Aberdeen City Council has launched a search for a new operator to revive the closed Belmont Filmhouse.
The lights dimmed for the final time in October when the owners of the city centre venue went bust.
It followed declining audience numbers in the aftermath of the pandemic.
But recent studies have shown that the Aberdeen institution was waning long before the spread of Covid.
Experts say any new operator will have to increase its food and drink offering to run it successfully.
The basement being run as a speakeasy-style bar could help balance the books.
They’ve also claimed the cinema will have to scale back on “highbrow arthouse” films if it’s to reopen and survive.
Aberdeen City Council officials have now agreed to mount a search for a firm to take it on.
They chose this option over selling the building entirely.
— Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco (@joshpizpom) May 17, 2023
Campaigners now working on ‘robust business case’
The Save The Belmont Cinema campaign group told us they were “delighted” about the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
And members insist concerns about their ability to run the venue should be waylaid by the business case they are in the midst of preparing.
Leader Jacob Campbell said: “It is our belief that a cinema run by the community, for the community, is the best option for ensuring that we have a sustainable, arthouse cinema here in Aberdeen.”
He added: “We’re not oblivious to the scale of the challenge ahead of us, to modernise the building and to continue to grow and welcome audiences back to the cinema.
“But we will endeavour to produce a robust business plan that will put education, information, entertainment and the community at the heart of the future of the Belmont.”
And they recently launched a questionnaire as they prepare “their vision” to take it over.
Belmont Cinema: ‘More culty eclecticism, less highbrow arthouse’ upon reopening
Before deciding its future, the council tasked a cinema consultancy with mapping a potential – sustainable – way forward for the Belmont Street institution.
And Mustard Studio has made it clear: “niche” arty films will not be enough to attract the audience needed to ensure the cinema is financially viable.
But the experts are keen the programme doesn’t just mirror the Granite City’s multiplexes and should continue to push a cultural range.
“We imagine a programme that might have a slightly stronger bias towards culty eclecticism, and a slightly reduced emphasis on more ‘highbrow’ arthouse fare,” the consultants said.
A diverse range of films, live events, guest appearances, plus festival and other culturally valuable experiences could help it attract a wider audience.
The cultural and educational aspect of the Belmont is also key to the finances, with the council charging only a token “peppercorn” rent in exchange for it.
Mustard Studio admits survival could be “genuinely hard”.
Experts warns that running the venue only as a cinema would make it “impossible” to recoup the investment required to bring the crowds back.
Nationwide trend offers hope for Belmont Cinema reopening
But UK-wide demand for diversified film offers may warrant “cautious optimism” that appetite is returning after the pandemic.
Mustard Studio has urged whoever takes on the Belmont to focus on making it a “destination” experience.
It saw Everyman as the only national cinema group to increase its admissions in 2022. Most others fell by around 20%.
The difference, the council’s experts said, was the food, drink and wider “experience” it offered – which was all set to come to Aberdeen’s Bon Accord Centre before the mall’s recent sale.
‘Let’s all go to the lobby’: Food and drink key to cinema success
Anecdotally, they believe there is a “strong” link between the closure of the cafe-bar in the Belmont basement and its stuttering performance since 2017.
And so, they suggest reopening it as a hidden speakeasy-type bar, with space for live performances.
Now it’s gone out to the market, companies – along with the campaigners – will be weighing up ways to make it profitable.
Mustard had put forward four potential scenarios, depending on how much any prospective operator is willing to invest.
As well as the speakeasy, the favoured Scenario 3 includes reclaiming space on the ground floor to open a cafe – increasing the time people spend in the building.
Upstairs, space would be used for coworking and a studio.
Those plans would support full-time operation and 28 film screenings a week.
Combined with the friendly and welcoming atmosphere Belmont regulars praised, the new additions could attract more people “not wedded” to the Belmont by loyalty or film choice.
Cutting the Mustard: Consultants’ other plans for the Belmont Cinema
There are four different ways ahead that the experts have envisaged.
Only Scenario 3 is seen as a way for the new operators to break even. The other four, detailed below, are forecast to face shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds a year.
However, that funding gap could be patched with grants for cultural events at the renewed venue.
Mustard’s other ideas are:
- Scenario 1: Open the cinema as it is, potentially relying on minimal staff and volunteers to run it. It would leave major problems, such as out-of-date heating equipment, untouched. Cafe to be run by a third party. Mustard said it would be “short-term only” while fundraising for Scenario 3.
- Scenario 2: Low spend on refurbishment. Repair the building and replace expired machinery. Redecorate. Cafe to reopen as part of cinema business.
- Scenario 4: Make good all required repairs and replace expired machinery. Redecorate. Convert ground floor to full restaurant with open kitchen by removing kiosk, office, projection room and moving cinema screen 1 to the basement. Replace windows to allow natural light in. Open up the top floor as flexible coworking space for local creatives.
‘Significant investment’ required to bring building up to date
On top of the overall plan for the site, there is a need for an unknown but “significant” investment to update heating and ventilation systems.
The council hired chartered surveyors Shepherd to size up the job.
But the findings are confidential given commercial negotiations could soon be under way.