Friday, 8 February 2013

Interview with Mark Dobson, director of the Tyneside Cinema, about the Proposed Funding Cuts by the City Council

Mark Dobson, director of the Tyneside Cinema

Recently, the Newcastle City Council proposed to cut 100% of their funding to the “independent cultural organisations” in Newcastle by 2015/16. This plan is still in consultation and it remains to be confirmed.

If these cuts were enforced, the Newcastle-based cinemas would be affected by them. On the 29th of January 2013, I went to interview Mark Dobson from the Tyneside Cinema, Graeme Rigby from the Side Cinema, and Ilana Mitchell from the Star &Shadow Cinema to ask them how they might be affected by the cuts (financially and in terms of their programme).

This is the transcription of the interview that I made with Mark Dobson, director of the Tynesdie Cinema.


Currently, the Tyneside cinema is funded by various organisations, and receives £59,000 a year from the City Council. The proposed cuts from the City Council come at a time when all the other funding organisations are also having to reduce the amount of money that they give away, and Mark Dobson told me about the porposed reductions in funding from the Newcastle city council, but also from the Arts Council of England, and the British Film Institute (or BFI):

Mark Dobson: “At the moment, we have some revenue funding from the Arts Council for our digital media project, which we run at the cinema, and which is additional to what we do in terms of the core film programme. And we know that the Arts Council have just been asked to deal with another 3% cut over the next 2 years, so we know that they are passing that on directly to their clients, which is perfectly reasonable I think. So we’ll see a cut in that money over the next 2 years.

The City Council is out with their consultation at the moment, and they’re proposing that the funding for the Tyneside will reduce to zero over the next 3 years.

For the British Film Institute at the moment we have no confirmation, so we’re waiting to hear from them what their position will be in terms of the grants-in-aid, revenue funding for the next financial year. We’ve been told to expect to hear some time in February.”

I then asked Mark Dobson if these general reductions in funding might endanger any particular project at the Tyneside Cinema:

Mark Dobson: “The danger for us is that a lot of the activities that we see as being vital to the entire energy of the place are at risk through the erosion of those funds. So some of the more innovative programmes that we run, around our digital arts programme for instance, or a lot of our work with young people, would conceivably become at risk, because they’re not economically-driven projects. There’s no way to really earn an economic return on them, in the way that we can earn some kind of return through selling cinema tickets for example. So that work becomes more challenging to support over time.

Our strategy is absolutely to try and support this work through our trading as we go forward into the future. The biggest risk to us is that our revenue funding goes in a terrible hurry, because if it does that will be destabilising. In the short term, it could be quite unnecessarily damaging to us as an organisation.
In the longer-term, if the funding’s removed over a gradual period of time, that’s kind of what we’ve been anticipating for a decade now. So we’re kind of building ourselves up towards that point anyway.”

The Factory is part of the Young Tyneside programme exploring the Future of Cinema and screen based media.
Mark Dobson then explained to me what Revenue Funding was, and what its advantages were (Revenue Funding is precisely what the Newcastle City Council is proposing the cut), and also what the risks might be in cutting down on that type of funding.

Mark Dobson: “Revenue funding is not a huge part of our turnover (about 7%), but it’s a very significant part of our finances.

With revenue funding from the City Council and the Arts Council, they have tried to give funding for more than one year at a time. So typically with the Arts Council you get a 3-year contract. Unfortunately for various reasons, the Film Council, on the other hand, could only give its revenue funding annually. The disadvantage of funding like that being annually renewed, is that it doesn't give you much flexibility in terms of planning. You haven’t got much certainty looking ahead. But also it doesn't give you the flexibility of spending less one year, and more the next year to move the money around in a slightly more creative fashion to reflect how the world is. And that’s one of the beauties of revenue funding, in that it allows you to do that.

So I think that without doubt, nationally, there's intense pressure on revenue funding. The treasury money that goes into revenue funding right across the cultural sector, is under enormous pressure. Because, if you like, that's the free money, it's the available money that’s being stretched to do so many other things. So we have a strange situation in some parts of the cultural sector where there is more money available from the lottery, so more project funding is becoming available, but what there is much much less of in the system is revenue funding.

