it’s right that people in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Inverness get access to cinema in regionally funded theatres, then because you live in Mull and Islay, you should enjoy that same level of service.
We cherry pick the best of the films that come out, based partly on what’s doing well at the box office. We can’t afford to show films on first release and our audience is pretty similar to the rest of the UK. If a film is shot in a particular area, they’re usually popular. David Mackenzie’s Eagle of the Ninth should be popular, a few locals in Gairloch were probably extras, and Scottish films often do well.
You used to screen 35mm films but now you show only digital. Has that been an easy transition?
At the start there was a mystery about how digital would work in a mobile cinema and we hadn’t seen any installations similar to us, so we were really worried by the fact we weren’t going to be hooked up to the Internet permanently and therefore unable to download fixes. If a digital cinema system realises it has a problem, it automatically phones in to a big database with a list of faults and problems and patches are downloaded. We weren’t sure what would happen in our situation “ without a permanent internet connection – but it seems to be going fine.
We also have the joys of key deliveries. Key delivery messages (KDMs) are just tiny little 22Kb text files which you get sent as an email attachment and which allow you to play the film. You can upload any film you want to the server but it stays locked until you get the KDM code which allows you to play the film on certain preset dates.
We were suffering a bit from late key deliveries, we would have the film on the Thursday night and we’d be showing it on the Friday but still didn’t have the release key. The closest we’ve been is half an hour away from the show starting, at that point we hadn’t even run the film through and weren’t sure if the film had downloaded successfully onto the server, so we went cold with it to the audience, which is always a big risk. It worked out fine though.
Did you have to have training to use the system?
We’d all had training, but that just tells you how to operate the equipment rather than what to do if it goes wrong, which is fine if you’re in Edinburgh or Glasgow as you can get someone to fix it at fairly short notice, but if you’re in Kinlochbervie or Barra, we don’t get a phone signal there and the closest public phone is in the Cal Mac office which is a five minute walk away. So you say, ‘I’ll try that,’ put the phone down, go back to the machine, try that, if it works then fine, if not then it’s back to the phone to try something else.
Sound Associates in Surrey carried out the conversion from 35mm to digital projection. There are only a handful of companies who do the full digital installations just now. It used to be the case that cinemas would retain their 35mm projectors in case the digital system went wrong, but we couldn’t fit both into our projection room and we converted 100% to digital in December 2009. I’m slowly coming round to the benefits of digital compared to 35mm, it’s kind of swings and roundabouts, some parts are easier while others aren’t.
With 35mm, once you got the print, even if it arrived really late, it only took you 30 minutes to put it together and join them up, and as you were putting them together you could tell the state it was in, whether it was scratched or damaged. Now, you stick the print on the server with real-time download, so if it’s a two hour movie you have to wait two hours. You then have to watch the whole thing through, whereas with the 35mm you could literally have the thing on in the background and have a quick look at it every five minutes, now you have to watch it intently.
You might lose a few seconds from pixellation, you may lose sound on a section, part of it may be in be black and white or just black for a period of time. So you haven’t been watching it closely and someone says it’s been black for the last five minutes, that’s not too good.
But digital prints are much smaller packages compared to 35mm film prints. We were getting films before in big cases which were a real problem to store. We can do more films now. We used to have about three films for each community we visited, now we can carry five or six, the only thing that stops us showing more films is the size of poster we have.
What area do you cover?
We go from Kinlochbervie and Durness in the south west, through Ullapool, Gairloch, Kylakin, southern Skye, Dornie, Lochallan, Arran, Millport. It’s a 23 location tour that takes us eight weeks to get around. Generally our audience doesn’t get to see a lot of cinema, we’re pretty much the only cinema within a half decent distance.
One of the main reasons we stopped going to going to places on the east is because audiences were declining. Where the Screen Machine works is where people can’t get access to the cinema. We generally work on a one hour locals drive, which in theory takes us as far north as Ullapool. Speak to anyone there and you’re talking about getting to Inverness in about an hour. A lot of people in Ullapool do their shopping in Inverness. If you moved to Ullapool from London or the Home Counties, and are used to a two hour commute every morning, a one hour drive through spectacular scenery isn’t a great problem.
So we try to stay away from anywhere that’s closer than an hour drive from a public cinema.
We’re normally showing mainstream movies, with a slight art house feel to it: we get about as art house as Crazy Heart.
There’s no rule about what we can and can’t show, and there are some surprises. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a huge success for us, but most of the time it’s Alice in Wonderland, Mamma Mia!, Shrek and Sex and the City, that kind of film. Most of our audience see what we do as an enjoyable night out and want to go to a sure-fire winner.
