I'm writing this from the mean streets of Edinburgh, where I'm spending a long weekend. The flat I'm staying in is in Tollcross, one of the 'Burgh's livelier areas with the infamous Pubic Triangle red-light district at one end and the road to prim and proper Morningside at the other. The Cameo cinema is exactly opposite: one of Scotland's most famous and ancient art house theatres, it has a huge reputation and a constant stream of excellent movies. There is a lot of gentrification underway in the area, but what better draw could there be for hip young urbanites than somewhere so dripping in kudos that Tarantino chose it for Pulp Fiction's debut?
A superpub, that's what. Like many art cinemas in the UK, the Cameo is owned by a group called City Screen, which until now has had a great reputation for taking on and looking after these cultural gems. Now, though, the company has asked for planning permission to turn the main screen into a restaurant and bar, together with a load of other changes that the cinema's supporters claim would utterly ruin the place. Moreover, City Screen says that if it doesn't get its way, it'll sell the place to people who'll turn it into a carpet shop — and that it's all the fault of the cinema's supporters for making such a fuss.
Uh, what? This is like the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting Lambeth Cathedral would do better as a pizza shop — you can always move the altar to a Portakabin, after all. What brought about this change of heart?
Google knows. Google knows everything. In 2002, an outfit called Arts Alliance Media bought a majority shareholding in City Screen. AAM is an interesting bunch: it is running a major digital cinema rollout for the UK Film Council, it runs a DVD rental company and provides "business services" to its portfolio companies. It's goal is to "impact the distribution and exhibition parts of the value-chain by creating and enabling channels for efficient, targeted marketing and product delivery" and much more of the same. It's very closely related to another venture capital company, Arts Alliance, which has fingers in zillions of pies. Online property services, wine selling, one-stop baby shopping, CRM providers, Lastminute.com and much more make it quite a diverse business, and quite an aggressive one at that.
Whatever's going on with City Screen is happening at the behest of Arts Alliance, and that will be whatever fits in with its exit plan. The modus operandi of VC firms is to get in, reshape an organisation, do whatever deals look good for other companies in the portfolio, then set up an exit strategy that maximises the return on investment. I know, I've worked for publishers where investors have done exactly that — and what happened was absolutely nothing to do with publishing.
The good thing these days is that anyone can break through the initial layers of front companies and dig down to what's actually happening: the bad news is that so few people do it. Meanwhile, the Cameo is attracting fierce support from across the board; I do wonder if that features on the Arts Alliance spreadsheet or not.