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As Layoffs Shock Edinburgh Film Community, Filmmakers Mourn ‘Huge Loss’

"Aftersun" director Charlotte Wells joins a chorus of voices calling for help with the treasured Scottish film institutions that shut down last week.

EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 16: Micheline Connery and Sir Sean Connery attends the opening film of The Edinburgh Film Festival: The Illusionist on June 16, 2010 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian Jacobs/Getty Images)

Sir Sean Connery and his wife Micheline Roquebrune attend the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival

Getty Images

Tragedy struck the film community in Scotland last week when it was announced that the Edinburgh International Film Festival as well as the Filmhouse cinemas in Edinburgh and Aberdeen were all shutting down due to financial strain. Reaction to that news has been more muted in the United States, in part due to specific phrasing of the situation: The film entities have “ceased trading” and gone “into administration.”

In practical terms, that means that the oldest continuously operating film festival in the world and two treasured arthouses that inspired generations of movie lovers were deemed financially insolvent. More than 100 people immediately lost their jobs. Reports circulated that staffers at the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen were unaware of the development until a government representative showed up to change the locks.

The development has been chalked up to a range of issues, including a 50-percent dip in audience attendance in the wake of the pandemic and rising energy costs. It arrived as a jarring contrast for the British industry as it coincided with the opening of the London Film Festival and its starry red carpet galas.

However, filmmakers attending the festival this week refused to let the glitzy event bury the darker circumstances at hand. “It’s pretty shocking,” director Charlotte Wells told IndieWire during an interview in New York, two days before she departed for the U.K. premiere of her Cannes-acclaimed feature debut “Aftersun,” which A24 releases next week. The Edinburgh native — whose movie played at the last edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in August — said she saw her first movies at the Filmhouse and was inspired to become a filmmaker after watching movies at the festival. “I don’t know how shocking it is to everyone inside the industry,” she added.

Now based in Brooklyn, she put the situation in terms that New York cinephiles could understand: “Imagine if the New York Film Festival suddenly shut down,” she said, “but not just the New York Film Festival. It would be the New York Film Festival, the IFC Center, and BAM, all at once.” (Introducing “Aftersun,” Wells addressed the news from the stage of the London Film Festival on Thursday.)

“Right now, they’re championing independent cinema in the UK,” she told IndieWire. “Meanwhile, over 100 people lost their jobs last week.”

Wells isn’t the only director to speak out about the situation. Oscar-nominated French animator Sylvain Chomet moved his studio to Edinburgh nearly 20 years ago, after the success of his film “The Triplets of Belleville.” His follow-up, “The Illusionist,” takes place in Scotland as a result of his experiences resettling there. In an interview with The Times, he called the decision “heartbreaking” and “a bitter disappointment for the city of Edinburgh and its wonderful people.”

Meanwhile, film essayist Mark Cousins (“The Story of Film”) penned an editorial for The Guardian explaining the significance of the institutions in question. “The Edinburgh film festival was feminist, unbridled, Nonconformist Scottish and passionately international,” he wrote. “It changed film culture and its apparent demise makes me want to say: stop the clocks, or dim the projectors, or toll the bells.” Cousins noted that while multiplexes have started showing more arthouse films in the U.K., that has made it harder for the arthouses to attract audiences. “Other cities and communities can learn from this,” he wrote. “Our city of Edinburgh has been winded, wounded.”

Like others, he expressed hope that the festival could be rebooted in new hands, given the recent hiring of creative director Kristy Matheson, who oversaw the most recent edition. Responses throughout the local community have been a mixture of grief and resilience. Many longtime moviegoers gathered outside Edinburgh Filmhouse for a candlelit vigil last week, while a bar in Aberdeen hosted a gathering of hundreds — including local politicians — to discuss options, including the possibility of a community-owned theater. A petition to save all three entities now has close to 20,000 signatures, just shy of the 25,000 necessary to rank it among the top-signed petitions on Change.org.

British Film Institute CEO Ben Roberts faced backlash on Twitter when he offered meager words of condolences about the layoffs rather than some measure of a solution. At the London Production Finance Market this week, he confessed, “We don’t have the funds to crisis support organizations that are in difficulty. We just don’t have enough resources.” However, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she would engage with Edinburgh city councils and the financing entity Creative Scotland to determine any paths forward to salvage the institutions.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 12: Charlotte Wells attends the "Aftersun" Opening Gala at the Edinburgh International Film Festival at OMNI Centre on August 12, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Euan Cherry/Getty Images)

Charlotte Wells attends the “Aftersun” Opening Gala at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in August

Getty Images

The Edinburgh Filmhouse opened in 1979, while the Belmont in Aberdeen dates back to 1896 when, as a trade hall, it screened early films. It was closed as a cinema in 1953 and reopened in 2000. The festival, meanwhile, was a key opportunity for Scottish moviegoers to encounter international cinema — including works from the U.S. Wells recalled seeing the Duplass brothers’ lo-fi “The Puffy Chair” in 2005 and feeling inspired to tell stories on a small scale. “I just remember thinking, ‘Huh,'” she said. “It was kind of amazing to think this was possible, and it had never occurred to me before.”

She was speaking from the A24 offices after a recent stop at the fabled Criterion Closet, where she selected Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” for sentimental reasons. “I recently found out my dad took my mom to see it at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh,” she said. “I didn’t watch a lot of arthouse films growing up, but I was aware of them. These places provided the space for people to go. It was a door I knew was there, and I opened it when I was ready.”

Wells said she was confident that the festival could find new ownership but was more concerned for the arthouses. “I really hope that somebody will step in and save the cinemas,” she said.

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