So I suppose if you wanted to paint what would be the end result of that, if that journey was to carry on to perhaps its illogical conclusion, would be that cultural organisations could access lots and lots of lottery money to do things that are additional to what they are there to do, but that there would be nobody left to do it, because the core resource would have disappeared, because the revenue funding would have gone. That’s a crude way of describing it, but crudely, that’s sort of what it looks like.”

Pixel Palace, the digital arts project of the Tyneside Cinema, commissioned Kelly Richardson to make Mariner 9 which was shown at Whitley Bay’s historic Spanish City Dome in August 2012

Mark Dobson then talked to me about the strategy that the cinema has had since he was appointed director of the Tyneside in 2000, and how he was given the task of making the cinema an institution that would be more self-sustainable and less reliant on funding:

Mark Dobson: “When I started working here, about 12 years ago, the cinema was in a great deal of trouble financially. But it had a very talented and prescient board of trustees who, at that point, were very determined to plan for the worst. And planning for the worst is planning for the end of revenue funding. So what they tasked me to do was to try and create a new version of the Tyneside Cinema so that, if the terrible day came around, the cinema would have grown and grown as a business sufficiently so that revenue funding wouldn’t be entirely critical to us anymore.”

The Classic screen at the Tyneside Cinema

And indeed, Mark Dobson explained to me that at the moment, 77% of the cinema’s turnover is earned – meaning through ticket sales, the tyneside bar, the coffee rooms, the hires or the friends scheme. Also, part of the strategy of the Tyneside Cinema over the last few years, has been to diversify its programme, and to programme more accessible films. Mark Dobson explained to me how that worked, and how that strategy has been incredibly successful and made more people come into the building:

Mark Dobson: “So when we developed the building in 2008, we added an additional screen, and we did lots of research into people who were going to cinemas in Newcastle. We researched which cinemas they were going to and what they were interested in seeing, and it became really obvious to us that a lot of people who are fantastically keen cinema-goers weren’t really coming here. And a lot of that was to do with the range of programme we had on offer. So we altered the programme very slightly. In the jargon, we are a specialised cinema, but we’re 80% specialised. So 20% of our programme is mainstream, and we choose that part of the programme with, I would say, extreme prejudice – or a reasonable degree of prejudice - in terms of trying to pick mainstream work of quality to put into the building.

The real reason for doing that, is not to gain a financial return on that work, because quite often, some of these bigger titles don’t perform terribly well here compared to other cinemas - not compared to cinemas who say put them on in 6 or 7 screens at a time for instance. But what they do do, is they give people a point of entry into our building, and a point of entry into the rest of our programme.

And what we’ve seen over the last 4 years since we started doing that, is that we sell nowadays almost double the amount of tickets that we used to sell in the old building. So I think, in the old building, we sold about £90,000 tickets in the last year that we were there. And we set ourselves a target to sell £120,000 tickets per year in the new building.

In the end, I think that last year we sold £184,000 tickets, and that’s really an absolute consequence of that shift of the 80%-20% balance in the programme. Because we know that people are now finding a way into the building through some of these easier entry points in the programme, and then coming back to see the rest of what we have to offer, which is really the reason why we’re here. So that’s been a great success story for us, and that’s what’s driven the numbers through the building. And also it’s got us on that track to hopefully one day being able to stand on our own 2 feet as an organisation.”

1 comment:

  1. I am in Australia, and I wish our local cinema chain was as progressive and innovative in how you are using your floor space and air conditioning. You should be commended for the variety of experiences that you are offering to your different clients.

    With regard to your funding cuts, when our second tier state government cut all funding to things like school based programs and literary awards, these program directors went out and lobbied big business to support these community based initiatives to keep the arts alive in our state.

    So I am telling you this to give you some ideas. It is not good when governments impose funding cuts. In my local area yesterday government cuts meant 200 health related jobs were axed.

    So all the set guys .. Love your work!!