In LA, directors have clubbed together to save a landmark cinema. Why don’t Brits do the same?

<span>Tickets please … the group of film-makers who now own the Village Theater cinema.</span><span>Photograph: Alex J Berliner/ABImages</span>
Tickets please … the group of film-makers who now own the Village Theater cinema.Photograph: Alex J Berliner/ABImages

One of LA’s loveliest cinemas – the huge, sentinel Village Theater in Westwood - has been bought by Jason Reitman, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Lulu Wang, Chloé Zhao, Guillermo del Toro, Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, Ryan Coogler, Bradley Cooper, Gina Prince-Bythewood and lots of other film-makers.

The news has a hint of early Hollywood about it when, in 1919, four very different film-makers – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith – threw their hats into the industrial ring to found the United Artists Corporation movie studio.

It’s not the first time that directors have bought the shop window. Quentin Tarantino owns two theatres in LA, including the Vista. And back in 1970, avant-garde maestro Jonas Mekas co-founded the Anthology Film Archives in New York, which is still electrifying the edges of movie culture.

In the UK, some film-makers have had a go. Here in Scotland, for example, Jeremy Thomas, who produced Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and David Cronenberg’s Crash, co-owned Edinburgh’s Cameo Picturehouse for a while, and even Tilda Swinton and I got into the world of projectors and popcorn for a bit with our Brigadoon-like pop-up The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams.

But with cinemas struggling or closing in several cities – Bristol, Edinburgh, etc – why haven’t UK-based directors bought some of them?

The first, obvious answer is money. Few of us directors earn remotely enough to have a spare few hundred thousand.

Then there’s the fact that part of the UK’s cinema circuit isn’t purely a private sector endeavour. Networks such as Picturehouse, Vue, Everyman and Curzon are all showing aesthetically bold movies like The Zone of Interest, but beyond them there are cinemas that receive some public funding – from the BFI via the National Lottery and the Film Audience Network or local councils, for example.

These sums are small and not secure – council funding is particular is disappearing – and to access them cinemas and arts centres often become charities. You can donate to them but not invest because they don’t exist to make a profit. They do specialist seasons and, at their best, film education, so are not purely commercial organisations. The result? The film exhibition scene in many UK cities is broader and richer than equivalent towns and cities in the US.

After years of funding cuts, this cinematheque model is dangling by a thread, but ask any of our great film-makers – Lynne Ramsay, Jonathan Glazer, Charlotte Wells, Edgar Wright, Andrea Arnold, Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears etc – and they’ll say that thread is a lifeline. Those cinemas are where you see the edgier, daring films that spark the fire of your own work. In my own case, in Edinburgh Filmhouse in the 1990s I saw a documentary called The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which revived my film-making. Filmhouse closed 15 months ago, but a rescue plan seems to be coming together.

The American film-makers bought the Village Theater because of their passion for cinema. They are keepers of a flame and certainly aren’t going to retire on their investment returns. And the light publicly-funded UK model is also about the belief in film as an enriching art form. Is there a way of marrying these similarly directed interventions?

In Rome, the lovely Nuovo Sacher is owned by director Nanni Moretti. Just down the street is the Cinema Troisi, an inspiring film theatre and study centre run by a foundation, supported by government cultural funding and often packed with young audiences. It’s the best place in Rome to premiere your movie. Couldn’t we in the UK try to combine these two approaches? Film-maker figureheads working with community partners? The Cinema for All group supports 1,600 film societies or clubs in the UK. That’s 1,600 grassroots cinema spaces …

Glance back to the US and we see another interesting model. Traverse City, Michigan, has two gorgeous cinemas, the State and the Bijou. They’re owned and run by Traverse City film festival (on whose board I sat for a few years), which was founded by Michael Moore. The State is dazzling, has 2,000 fibre-optic lights in its ceiling and the plushest of velvet curtains. Its website talks about its history and ethos: “Traverse City’s historic downtown movie-house was renovated and reborn as a year-round, community-based, volunteer-run arthouse movie theater in 2007. Fostering a sense of community and discovery by showing only the best available new release and independent films, the State is dedicated to presenting a carefully curated selection of movies that capture the human experience in transformative ways.”

It seems to work. A figurehead film-maker and community buy-in, “to capture the human experience in transformative ways”. Is filmgoing burning more brightly today than in recent years? If so, let’s fan its flames.