THE operator of Bournemouth's IMAX cinema broke a legal agreement with Bournemouth council by failing to keep the attraction open all year round for at least 10 years, the Daily Echo can reveal.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that councillors were assured Sheridan Developments "will be under an absolute guarantee" to keep the attraction open for a decade.

But that agreement has not helped Bournemouth council get the giant-screen cinema reopened following its sudden closure in early 2005.

Councillors were told in 1997 that the original developer of the IMAX cinema, Imry Holdings, had pulled out of the project. Sheridan, which had originally been only the operator of the cinema, was now proposed as the developer.

In a previously confidential report obtained by the Echo, councillors were told in November 1997 that there was a legal covenant to ensure the leisure complex around the IMAX would be trading throughout the year.

The report added that "the initial lessee of the IMAX... will be under an absolute guarantee to keep it open as a large-screen cinema and to trade throughout the year for the first 10 years of the lease".

Cllr David Clutterbuck, who voted against the IMAX, said he had not been aware of the agreement. "If they gave a guarantee like that, it's terrible," he said.

Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood said he was frustrated that Sheridan had broken the agreement.

"Obviously to breach the contract costs less than it would to keep the attraction open," he said.

He said the agreement would have been the basis for the continuing legal dispute between Sheridan and Nilgosc, the pension fund responsible for the building.

The two organisations are thought to be trying to reach an out-of-court settlement. Meanwhile, the future of the IMAX is in "limbo".

Bournemouth council director Stephen Godsall said: "The advice from the report in November 1997 relating to the lessee, Sheridan, operating an IMAX cinema all year for the first 10 years, was included as a covenant in the legal agreement between the council and Sheridan.

"This clause was included because, at the time, IMAX cinemas were predicted as the next big thing'.

"Had that proved the case, we may have more chance of legally proving financial loss to the town as a result of the cinema not remaining open.

"In fact, these predictions of popularity proved to be unfounded and any potential loss would be impossible to quantify."

High hopes that in the end just fell flat

FINANCIAL checks on IMAX developer Sheridan proved "inconclusive" and the company was not able to find an institutional investor to guarantee completion of the waterfront building, the documents obtained by the Daily Echo show.

The IMAX scheme was one of four ideas for the former Pier Approach swimming baths site, first considered by councillors in 1995.

Councillors backed the proposal for a giant-screen cinema, put forward by Imry Holdings in a joint venture with the Sheridan Group. At the time it would have been the first in the UK.

Imry Holdings dropped out and Sheridan Developments (Bournemouth) Ltd was put forward as the sole developer.

Council officers who investigated the developer's parent company reported that "financial checks to establish the status of Sheridan Developments have proved inconclusive and the officers cannot recommend that they alone act as suitable guarantors for completion".

Instead, it was proposed that the project's builder, John Mowlem and Company, signed a warranty to ensure the building was finished.

Eventually, the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers Super-annuation Committee (Nilgosc) funded the development.

The agreed date for the IMAX's opening was July 1999, but in fact it did not welcome audiences until March 2002. Trade was disappointing and by January 2003 it was revealed that the cinema was closing four days a week out of season.

In early 2005, it closed for "refurbishment" - and has never re-opened. Bournemouth council has been trying without success for news of what will happen to it.

No-one at the Sheridan Group has been available for comment.