Cinemas that Made Me: Robert Livingston from Scotland’s Screen Machine

28 May 2020 in Cinemas That Made Me

8 mins
Screen Machine Scotland
Screen Machine Scotland

With cinemas closed due to the ongoing coronavirus/COVID-19 situation, we're excited to be keeping the love of the big screen alive with a number of venues and cinema operators as part of a new series - Cinemas that Made Me. 

Film exhibitors work extremely hard all year round to bring the joy of the collective film watching experience to big screens up and down the UK, and during this difficult time we'd like to pay tribute to some of the individuals who make it happen. We'll be speaking to film exhibitors to celebrate their wonderful venues, and the cinemas - both past and present - that have inspired them along the way.

First up is Robert Livingston, director of Regional Screen Scotland, a charity who work to provide quality cinema experiences across Scotland, with a strong focus on rural and isolated communities who struggle to get to bricks-and-mortar venues. 

Regional Screen Scotland operate the Screen Machine, an 80-seat mobile digital cinema which tours the latest films across the Highlands and Islands. We spoke to Robert about his work with Scottish audiences, running a mobile venue and his memories of falling in love with cinema.

What motivates you to improve cinema provision in Scotland?

We believe that the big screen experience, whether offered by a multiplex, or in a village hall, can have a huge impact on personal wellbeing, on bringing people together, and on helping communities to have a sense of place and confidence. Movies are often undervalued as simply ‘entertainment', when in reality they're one of the most inclusive, imaginative and stimulating of all art forms. But there are too many communities across Scotland - some on remote islands, some just on the edge of major cities - which have little or no access to the shared screen experience, and we try to help put that right. We have a very simple aim: to enable more people, in more places, to share great screen experiences.

there are too many communities across Scotland - some on remote islands, some just on the edge of major cities - which have little or no access to the shared screen experience, and we try to help put that right.

Robert Livingston, Director of Regional Screen Scotland

Is this how the Screen Machine idea came about?

Yes. It's absolutely central, because it's the most extreme example of what we mean, bringing the latest releases, and offering the highest quality cinema experience, to many of Scotland's smallest communities. It all started back in the mid-1990s when the UK looked into adapting the French ‘Cinemobile' model for UK audiences, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise saw the huge potential for the immense geographic area that it covers. That first Screen Machine, launched in 1998, and was a prototype, with all the technical issues that that implies, but it was hugely successful. The current Screen Machine took to the roads in 2005 and has been in constant use since then- until, of course, lockdown started!

Where did your own journey with film start? Any fond memories of your favourite cinemas?

When I was growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s and early 70s, the city was still full of cinemas, with no less than four in walking distance of my home. None of them surpassed the impact of the Colosseum, which was the only cinema in Scotland to be set up for Cinerama - that extraordinary precursor of IMAX which used no less than three projectors at once to project onto an immense curved screen.

In my late teens and student years, the great cinema was the Cosmo (now Glasgow Film Theatre), which was actually built, in 1939, as a specialist ‘arthouse' cinema. As a student, I'd often see four or five films in four days in different locations: Wednesday was the University French Film Society, Thursday the Film Course choice of Film, Friday the University Film Society (I was on the Committee), and then maybe a couple of films on the Saturday at the GFT.

How have those venues affected how you work today? 

I've never lost the ‘wow' factor of cinema: back in 1969 sitting in the middle of the front row in the ABC2 in Sauchiehall Street (now burnt down) watching the Russian version of War and Peace on the biggest screen imaginable. I still get that buzz, whether from Gravity, Studio Ghibli, Avengers: Endgame, or 1917

But early exposure at Cosmo opened up the riches of world cinema for me, and so I'm always trying to strike a balance between enabling folk to get those same thrills from the sheer scale of the best blockbusters, but also the excitement of discovering some incredible new view of the world from Eastern Europe, South Korea, Mexico, or a new independent director here in the UK.

What was your first job in cinema?

My very first job in cinema was when I was 11 years old and I became projectionist for the whole of my large, inner city primary school. It was great to get hauled out of classes to operate the 16mm projector for screenings for all the younger kids!

While the Screen Machine is halted due to the lockdown, have you begun any new initiatives to reach audiences at home?

We now send a weekly ‘Small Screen Machine' e-newsletter, with our team's recommendations for the best films coming up on subscription-free TV and platforms. We've also been able to offer our audiences special access to MUBI, and to a few new releases, such as Cunningham, and we hope this can become the basis of being able to offer our audiences more access to interesting films, even when the Screen Machine is back on the road, but isn't currently visiting their community.

Once cinemas can reopen which film, old or new, would be your first choice to see on the big screen?

I'm a huge fan of Hirokazu Kore-eda, and his Shoplifters was my top film of 2018. So I'm really looking forward to seeing his first European film, The Truth, on a big screen. But, if I'm honest, I'm also looking forward to Black Widow… And if I could choose any film, it would be that extraordinary 7.5 hour version of War and Peace that so thrilled me when I was 15.

To learn more about careers in film exhibition, explore our resources on Cinema Landscape and Cinema Design. If you'd like to support independent cinemas in the UK, consider donating to the UK Cinema Fund, which will be added to the BFI FAN COVID-19 Resilience Fund and used to offer critical relief and business continuity to exhibitors across the UK.

This Article is part of: Cinemas That Made Me

A series celebrating cinemas, venues and exhibitors across the UK.

View other Articles in this column

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