We showed The Hurt Locker before the Oscars came along and we played it to half-a-dozen people most of the time, our biggest audience was about fifteen people. I don’t know for sure, but on-the-door feedback was that people had already seen enough war on the TV and in the news and the last thing they wanted to do was go an watch a film about war. At the same time, everyone who saw it came out loving it.
How I see it is that it’s all about the film we show. The more advertising a film gets, the better it does. We do the same publicity for each, but people don’t like to say they didn’t come because they didn’t like the film because then they believe that we think they don’t want us to come. A lot of people are really aware that if you don’t use something, you lose it, so there are various reasons given why people didn’t come.
Do you find that DVD releases affect the audience numbers?
Nine times out of ten, if it’s out on DVD then it’s gone for us, it’s finished. A lot of our audience have Sky TV or Lovefilm subscriptions so they’re getting to see things fairly early on. Piracy is also an issue.
We have a really loyal, dedicated customer base, probably around ten per cent will come regardless of what we show and the first question they ask while paying for their ticket is ‘What are we seeing tonight?’
Is there a particular age of your audiences?
Kids under secondary age, families and senior citizens. We don’t get a lot of 16-24 year olds, there’s just not a lot of them around, they’re away to university.
I’m from Inverness and went away to Edinburgh to college, and out of the 60 or so people from my year in school, I’m one of three people who still live in Inverness. So, if you’re from Gairloch or the Western Isles, as soon as you get to 16 or 17 you’re away, and generally don’t come back till you’re much older.
A few years back we were only getting 13 or 14-year-olds in, before they were old enough to hit the pubs or go to the park and drink, so they’d come and cause riots at the Screen Machine, 20 or 30 of them would come along and nobody else would come in. We’d have to stop shows and tell them we’d shut it off completely.
We started to introduce new rules to say if you’re under 16 you need to be accompanied by a 21-year-old or older, and we thought it might be risky, but we’d heard people say they’d love to come but were put off by the kids. It’s now turned around, with families and senior citizens through the door, people know they can go and enjoy a film without being interrupted.
We run a fairly tight operation with regards to ID, and we use local ushers who know the kids and how old they are. When we showed Slumdog Millionaire we had a lot of parents outright lying about their kids’ ages as the film was mis-sold as a feel-good film, with people turning up with children of nine. We stood firm as the drivers are open to prosecution and it’s against the law.
Did Avatar bring in a different audience?
Avatar was an odd one. We had more of the 16-24 audience in, but we also sold lots of senior citizen tickets, they were mad for it. I’m not sure what the draw of it was, whether it was James Cameron or that it had been on BBC Breakfast News and they were intrigued by the 3D aspect of it.
We had people coming out saying it was the best movie they’d ever seen. We took it out on two tours, took it everywhere twice, and it sold out every single screening. The only reason we took it out again was because we turned away so many people.
As soon as we put the Avatar screenings on the website they were selling out so fast, and people were so concerned they weren’t getting tickets, that when it told them on the page that there weren’t tickets available, they were phoning up complaining that the site was broken.
As a selling vehicle for 3D the film has done well. Alice in Wonderland was also popular with us. I’m a bit biased, but I think our 3D system is quite a bit better to what you normally see, we use the XpanD system with re-usable glasses. The 3D effects work well for us, things that come out of the screen go about three quarters of the way up the auditorium.
We were showing the trailer to Coraline before Avatar and there’s a scene where the fake mum is going to sew the button eyes onto the girl and she pushes the needle towards the camera and the needle comes right out and everyone ducks out of the way. It’s the funniest thing when you’re sitting watching it from the projection booth. There’s various scenes in Avatar where things come out of the screen and watching 80 people duck out the way is fantastic.
Sci-fi is generally a non-starter for us, our audience aren’t usually interested. Things that do well are romantic comedies, kids films and whatever the must-see movie is. I think people want to see the film that’s being talked about in the press and that’s on TV all the time.
How do your audiences find out about the films you show?
We might start in Lochcarron, which is relatively small place, and then we head north to Torridon then Gairloch and onto Ullapool. Because folk know folk from other villages, word of mouth spreads and we get more folk the following night and so on. But the more we say how good a film is, the less likely it is people will go, they get suspicious and think it must be doing badly.
We were showing a 60 minute film made by a local artist in Durness, set in Durness, so lots of rain, virtually no speech in it, and we had to turn away people from the door at 2.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. When we show our regular shows we had about 20 people for the evening shows.
You mentioned earlier that a number of organisations help fund the Screen Machine. How many tickets do you need to sell to break even?
In a good year we sell around 24,000 tickets. In a not so good year we’ll sell around 21,000. We would need a run of huge films to do really well as we only have 80 seats, and one of those is for the usher. We do about 500 film shows a year, so we’re hitting somewhere around 40 and 45 per show, though it varies widely.
