Former Tyneside Cinema Venue Manager Leigh Venus returns to talk to outgoing Chief Executive Mark Dobson, reflecting back on his fifteen year tenure at the iconic picturehouse.
One Sunday afternoon in 1999 a local lad found himself sitting in a world-weary independent cinema with a proud history, watching David Lynch’s The Straight Story in a raggedy auditorium with only three other people for company. The beginning of a journey which would see the much-loved local picturehouse with its best years behind it transformed into an internationally recognised and never-busier cinema, art gallery, heritage attraction and much, much more, Mark Dobson left that screening invigorated, going on to leave an indelible mark on the Tyneside Cinema, one which secured the future of the venue for years to come.
What was it like visiting the cinema on the cusp of taking on your new role, all those years ago?
“It was the day before my interview. Sitting there in the dark with strangers watching this incredible film I re-realised all the wonders of the place, and I knew it was worth letting it take over my life for a time. I decided I would take the job if the Board of Trustees offered me it, because above everything else I knew the Tyneside Cinema was absolutely worth it.
together we put the Tyneside in control of it’s own destiny
It was daunting as although I had ten years of experience in senior management at another local arts venue, Northern Stage, I’d never been Chief Executive of a cultural organisation before, and I had no professional background in film. But I cared, and the cinema’s Board clearly thought I had potential. I’d always loved the Tyneside; I was a concerned punter.”
Justifiably concerned because of the scale of the challenge ahead no doubt, but also because word was out and about locally that the cinema was in trouble at that time; what kind of state did you find the place in when you first arrived?
“It was in dire straights really, struggling to even pay the wages. But the great thing about it then – and now – is that at its heart it had a brilliant programme, great staff, a really great board of trustees and an amazingly loyal audience. If you asked the regulars how they feel about the place, they would say they love it, rather than they ‘quite like it’, or ‘go often’, or whatever. People tend to say that they love the Tyneside Cinema.”
Building on the very good stuff you had to work with – the audience, the staff, the building itself – how were those exhilarating first few years?
“We very quickly managed to build up the audience and generate a good chunk of new earned income, directing change around the things that were in our control in what was – and remains – a very volatile environment for cultural organisations. We deliberately made change a positive, necessary thing, trying to keep the cinema evolving. That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to leave as I don’t think it’s stopped evolving at all.”
What memories and moments stand out the most for you?
“Too many things. We very deliberately threw a party not long after I arrived for people to come and have some fun at the Tyneside, and to let the staff have some fun too – I don’t think the staff had had any fun at the Tyneside for about a decade – and there was a wonderful surprise on peoples faces that that kind of thing was happening again at the cinema. Creating the AV Festival was a great step for us, as was building Intermezzo and the Digital Lounge. More recently, the Bar Café which has worked really well, and I love our programme in the gallery too. Lots of moments, too many to list! Lots of people too. It’s a cliché to say, but so many people who have worked here have been very brilliant during my time, and together we put the Tyneside in control of it’s own destiny. Ultimately I’m very proud of that.”
The major redevelopment completed in 2008 was a huge turning point for the cinema, upending the business to Gateshead Old Town Hall for a time while beautiful and very interesting historical features were unveiled during the renovation. As the last-surviving, still operating purpose-built newsreel theatre in the country, what was the significance of realising and bringing out the heritage of the building?
“We were very lucky to be able do it, and I like to think we do it quite well. I remember some regular cinemagoers at the time being quite anxious about the building being turned into a ‘museum’, so the fact that we managed to come up with a viable offer which engages and interests the people who come here to watch film – as well as bringing in people who are interested in history and heritage first and foremost – is a real success.
We brought our rich history as a newsreel theatre to life, fashioning a mix of contemporary programme and heritage that is really quite special. We talk about the past, present and future of film a lot here, and that’s quite important and quite meaningful, in that the building uniquely allows us to embrace all of it. I can’t think of many other cinemas with that opportunity.”
With that spectacular history revealed, the cinema pushed forward in an era of cuts and austerity across the arts, becoming ultimately more successful than at any other time in its near-century of history. What drove that success?
