Do you know GFT?

Its another cold, bleak January night in Glasgow. Flocks of people shuffling through the busy streets, all with different destinations. Another hard day filled with all of life’s ups and downs. I’m walking through Sauchiehall street, on a familiar route to one of the most beloved spots in the city. Turn right onto Rose street, and there it lies. That oh so familiar dusty brown sign. This is a sanctuary to many, it is a home away from home. Welcome to Glasgow Film Theatre.

There’s something about cinemas, from the smell of the carpeted lobbies to the excitement as hoards of people head into a busy screening. I’ve always loved the excursion, yet as I grow older the once magical feeling of being transported into an art form that holds so much raw beauty has been severely impacted by the environment in which it is shown.

The magic of cinema, a marketing ploy you can’t avoid. From adverts selling families laughing and crying, gathered round a warm fire at Christmas. To the thirst quenching, ice cold coca cola cups and the smell of warm popcorn. This is what cinema has become, 20 minutes of adverts, 26 minutes of trailers. Hard-sell, up-sell. £35 to take a family of four to a film at the nation’s largest cinema chain. Does the magic of cinema really even exist anymore?

The short answer to that is yes. The magic of cinema lies in independent film houses like Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). Places filled with history and a real sense of community that make customers feel valued and unique. GFT has been at the heart of Glasgow film culture for over four decades, providing a window into world cinema and allowing Glaswegians to share their love of cinema within a community of likeminded, passionate film lovers.

Allison Gardner,  the GFT’s programme director, has been working at Rose Street since 1993. “GFT holds a special place in Glaswegians hearts, it’s a place to discover great films from across the world and share that moment of community that is watching a film together. (…) Once you’ve been to GFT you’ll love it and hopefully never want to go back to other cinemas ever again. The ability to stay true to its roots is what makes GFT so special, Allison says. “We are a “Cinema for All” and try to ensure that everyone is made welcome here and can find the films they love.” From the staff, some of whom are volunteers, who hold a true passion for cinema;  to the brilliance of the monthly programmes that are selected with a real effort that makes for a sheer joy in not only entering the establishment but also in browsing the brochure. In an industry of cinema chains that feel so insipidly false, spitting out thousands of cinemagoers a day, places like GFT feel unique and worth the money – something which feels so rare with cinema prices continuing to rise.

I wait in the busy line to purchase my ticket, the familiar, polished wooden décor and comforting warmth of the surroundings make me feel at home as I look out into the dark Scottish winter. A busy crowd of an audience leaving Cinema 1 (the largest of the three screens) start sprawling from the stairs. There’s a real sense of acknowledgment of the art form that stems from the vast programme of world cinema that encapsulates GFT. An older couple discussing the creativity of the director and the magical performances of the young children in the film they’ve just experienced wanders past me. As I make my way to the desk, I ask for my ticket and hand over my membership card. “You’ve got enough points on here to go for free today,” the kind, bearded staff member says. An offer I can’t refuse and I make my way on up the stairs towards the screen.

With global box office records hitting all-time highs of $38.6 billion in 2016 and the nation’s largest cinema chain, Cineworld, making a net income of £82 million this is an industry run by big corporations for big corporations. This makes independent cinemas even more essential in preserving the core values of the art form.

Maisie McGregor, a regular cinemagoer at GFT, said, “The magic of cinema-going is definitely better preserved in an independent cinema. Somewhere like GFT feels like a home away from home – it’s welcoming and warm, and there’s a real dedication in GFT to preserving what makes cinemas so authentic and special, which starts directly with preserving the uniqueness and character of the place itself. A beautiful building which inhabits the mood of the audience within it, there’s nowhere else I’d rather watch a film.”

The café is upstairs, just next to my screening. There are quite a few people having coffee, some even drinking glasses of wine. I take a seat on one of the tall bar stools and look over the landing at some film posters. I see one of an upcoming screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. This is part of GFT’s classic Christmas film programme, a personal highlight of my family Christmas festivities. I notice the time is getting closer to the start of the film, I had just presumed that the screen was being cleaned and everyone around me was waiting for the performance. To my surprise, there are people here just having a sociable drink and enjoying the surroundings. This is what makes GFT so special, it’s the intrinsic community atmosphere that the cinema has built its reputation on. There is so much warmth and happiness here, it’s a true representation of the cinema magic we are so led to believe exists.

I enter into the screen and am greeted with film notes written by a freelance copywriter and I head on down to my favourite seat in the large theatre auditorium. Every seat has a plaque, a piece of history and a sharing of the love of cinema that epitomises this place. 1920s piano music fills the room, it almost feels like I’m in a speakeasy, like we’re all sharing a secret as an audience.

GFT continues to grow in popularity, completing a £3 million renovation project in 2016. Allison Gardner said that the project opened up the doors to a wider audience. “We are so pleased with the renovation work, not only in providing better access to all but in restoring GFT in a sympathetic style and offering a better bar service and not to forget Cinema 3 (GFT added a third cinema screen) which helps us offer a wider programme of films.” It is essential for film that places like GFT continue to exist in a sector that is so commercialised and an industry that is so powerful. Places like GFT are what you grow up seeing in films, environments for learning and experiencing the real art of cinema.

I’m in my safe place of ideas and thoughts. GFT, an emporium of dreams that allows me to be whatever I want to be and to think whatever I need to think. Whenever I am feeling blue I head to the cinema, to sit during the day and just get lost in a world of challenging ideas and miraculous cinematography. This is the magic of cinema, for independent cinemas are the true essence of what it means to be a film lover. The lights slowly turn to dark; the opening credits roll.

By John-Anthony Disotto