Neighbourhood Cinemas and Alternative Film Projects
The Local View

Neighbourhood Cinemas

The transition into the digital age has presented the operators of non-mainstream cinemas with quite a few challenges. Whereas many small, neighbourhood cinemas have invested in the future, the digital options for showing films are opening up new vistas for alternative projects. Not all of them are legal.

“Cinema brings the global sphere into the local sphere,” that is how Felix Bruder, managing director at the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kino (German Art House Cinema Guild) sees the situation. “Even in the age of the Internet the cinema is still the place where people get together to watch a film and then exchange their ideas on it.“ These days it is above all the non-mainstream cinemas of the big cities that provide this opportunity. Those art house cinemas that can look back over a long tradition and pride themselves in having a personal reputation – the reputation of being the “cinema round the corner” with its very own catchment area and regular audience.

In the not too distant past people repeatedly claimed that these non-mainstream cinemas would soon die a death. The reason being that competition from multiplexes and online products was too strong. “No way, however, can we speak of these cinemas dying out,” assures Bruder. In 2012 783 of the 4617 cinemas in Germany were classified by their operators as studio, non-mainstream or art house cinemas – a mere four less than the year before.

A digital future is expensive

“The future of many of these cinemas will depend on whether they are in a position to invest in digital technology,” says Bruder. Most films these days are not available in 35mm copy format. It is the small-time distributors in particular who are afraid of the high copying costs and so they have changed to Blue-Ray disc. Bruder went on to explain that the term digitalisation does not mean that the cinemas all now use a data projector to show their films. The main issue here is in fact the DCI-Standard (Digital Cinema Initiatives) that is predetermined by the American studios. The standard requires certain coding techniques to be used – and it is expensive.

Re-equipping a cinema to show films in 2-D costs around 70,000 euros, 3-D technology is even more expensive at 100,000 euros. Nevertheless the majority of German non-mainstream cinemas have taken this leap into the digital age with great ease – thanks to a digitalisation promotion scheme by the FFA (German Federal Film Board) and also with help at both federal and regional levels. “And for those people who want to release a non-Hollywood film nationwide, they can even do it without having to conform to the DCI standard,” says Bruder. “Some cinemas are focusing their program more and more on German and European films that come from small-time distributors.”

The neighbourhood cinema is alive and kicking

“A good non-mainstream cinema is also a neighbourhood cinema,” claims Matthias Elwardt, the operator of the Abaton Cinema in Hamburg. “Because it feels committed to the area in which it is located and is integrated in the cultural life of that area.” An example of this is the fact that the Abaton Cinema cooperates with the local Jewish community, kindergartens, schools, museums and theatres. “The films the people of the area want to see also change,” says Elwardt. “You have to get used to this, if you want to keep your cinema alive.” As they are so flexible, neighbourhood cinemas have a major advantage over the multiplexes. “One reason in particular being that they are not located in expensive areas of town, where so many of the big picture palaces are to be found.”

For over five years now Elwardt has been in charge of the “Berlinale goes Kiez”, a series run under the auspices of the Berlinale – the International Film Festival in Berlin. Certain, selected festival entries from the official program are shown in seven art house cinemas in different areas of the city. “The idea originally came about on the occasion of the festival’s 60th anniversary – the idea was to thank those cinemas which show films from the Berlinale program all year round,” says Elwardt. The way it was received by audiences, the press and filmmakers was so enormous that “Berlinale goes Kiez” became an institution in itself.

Films for the neighbourhood

To bring more life into the neighbourhood – that was also one of the aims of Oliver Daffy. He is a project manager at the Freiwilligenagentur Halle (voluntary services agency in the town of Halle), in charge of the “district-based civic involvement” section. In collaboration with a group of volunteers he launched the “Neighbourhood Cinema” project. Since 2012 it has been drawing senior citizens into one of the halls at the Paul Riebeck Foundation to watch old DEFA films like Jakob der Lügner (Jakob the Liar) and Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel). The digital projection technology (even if it is not DCI standard) makes it possible to show films without any great effort. A manageable fee of 60 euros per showing was agreed upon with the distributors. The project has been well received, as a rule around 50 people come to watch the films, says Daffy. The “Neighbourhood Cinema” project , however, does not need to compensate for any lack of cinematic art in Halle. “It mainly appeals to those people whose mobility is so restricted that they don’t feel they should risk a trip to the cinema.”

Cinema on the borderline

The possibility of showing films outside cinemas has led to quite a different kind of mobile film projection in cities like Leipzig and Berlin – they call it guerrilla cinema. Groups of conspirative film fans get together to watch films in the ruins of factories, in derelict buildings or under motorway bridges. Guerrilla cinema is of course mostly illegal. Illegal not only because in cases of doubt it constitutes breach of the peace and trespassing, but also because, as a rule, no fees are paid to the owners of the film properties when the films are shown at these public performances. “Cinema is a complex economic system that involves a lot of players who live off the revenues,” explains Felix Bruder with a hint of misgiving. “On the other hand,” says our cinema guild man, “in general we should willingly welcome anything that promotes film and any discussion on film.”