The Birks Cinema opened on 3rd July 1939 – a beautiful new building in The Square of Aberfeldy, built by Strathmore Picture Houses Ltd. It replaced three old houses that were demolished, the whole building process tool less than 6 months from approval to opening!
The cinema was clearly much enjoyed by the town for many decades – we have heard many great stories about childhood memories of Jeelie jars, first romances, the characters who worked there – including the legendary Mrs Walker, whose catch phrase ‘if its pittin out ye want its pittin out ye’ll get’ seems to have stuck for ever in the collective memory of the community. Sadly though, as with cinemas around the country at the time, it became uneconomic and even Bingo on offer failed to keep the business afloat, and it closed its doors as a cinema in 1982. It then spent some years as an amusement arcade – that too finally closing in 2004. A local developer bought it and after a couple of years realised that the faltering economic climate at that time, the investment needed to renovate the by now very dilapidated building was not going to happen and the building was put up for sale at the end of 2005
Cue a small group of Aberfeldy film obsessed and cinema deprived local residents. At the local Heartland Film Society AGM, the question was raised ‘could the Birks Cinema be a viable cinema again?’ Contacting other community cinemas in the UK revealed that there was a cinema expert called Ron Inglis, based in Scotland, who should be able to help us answer that question. Perth and Kinross Rural Economic Development helped us pay for Ron to carry out an initial feasibility study and we fully expected him to come back to us with an unreserved ‘No- not really’, and we could all move on. However, with his extensive knowledge of the independent cinema world, Ron told us that he thought that given modern digital technology, that meant that not only did a business not have to support a projection room team, but also that it was easier for a small cinema to present a varied programme and even get release films early on, it would be possible to create a viable cinema venue – even in a smallish rural community. He confirmed all that we thought a cinema would bring to a community – cross generational entertainment and social inclusion, a sense of pride of place, positive economic improvement. So, having expected a reasoned ‘No, not really viable’ – we found ourselves having to decide ‘shall we go for it?’
At this stage Friends of the Birks Cinema was a small constituted local group, with a committee of six or seven and list of 30 or s0 interested people. We were extremely fortunate to receive a donation from a private trust that enabled us to fund work by a local architect, Robin Baker, to explore how the building could be converted. With these plans and Ron’s report we were able to support an application to the Big Lottery Investing in Ideas in 2008 for further funds to enable the architect to obtain planning permission for the project, as well as pay for further work from Ron Inglis to develop a Business Plan for the cinema. We created the Friends membership scheme to formalise that list of interested people as well as to develop a small pot of petty cash to cover expenses. With all this information in hand we knew that we were looking at a project worth £1.8million to purchase the building, renovate and equip it to open for business
In June 2009, we put in an application to the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Regeneration Fund – a one off pot of money aimed at revitalising small rural towns. Our successful application, of £325,000 enabled us to buy the building in Nov 2009, pay for initial work to make it weather proof and safe (removal of asbestos, mercury and lead paint!), and fund the architect’s team to develop the plans to building tender stage. To be in a position to apply for these funds, as an organisation we had to have a clear legal identity and so in June 2009 became a company limited by guarantee. We registered as a charity later that year as well. Both were important changes to enable us to continue with our fundraising
Over all this time we had loads of conversations – with other community organisations in the area, with Community Councils throughout Highland Perthshire. We carried out a street survey on cinema going within the community, and a more formal community needs assessment throughout Highland Perthshire and Killin. We held stands at community events in the area, shared our plans with local businesses and individuals, constantly kept a dialogue going about the project, how it could meet different needs within the community, how it could work best. Once we had bought the building and made it safe, we were able to invite people in every Saturday to have a look, share our plans, and had some souvenir products for sale to help raise funds as well as awareness. In Sept 2009 we were delighted to hear that Alan Cumming had agreed to be our Patron.
By mid 2010 we knew how much money we would need to raise to cover the building renovations and equip the building. We submitted an application to SRDP for £658,000 and in March 2011 heard that this had been awarded to us. We had until Jan 31st 2012 to raise the matching £700,000 to be able to draw down the award. The fundraising campaign was ramped up – we wrote to small p[private trusts, we applied to large local trusts as well as arts trusts and funds, we made applications to various public pots of money – Creative Scotland, the local Windfarm Community Fund, the Big Lottery. We held a series of large fundraising events in the autumn of 2012. Right up to the wire in January 2012 we were waiting to hear if our application to BLF was successful and it felt like a cliff hanger last act, as SRDP agreed to extend the 31st Jan deadline by a day or two to accommodate a final decision by Big Lottery. We had prepared low-budget alternatives to accommodate a slightly reduced funding pot if this application was not successful but in the event this was not needed – we reached and exceeded the £1.4m target, with the £550,000 award from Big Lottery. In addition to funds needed for the renovation, they also awarded us revenue funds for 3 years to ensure that there was some support in place for the early years of the new business.
Having already gone to tender for building contractors, we were immediately able to appoint Hadden Construction to begin the renovations. They moved on site in May 2012, and aimed to be finished by mid Feb 13. On the whole the building process went well – with very few delays – however it became clear at the end of Dec 12 that completion would be delayed a month, and the completed project was handed over to FoTBC by mid March
FotBC realised that managing the whole building project and handling the funding side would require additional resources – and we applied to LEADER for funds to help as manage financial administration. This enabled us to take on a part time finance administrator and an office – both invaluable in managing the whole project. We also had a volunteer Project Manager, Kevin Ramage from the community.
In addition to the physical resource of the building we needed to decide how we were gojng to run the cinema business itself. We sought various channels of advice on this, and FoTBC agreed at an EGM in April 2012 to create a trading company The Birks Cinema Ltd to run the business for FoTBC. This was established in June 2012, with nine appointed Directors drawn from across Highland Perthshire. In December 2012 we appointed the General Manager for the cinema, Paul Foley, who has had four months to develop the new business, recruit staff, develop the programme and everything else to get the cinema open and ready for business in mid April 2013.