“We made the programme more diverse and interesting, growing our film audience and going against the tide in an era when specialised film audiences have pretty much been static. Also, because funding for film exhibition has been under pressure for a lot longer than funding for the arts, we recognised and took action ten years ahead of the major recent austerity cuts, building a robust organisation with diversified income streams, and I think that makes us quite strong.
it was the public of Newcastle that willed the Tyneside Cinema into existence and it is our audience who make it a success today
We also placed the audience at the heart of the cinema, recognising that more than any funder, our audiences are the reason why we are here. Way back in the 1960s it was the public of Newcastle that willed the Tyneside Cinema into existence and it is our audience who make it a success today. They are incredibly special, and I think venues underestimate audiences at their peril. We’ve always tried to be smart in marketing and what we say to different people, and have always attempted to have a broadly appealing offer and not to segment our audience and our work overly, because people are full of surprises.”
Into the future then, and in a landscape of day-and-date cross-platform releases, streaming, consumer-level cinema-quality home entertainment, and more competition from varied entertainment options than at any other time in the history of the industry, what do you think the future holds for cinema?
“The death of cinema has been long foretold, but I don’t think it’s happening any time soon. I’m not sure that the internet is going to do anything in the immediate term more damaging than television, VHS, DVD, but the proof of the pudding will be in younger generations. The cinema audience in the UK has been pretty static for a very long time, so if the younger age groups who fill our commercial multiplexes start to behave fundamentally differently towards new film, then that could signal a major generational cultural shift in terms of the pattern of consumption. That’s the space to watch.”
the death of cinema has been long foretold, but I don’t think it’s happening any time soon
With people still willing to throw down their hard-earned for a night at the pictures, what value do you think the cinematic shared experience still holds for audiences today?
“Shared experience remains important, but it goes beyond that. It’s about seeing works in the space and context intentioned by the people who made them. There’s also an increasingly important role for the Tyneside in giving people a chance to engage with the past of film in a cinema space, in the environment the films were meant to be seen in.
Cinemas like the Tyneside are destinations too, places people feel welcome even if they are not going to see a film. That feeling of being welcome is an important role for cultural buildings to play in the future of cities, and I think cinemas have a head start on that.”
In a world where we all have unprecedented opportunities to unleash our own creativity through the democratisation of and easy access to filmmaking technology – often literally in the palm of our hands – what do you see as the future for people engaging with film, and where does the Tyneside fit in to that future?
“The thing I took from working in performing arts is that there is a particular energy around places that make things, both for the cultural community and for audiences. Now that we all make films every day through technology and consume film in a thousand different ways, we’re not just audiences any more, we’re participants, so there is an important role for a cultural cinema like the Tyneside to play around enabling people to make work, explore new ideas and that in turn makes the experience of watching film here even more dynamic.
That idea of ‘making and watching’ is now at the heart of the cinema’s mission, and the biggest investment in the next era for the Tyneside will be in learning and participation. It’s not that everybody has to make films, but one of the things we learned is that young people in particular who participated in making something with us were watching twice as many films as the people just watching films, and watching a more diverse, challenging range of film too.”
That idea that the future of the Tyneside lies in increased learning and participation, in broadening the meaning of film in a person’s life, is that the key to the ongoing relevance of the cinema?
“The relevance of the past is there, but the relevance of the future is slightly more unwritten. We hope our learning and participation programs will enable young people to understand and use moving image, enhancing the quality of their lives and opportunities through film literacy.
understanding moving image and being able to make moving image is important and will make a positive difference to people
There is an idea which the that British Film Institute championed a few years back that understanding moving image is the 21st century literacy. Our leaning and participation programs are not predicated on a relentless search for the next Ridley Scott, they’re much more about enabling people to think about, understand and use moving image, and what difference might that make to their lives. Whether they become filmmakers, astrophysicists, or whether they go off to work in a shop, we believe that understanding moving image and being able to make moving image is important and will make a positive difference to people. That’s the future relevance of this place, a future which lies around participation, new makers, and what role the Tyneside can play in encouraging self-expression through moving image. That’s a big grand thing to say isn’t it?”
Grand indeed. The cinema is closing in on its eightieth birthday in rude health, and soon you’ll be able to appreciate it for the first time in a long time as just another stranger in the dark. Visiting years from now as a concerned punter once again, what would you like to see?
“Seeing it with a great programme, still packed, still independent, would make me happy. I’m also really looking forward to just seeing a film and not worrying about the lights, the sound, any odd noises. I can’t wait actually. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to just going to the pictures.”
The remarkable story of the Tyneside Cinema continues.
Originally published in both short and longform versions at Narc Magazine