“IF you don’t have a Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), then what do you have?”

Very few people have given as much of their time to one of Scotland’s most iconic buildings as Allison Gardner – the GFT chief executive – but she more than anyone knows the value it holds. 

Gardner first came to the now-iconic cinema in 1993 and has, as she says herself, done just about every job going.

But 2024 is a particularly special year, because the opening on February 28 will mark three anniversaries.

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“It’s 85 years of this building being here, 50 years of the GFT, and the 20th edition of the festival,” Gardner explains.

“It sounds like it’s all magically come together but we didn’t really think that far ahead.”

A history of the GFT

Prior to becoming the GFT, the building the cinema is now housed in was called The Cosmo, with that version of the cinema opening in 1939.

This ran for a little over three decades, before it was sold to the Scottish Film Council in 1973 and reopened the following year as the GFT.

Despite keeping its name, the cinema has still undergone several changes, not least since Gardner, a former primary school teacher, arrived in the early 90s.

“I’ve done about every job in a cinema there is to do,” she says, laughing.

It now has three screens and is, as cliché as it might sound, more than just a cinema.

“We’re a not-for-profit educational charity that has a large remit," Gardner says. "We work with communities, we do our access film club which is for those who are neurodiverse, we have dementia-friendly screenings and a pay-what-you-can film club.”

The importance of the cinema

For all the changes that cinema has gone through since its inception, Gardner believes that the very experience of sitting with others in front of the big screen is one that hasn’t really changed.

It’s an experience the GFT thrives on and Gardner points to Poor Things (below) – the adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel – as a great example of this.

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Despite some discussion surrounding the absence of Glasgow in film, it was very well received on at a preview screening in October.

“I was very lucky to see one of the very first screenings at Venice Film Festival and I knew it would work with our audience. It’s a great film,” Gardner says.

“I think for me, most films deserve to be seen in the cinema. I knew Poor Things would work with our audience.

“Watching anything in the cinema has its advantages but something like that had a special resonance especially given we had Alasdair’s son here.

“Technology might have changed but sitting in a cinema hasn’t really. It’s about those emotions – it’s funnier or it’s more dramatic. There’s a palpable sense of how exciting it all is.”

The National:

Despite her love of it all though, Gardner (above, right) jokes that she sometimes struggles to watch films in the place she works in.

“I find it hard having been a duty manager. I’ll sit there and think oh that lightbulb needs changing.”

A standout moment

Given Gardner’s experience, it’s understandable that she takes a second to pick one standout moment after everything that’s happened in the past 30 years.

But there is one moment which really captures that “more than a cinema ethos” for her.

She explains: “We had a man who used to come here and his wife had early onset Alzheimer’s. He told us that his day-to-day life was a living hell but that coming here it was like heaven.

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“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They used to come once a month and ... would talk about what she was going to wear, what they were going to see.

“That woman very sadly passed away. Her husband let us know and we dedicated a screening to her.

“It’s about making that difference. You can’t overestimate the importance of that. It really is the jewel in the crown in Glasgow.”

Despite being a year of landmark anniversaries, Gardner is as much focused on the future as she is on the past.

“We’re here as caretakers for the next 50 years because at its heart, this is all about the audience.

“For lots of people, the same films will be shown at multiplexes but they support our ethos so the money we make goes back into making this a better place."