The Glasgow Film Theatre

Feature by Willard Manus

In 1962, during a lengthy stay in Glasgow, Scotland, my wife and I joined the local film society in search of challenging movie fare. The best the society could come up with then was "an early Shirley MacLaine."

Flash forward fifty-one years. Same city but a radically changed film scene. Not only does Glasgow, a city of 750,000, have one of the best attended multiplexes in Europe (Cine World) but a flourishing center for independent and foreign films.

The Glasgow Film Theatre, a three-screen movie house located in the heart of the city, does a lot more than just show art films. It also plays an important role in the cultural life of Glasgow, sponsoring cinema education in schools, helping to develop young audiences, offering its premises to music, architectural and art groups. Many weddings, christenings and memorials have also been held at the GFT, making it a community center, even a way of life, for subsequent generations.

As part of the Glasgow Film Initiative, the GFT is also involved in the annual Glasgow Film Festival, the fastest-growing film festival in the UK. In 2013, the eleven-day jamboree drew a record-breaking number of admissions (39,106). The GFT has also played host to Italian, Indian, Youth and Green film festivals, in addition to NYC's Found Footage Festival.

The GFT receives some funding from public organizations, but most of its income derives from box-office sales (200,000 tickets were sold last year) and from charitable donations. The non-pofit organization is run by a forty-four-person staff (most of whom are part-time) and by a large pool of volunteers. Here's what one of them, the actor (Doctor Who) Peter Capaldi, had to say about the GFT:

"It occupies a warm place in the history of the city, not only as a romantic rendezvous, but as the place where generations of Glasgow's artists, filmmakers, musicians, actors and writers have been introduced to the magic of film in all its forms. It is a cultural oasis. An educational powerhouse. And a great night out. It belongs to Glasgow. And should always be there."

The GFT began life in 1939 as the Cosmo, Scotland's first arts cinema. It was built by George Singleton, a member of one of Glasgow's cinema-chain families, and by Charles Oakley, chair of the film society and Scottish Film Council. They hired two local architects whose geometric, windowless facade was influened by the work of a leading Dutch modernist architect, Willem Dudok. There was just a single auditorium (seating 850) whose patron saint was Mr Cosmo, a dapper, bowler-hatted cartoon figure based on George Singleton. Mr Cosmo also appeared on posters and ads for the movie house, and popped up on screen ahead of the main feature in various raffish poses.

The Cosmo flourished for three decades, but in the recessionary 1970s it was sold to the Scotttish Film Council. It then reopened in 1974 as the GFT, with a scaled-down auditorium (398 seats) in the former balcony and a conference/exhibition space in the stalls. In 1988 the building was listed by Historic Scotland.

In 1991 a second screen (seating 142) and a downstars bar, Cafe Cosmo, were added. And in October of 2013, the GFT opened a third space, a 60-seater, on the site of the cafe.

Some GFT supporters rued the loss of the cafe, which had become a popular hangout over the years. But as Liana Marletta, GFT's development executive, explained, "We desperately needed a third space to show more films, especially those--like The King's Speech--which were capable of enjoying a long run."

Marletta helps raise funds for the GFT (a registered charity). "Our seat-dedication scheme in the late 80s was particularly successful, especially when our former projectionist, Bob Stewart, 'bought' a total of thirty-nine seats in the name of some of his favorite filmmakers, such as Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. The latter was so touched that he came to Glasgow and gave an appreciative speech."

Many other film luminaries have made personal appearances at the GFT. The list includes Paul Schrader, Janet Leigh, Hayley Mills, Danny Boyle, Sean Connery, Mike Leigh, Jess Wheedon, Ken Loach and Max Van Sydow.

Two years ago the GFT launched an online viewing platform, GFT Player, enabling people to watch streamed films at home or on the move. "There is strong interest in the program," said Marletta, "but we need additional funding to promote it properly."

Other unusual activities at the GFT include film quizzes and discussions, and Access Take 2, screenings open to children with autism spectrun disorders and their families, plus other children with disabilites who might enjoy seeing a film in a "low sensory environment." The films have no subtitles and the volume is turned down; the house lights are left on and the kids can make noise and move around.

The GFT also shows films aimed at Glasgow's large Asian population (Chinese, Indian and Pakistani). Thanks to the largesse of Monir Mohammed, a local restaurateur, the GFT was able to sponsor a screening of Mother India, a classic but rarely seen Indian film.

Moahmmed has also supported the Scottish Short Film Award (at the Glasgow Short Film Festival), whose first prize is $1500. "I believe that other businessmen should support the GFT and its festivals," he said. "It's a rewarding and exciting experience."

Considering all that it has done for Glasgow, it's no wonder that the GFT has built up such a loyal fan base. As actor/director Peter Mullen said, "My twenty-five years at the GFT? Aged fifteen, never heard of the place. Aged eighteen, go there for the first time to see The Wicker Man with my first love. In my twenties, I am introduced to, and fall in love with, Bunuel, Fellini, Keaton, Kurosawa, Scorcese...My thirties come flying in and my whole working life is now GFT'd--Close, Good Day for the Bad Guys, Fridge and Orpheus all premiered and supported there. Also, marry and have two kids with former GFT usherette--so love, live, cinema, old age, death--thanks for reminding me, ya bastards!"