If we arrive somewhere and there’s a local wedding on, we might as well just go to the wedding. There isn’t any way to know about that really. One of our guys has been doing this since day one, the other since 2005, so they know people really well. They know how villages work and they like that side of it.
We need to take in around a quarter of a million pounds a year and we take in somewhere in the region of £80,000 to £100,000, of which 50% of that goes out the door before we see anything. We’re generally paying around 25-35% of what we take on the door, plus VAT, but it varies. With Avatar we were paying around 50% to 20th Century Fox.
We deal with most of the mainstream distributors “ Sony, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Warners, Universal – they own the distribution rights to the majority of the films we show.
We don’t sell food, if we did we could perhaps make more money, but there’s nowhere to store it. We’re a one man band and they’ve already got their hands full: they’re driver, projectionist, front-of-house manager, box office manager, customer complaints, lost and found, they’re everything, so to add on the selling of sweets, wouldn’t work.
Once people are in, they’re in. People going in and out constantly disrupts everything.
What about toilets?
We don’t have any. We have to park close, but not too close, to toilets. Not so far that people don’t go, but far enough so that they don’t go on a whim: one kid goes to the toilet and the rest want to go within 10 minutes. We try to encourage people to go before they go or sit through the whole movie.
So three hour films are a bit of a problem?
Avatar was a bit of a long stint for everybody, but we can’t run any kind of break as it extends the performance. We were starting at 8.30 so it’s already finishing fairly late, which is fine if you’re screening on a Friday or Saturday night, but sometimes it’s school nights or work nights. Some people come 30 miles each way.
Do you ever try special events?
We’ve had that opportunity in the past, but it’s usually for a film we wouldn’t get that great an audience for. If a film isn’t doing well, the studios tend to roll out the crew to promote it and I don’t know how our audience would react to them.
Is there anything you want to try? A film festival perhaps?
We’ve been part of a few festivals but we’ve never done our own. We’d like to be seen as being part of a bigger group of cinemas and expand our audience horizons. Our films have to be entertaining, but not necessarily just popcorn, brain-out, entertaining.
Atonement did well for us. Usually, if there’s a film made from a popular book, that’ll do well for us. When we ask what types of films people would like to see, people are quite reticent to suggest titles. When you ask 4,000 people you get almost 4,000 responses.
How are the films promoted?
We try to give about one months notice, the least notice is one week. People find details on the website and on the posters which we send out to the villages. Every shop, hotel and pub will put up a poster and we have around 4,500 people on our email database.
We usually work within a 10-14 day window and within that time we’ll send out posters and emails and if sales aren’t going particularly well I’ll usually send out an email three to four days before we arrive to remind people. If you put those out more than 14 days in advance, people tend to forget and put off buying tickets.
After 12 years I think people now know when we’re coming and that we’re not going to break down, but we’re only one break down or cancelled show from going back to square one. We had a bad winter this year and were snowed in a few times, but everyone suffered then. Sometimes we’ll get delayed by closed roads as we’re held back with articulated lorries so we can be late occasionally and we get some grief then, but usually people are fine.
What keeps it fresh for you?
I have a huge emotional attachment to the whole thing, I’ve been involved with it from the start. We worked for many, many hours, and at the worst point I was doing 4,500 miles per week as I was out with the machine and doing the day-to-day running here and then going on the road, so I got quite attached to it.
The only thing which kept us going was the way people were reacting to it. When it went well it went really, really well and we kind of knew that we had something which could work perfectly if we had a fully functioning machine.
People who wouldn’t normally see films could see them. That’s what attracts me to it and I enjoy providing something that people enjoy and get excited about. There’s a wee buzz in the villages we visit, even though it doesn’t really happen to me, if our drivers walk down any of the main streets where we go to it takes ages as people stop to ask them what they’re going to see, how many tickets have we sold, and that reaction is great.
So it’s more like it was before the multiplexes came along, when cinema was still an event?
Multiplexes can be like factory production lines now, with food combined with ticket buying and you’re standing in one queue then going to another queue, no usher anywhere to be seen.
We try to offer something different to that. Nobody talks during the screening, you need to watch the film and our audience like the fact that we don’t let people chat through movies.
Is there anything left for you to try?
If there was a film our audience really wanted to see, I’m open to suggestions. I don’t mind if I don’t like a film, I’m doing it for the audience.
If we were showing what I wanted to see then it would be lots of slasher and kung-fu movies, a Shaw Brothers season with lots of badly dubbed movies from the 1970s, but I wouldn’t want to subject people to that!
Thanks to Graham Campbell for his time.
Find out more about the Screen Machine on their website.