THE Tyneside Cinema has become of the region's best cultural venues, providing access to films and documentaries from across the globe. Christopher Knox talks to the man behind its recent transformation, chief executive Mark Dobson.
ON meeting Mark Dobson, it’s hard not to notice the enormous sense of pride and affection he has for the Tyneside. As both a fan of film and someone who is clearly passionate about the North East, he finds it hard to stop smiling as he looks back on his nine-year tenure.
Such pride is justified, as the once decaying cinema on Pilgrim Street in Newcastle’s city centre has now become a jewel in the region’s cultural crown, boasting three screens, a beautifully refurbished Tyneside Tea Rooms and a host of digital technology to take it firmly into the 21st century. The cinema, which has occupied the site since 1937, had by 1999 declined to a critical state, with many believing it would eventually be forced to close down.
And close down it did for 18 months, while one of the city’s most extensive and high-profile restoration projects got underway, one which would eventually give the cinema a new lease of life and ensure that it remained the place to be for movie buffs.
Although Dobson would be the first to say the redevelopment was a joint effort, it is also fair to say that his vision and passion for the new cinema more than played its part.
In fact, it was this passion that helped him to get the job as chief executive at the cinema in 1999 after only one senior role under his belt.
Dobson said: “The trustees of the Tyneside knew that the cinema needed a big change. Some areas of the building had become inhospitable and attendances were plummeting.
“It was the first time they had advertised for a chief executive and I think they saw me as somebody who had a fresh approach and who could help to diagnose their problems.”
Although Dobson came to the cinema’s rescue almost 10 years ago, his passion for cinema began long before that.
“My parents always loved films and they would take me to the cinema a lot when I was little,” he recalls.
“My dad was big into Westerns, which I also love. My mother loved Westerns as well, but unfortunately for me back then, she also loved musicals, which I hated, sadly, until after she passed away.
“Now I realise some of the best films are musicals.”
Dobson’s dad Bill was a carpenter from Elswick, Newcastle, while his mother Mary worked in a number of factories across the region, including De La Rue in Team Valley in her native Gateshead.
Dobson himself, an only child, was born just off Sunderland Road in Gateshead, where he lived until he was five and until the decline of traditional industry on Tyneside meant his dad’s work dried up.
It was purely by accident that Mark fell into his current career after a friend asked if he would come and lend a hand at Newcastle Arts Centre, Westgate Road, following the completion of his arts degree.
The project involved getting performers to stop at the venue on their way back from the Edinburgh Festival, in September, with Mark helping out in all aspects of marketing.
“It was a bit of a disaster,” he admits. “Although we put so much effort into it, we weren’t able to sell many tickets or get many companies to work with us.
“However, the hard work paid off in the end as word spread by the following year and the whole thing turned out to be a big success. I was surprised to discover that, coming from an arts background, marketing was something that gave me a big buzz.
“I now realise from dealing with people that I enjoy striking up the kind of exchanges that help get a project off the ground.”
Soon after, he began working as a press officer for Northern Stage, where he remained for nine years and worked his way up to director of customer relations in 1999.
“I learned a lot during my time at Northern Stage and was given the opportunity to really get my teeth into marketing as well as all areas of house management,” he said.
“It certainly gave me the skills and confidence to believe in myself when the job of chief executive at the Tyneside came up.”
These skills would be tested to their limit once Mr Dobson realised the size of the job in hand when he joined the Tyneside.
As well as desperately needing a number of physical improvements, the cinema was in a decrepit state financially. Despite its prestigious history and prime location, people just weren’t coming through its doors, and that had left the cinema with a serious deficit.
Mark knew all of this before going to the job interview, but to steady his nerves he visited the cinema the night before to watch the David Lynch movie The Straight Story, a decision which would make him even more determined to land the role.
He said: “The Straight Story is a pretty inspirational film anyway, but to watch it at the Tyneside at a virtually empty screening was the flashpoint for me.
“Here I was, sitting in this grand building, watching this fantastic movie by myself and knowing that it was being wasted.
“I left that evening knowing that something had to be done and that I had to get the job.”
After only a few weeks in the job, Dobson realised that the only way to secure the future of the cinema was to set about refurbishing the building from top to bottom.
Although a move into digital technology had made the cinema’s projections some of the sharpest in the country, it was clear that a significant investment in the structure was needed if the board of trustees was going to persuade the public to return.
Following a survey of the building, the team began to come to terms with just how big the job would be and realised that a capital investment of about £7m would be the only way to turn their dreams into reality.
However, there would be one snag. Although Mark was prepared for the high cost of the project, having secured the support of a number of organisations including One North East and the Northern Rock Foundation, he was less than willing to have the cinema closed for business for up to two years.
“We were going to come back after the redevelopment with a grand launch with all guns blazing,” he said. “However, in order to do this we had to be able to drum up excitement as well as keep the Tyneside brand at the forefront of people’s minds.”
After lengthy talks with local MPs, he managed to get a temporary lease at Gateshead’s Old Town Hall, which allowed the brand to continue to screen films in a single theatre.
He drew heavily on his experience in marketing and also decided to hold a number of themed screenings across Newcastle to allow people greater access to the Tyneside experience while work continued.
These included a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at the Discovery Museum, complete with mulled wine and mince pies, and also a screening of Life of Brian, at St. Mary’s Church in Newcastle, which raised a few eyebrows.
“It was about £3m more expensive for us to find an alternative location rather than sit tight and wait for the work to finish on Pilgrim Street,” he said.
“It was a big risk financially, but I believed it was more important to keep the spirit of the cinema alive while it was surrounded by scaffolding.
“It turned out to be the right decision, as we were able to screen some fantastic movies in Gateshead during that time as well as keep people informed about how things were going on Pilgrim Street. The whole thing was fabulously complicated.
“The fact is that there is not a venue like this in most major cities – and that includes Birmingham and Leeds – and we weren’t prepared to let people simply forget about it.”
The newly refurbished building is now much more than a cinema and has become one of the region’s key cultural hubs, allowing North East budding producers and digital artists to network and present their work.
Mr Dobson has also drawn on the rich history of the cinema and its place in the region by screening daily news reels of important events, with Newcastle United’s famous win over Manchester City in the 1955 FA Cup pulling in the crowds last year.
“It was always key to my vision for the new Tyneside that it should be at the heart of the local community,” he said. “This was certainly the case when it was first opened in the 30s.
“It was always a big concern that we should preserve this attitude and now the building is used for all sorts of purposes, from local film festivals to film and music installations. The possibilities are endless.”
By expanding the parameters of the cinema, Mark has also provided different income streams, which he said have come in handy during the recession. He said: “It’s certainly an interesting time for the film industry and they always say that you get more interesting work coming out of more challenging times.
“Well, looking at the films that have been released already this year, it’s hard to argue against this. Films like The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire have really rejuvenated people’s love for film again, which of course has helped us in growing the cinema as a business despite tough economic conditions.”
So what now for the future? As well as being keen to build on the cinema’s digital capabilities, Mr Dobson is excited by the new generation of film- makers who have been brought up on social networking and video-sharing websites such as MySpace and You Tube.
He said: “Everyone seems to be using these kinds of sites and it’s easy to be cynical about the videos that get put up.
“However, some of them are incredibly creative and really tick the boxes for the direction that movie- making is going.
“The pace of technological advancement is getting quicker all the time, while people’s attention spans are getting shorter.
“While there will always be a place for classic movies, we must also look towards the younger generation if we are to advance as an industry.”