Independent cinemas' fight for survival in Wales

By Kath Evans
BBC News website

image captionWales had more than 350 cinemas in the industry's heyday around 1950

In the wake of recent cinema closures in west and north Wales, an independent cinema owner has warned there are likely to be more casualties.

There were hundreds of cinemas in Wales in the 1950s, but today there are fewer than 60 regular film venues.

These range from big chain multiplexes offering a choice of films every day to small halls and arts centres where occasional films are just part of a mixed programme of entertainment.

But it seems it is the traditional, small town cinema that is facing the greatest threat at present.

Peter Davies, who with his wife Irene, owns cinemas in Brecon, Haverfordwest and Abergavenny, says the sector's going through a very tough time.

"I'm not surprised to see a few giving up in the last couple of months," he said.

"You can't keep on losing money week after week. There's a point where you have to stop and it's quite frightening because it could be an end to any of them."

He said the whole industry was being affected.

The first large-scale cinema closures and mergers began in the late 1950s

"The recession is not helping at all. It's been a real killer, particularly since September," said Mr Davies.

"We've been losing money week on week and there's a limit to how long you can keep on going like that."

Dr Peter Miskell, author of A Social History of Cinema in Wales, says independent cinemas were traditionally the biggest sector here and 60 years ago, the nation boasted more than 350 picture houses.

image captionThe first large-scale cinema closures and mergers began in the late 1950s

"In Wales, to a much greater extent than other parts of the UK, they were independently owned," he said.

Dr Miskell, who is originally from Port Talbot, studied at Aberystwyth University and it was his PhD research there that led to the publication of his book on cinema in Wales.

"In the late 1950s onwards the closures start happening in a really big way," he said.

For independent cinemas that are still operating he thinks distinctiveness is the key to continuing success.

"One or two have established themselves because of the fact that they're old buildings, they've created an ambience," he said.

"Sometimes they'll specialise in showing classic films or art house films and therefore really differentiate themselves from the standard multiplex.

"Those are the ones that have managed to hang on. But the ones that try to compete directly with the big chains can't cope at all."

Peter Davies sees things differently, though.

He says it's the high-profile new releases like a Harry Potter or The King's Speech that bring in the crowds and small screens face big costs in upgrading to meet demands of new technology.

Other cinemas are diversifying. The new owners of Tywyn's Magic Lantern are combining new releases with arthouse films and themed nights, as well as planning to add a cafe bar and live entertainment.

In Holyhead The Empire cinema has plans for a 10-pin bowling alley, as well as upgrading to show 3D films.

'New technology'

"At the moment the cost of 3D is out of the question for most traditional cinemas in smaller towns," says Mr Davies.

"Basically you have to go digital before you can go 3D and digital's £40,000-£50,000 per screen and 3D about another £20,000 on top of that."

As well as being up against the might of the multiplexes, he says it is also difficult to compete with arts centres and other publicly-owned venues showing films.

"They can apply for grant money to get all the new technology put in - as an independent we can't. We're on our own," he said.

"We could do with people getting back to the cinema, because if they do close they very rarely re-open."