Keeping the Screen Machine on the road

Here at Regional Screen Scotland we know how popular the Screen Machine is. How? Because you’ve told us! Over 1000 members of the Screen Machine audience (that’s one third of our total email list) took the time to complete our recent online survey, and the results were overwhelming. The Screen Machine clearly makes a hugely valued contribution to the lives of the communities it visits.

And the Screen Machine has been visiting communities in the Highlands and Islands now for 18 years. Well, not actually this Screen Machine. That was launched in 2005 to replace the original prototype mobile cinema, which went on to serve for two years as a replacement cinema for the Eden Court in Inverness, while the theatre was being rebuilt and enlarged.

So, what we think of as ‘Screen Machine 2’ has been on the road continuously (apart from over Christmas and New Year) for 11 years. In the original funding applications we estimated it would have a useful life of at least ten years, so it’s justified that investment. But it is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Just a few weeks ago a broken hydraulic pipe, on Coll of all places, could have put paid to a number of screenings if our Operator Iain hadn’t been able to team up with a local engineer to make a temporary repair. And this year we’ll be investing in a new generator, as the existing one is well past its sell-by date!

The French builders of the Screen Machine, Toutenkamion, indicated back in May 2015 that we should expect to be able to operate the Screen Machine at its present level (that’s about 600 screenings a year) for at best another 2-3 years before such breakdowns start to become a real and frequent problem.

At the same time our digital projector is also nearing the end of its natural life. This is a challenge facing many cinemas which invested in digital seven or eight years ago, as we did. Where the old 35mm projectors would often last a lifetime, like so many other forms of digital technology, digital projectors—or at least these early versions—have much more limited lifespans.

Our plan is therefore to carry out a complete and thorough refurbishment of the Screen Machine, including installing a new projector. Toutenkamion estimate that this will extend the life of the cinema by at least another 5-6 years, possibly much more. We hope to raise the money in time to be able to carry out this work in May/June 2017 and have the Screen Machine back on the road for the 2017 summer holidays.

But what about building a new Screen Machine, you may ask. Well, the refurbishment costs are only a small fraction of the capital cost of a new mobile cinema, so, as a charity, it’s our responsibility to make the best use of an asset that was built originally with substantial public and Lottery funds. And a refurbished Screen Machine should look, for its audiences, pretty well as good as new. But we haven’t given up on the idea of commissioning a new Screen Machine as well. Every week we get requests to use the Screen Machine in everything from a local film festival to a product launch. And our ability to use the present Screen Machine to stimulate the development of new cinema facilities elsewhere in Scotland is very much restricted by our primary commitment to our regular circuit of venues in the Highlands and Islands.

Over the coming months, we’ll be looking closely at the business case, and the financial models, for building a new mobile cinema and then, for several years thereafter, operating two Screen Machines in tandem. A wholly new Machine could then take over the present touring circuit, and by therefore reducing long term wear and tear on the refurbished Screen Machine 2, would extend its life even further.

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