The State of Swedish Cinemas Today

It’s not often you can blame a single supermarket (branch, not chain) for both winding you, shattering your childhood memories, and brining a glaze of tears to your eye. Unimposing as it may seem, this very supermarket did just that.

Filmstaden Söder

But first some clarification: growing up I had the good fortune of living in Sweden, and being of certain stock both in genes and culture I will forever be pining for the Holms. Or more precisely the Stock-holm, and its’ southern isle where I grew up.

In primary school I remember brashly boasting that I could see the new multiplex, the Palace of Cinema (or Biopalatset to give its indigenous name) from my bedroom window. It took some precarious leaning out of said window, but I could see the red glow of the sign, and it took me less than two minutes door to door. Lasting memories of seeing Jurassic Park with both my parents at a very tender age (as allowed with the Swedish 11-A certificate) was unquestionably a formative experience. Countless 90’s Batman films, less so.

Biopalatset

Biopalatset was run by the Sandrews corporation, whose rivalry with SF Bio was a constant thorn in the side of every child post-Christmas. Everyone was guaranteed to receive cinema gift vouchers for Xmas, and the days up to New Year would be busy with cine-going. Yet making plans with friends was always compounded by the fact that I would have vouchers for SF and Alex would have vouchers for Sandrews. Two incompatible sets of vouchers meant that instead of 1 free cinema visit for the both of us, we instead had to make do with two discounted trips. I’m sure it was tremendously profitable for all conglomerates involved. But that was life, and ultimately I saw more films, which was probably for the best.

When I was a fair bit older I moved back to the UK to start university. A year later Sandrews went bankrupt. Now I’m not saying anything, but then who am I to say if it was more than coincidence?

In the short term Sandrews was sold onto a new conglomerate called Astoria cinemas, who after considerable restructuring attempted to carry on business as usual. Yet in the face of the established SF cinemas the new Astoria chain was unable to secure enough exclusives from America, and after two years they too went bankrupt. SF leapt on the chance to buy up the competition, but many expected Sweden’s stringent anti-trust laws would defer any risk of a monopoly. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case as no other bidders were willing to shoulder the multi-million kroner debts that had been building up.

Victoria Svenska Bio GötgatanThe monopoly was set, and all that was left outside SF were the independent cinemas. Former Sandrews cinemas like Victoria fell under the mantle of indie out-fit Svenska Bio, others were boarded up or sold to other interests. Victoria is a fine example of a cinema working hard to survive in the pockets outside the mainstream. As can be seen in the photo, the cinema is now subtitled ‘barista’ supplementing film exhibition with the sale of coffee. A bit of a shame, but then you can’t begrudge the efforts of the indies to stay afloat.

And so to the supermarket. The multiplex I could see as a kid was Biopalatset, run by Sandrews, and built into the basement of the Söderhallarna shopping centre. When I was a teenager SF opened another multiplex, Filmstaden Söder, in the other end of the shopping centre, for such were the heady ways of this cinematic rivalry. Opening to great pomp, the complex boasted ear-blisteringly loud speakers in every imaginable crevice. It was the local cinema of choice for epic fare like the Lord of the Rings, or even the Epic FAIL of Star Wars: Episode 1.

It was to my horror then that on a recent trip to Sweden I found the still relatively fresh multiplex Filmstaden Söder had been turned into a brand new, not even day-old supermarket. As if to echo the irony of the two multiplexes’ close proximity/competition, this new supermarket is built underneath a rival supermarket. Who says markets cannot effectively compete under the shiny mantle of Swedish socialism?

Walking into the former foyer of the cinema I just felt a wave of sadness for the disappearance of something nominally ‘cultural’ and part of my youth having been turned into another surplus-to-requirements supermarket. Beyond my own nostalgic feelings for a multiplex of all things, a deep seated worry towards the precedents of exhibition history also presented itself. Simply put, the transformation of cinemas into supermarkets is the death knell of a cinema trade in recession. In broad terms, in both Sweden and the UK, the death of the weekly cinemagoing of the post-war generation was brought about by television, with the conversion of cinemas into supermarkets being a direct result of the widespread closures. The marks of the last wave can be seen in both Stockholm (with the kvartersbion) and Sheffield (with the suburban cinemas) with the sites of previous cinemas clearly marked on the sites of modern supermarkets. The Co-op in Crookes, the Nettos in Walkey and Hillsborough for Sheffield, and a number of ICA’s in Östermalm and Kungsholmen are but a few you can mention.

Röda Kvarn Urban OutfittersThis latest wave started in Stockholm thre years ago when SF sold off the historically important Röda Kvarn cinema in central Stockholm. Opened in 1915, Röda Kvarn was the oldest surviving cinema in region, a proper picture palace of the grandest ilk which was meticulously maintained. It cost a margin extra to go there, but there was little chagrin in paying to see modern film in a bizarrely historical setting. When it was sold off there were a few voices of discontent, balanced with an appreciation for the (at the time) struggling SF to sell off a cinema on Stockholm’s equivalent of Bond Street. In a matter of months the cinema was turned into Stockholm’s first Urban Outfitters, and the private boxes of old now took a different role as changing booths for the cities well moneyed hipsters.

With cinema-going in Sweden on a marked upturn in recent years you would think that the selling-off would have ceased, but with the monopoly that SF has on the mainstream it carries on regardless, cherry picking what stays open and what gets shut. As the closures show, their priorities lie solely towards profit over quality and diversity. Prices go up, the number of screens drop, the range of films gets slimmer, overall accessibility decreases, audiences miss out.

It’s difficult to say what impact this is all having on the nation’s film production, as to many eyes it’s in rude health. Let the Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have caused ripples internationally this last year, but these success are far too irregular for a nation which consistently punches above its weight in the world of popular music and literature.

bio rioBut there are glimmers of hope. The last single screen local cinema (or Kvartersbio) in Stockholm, Bio Rio in Hornstull struggled on for a long time, run by a very old but very determined man. It used to be my grandparents weekly cinema of choice, and only a couple of years ago I saw Death Proof there. Truly a cinema across the generations.

Box office, ticket tearing and projection were all run by this one guy, who was persistently in the local press telling of his struggles to keep the rent from skyrocketing. When he announced his retirement many thought that was another cinema shut, but full plaudits to the cultural organisation Folkets Hus och Parker (the National Federation of People’s Parks and Community Centres) for stepping in and reviving it. Renovation, installation of digital projectors with the option for 3D film and live link ups to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and a bursting film programme aimed directly at increased audience engagement. And reasonable prices too.

It’s only a 200 seater cinema, and it deserve better than parallels drawn to David and Goliath. It remains a tremendous hope in an otherwise dark situation. A glimmer of hope for the way things should be. A real palace for cinema, and not just another filmic supermarket.

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