Barring and Alignment: why they are bad for cinema in the UK

The announcement by the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield that they have been denied ‘on date’ bookings for films distributed by Artificial Eye/Curzon Film World is an example of a trade practice known as barring. This practice and the associated practice of alignment were in operation in the UK up to the arrival of the multiplex and the demise of the ‘circuit cinema’ – the single, double or tripled traditional cinema – in the early 1990s.

Alignment refers to vertical integration in the film industry and the practice of a distributor favouring its own chain of cinemas over those of a competitor. In the 1950s and 1960s in the UK the duopoly of Rank (Odeon) and ABPC (ABC) meant that in many locations there were two circuit cinemas competing for audiences. Each of the distributors not only favoured their own films in their own cinemas but also made deals with the Hollywood studios, aligning a Hollywood studio with their chain. Thus ABC cinemas showed Warner Brothers and MGM and the other studios went with Odeon.

Barring was the practice whereby a distributor simply refused to allow one of its films to be shown in a rival’s cinema. Barring orders specified a radius of x miles around one of their cinemas inside which the film couldn’t be shown by a competitor.

These practices have been looked at by UK industry regulators (e.g. the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Office of Fair Trading etc.) on several occasions in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. The EU is also concerned about the effects of such practices. In the main however, the advent of the multiplex from the 1990s onwards has meant that ‘alignment’ is no longer an issue and all multiplexes have the same access to the same mainstream films because barring is not possible without alignment. But the state of play in the specialised film market is rather different.

The specialised film market is difficult to describe (the definition comes from the UK Film Council and now the BFI) but lets assume it means all those films that are not likely to show across the mainstream multiplex market. They might appear on some multiplex screens but mostly will be seen in ‘independent’ cinemas. This sector is now changing and becoming dominated by three companies: Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. These three chains are all growing – opening/acquiring new cinemas, often ‘artplexes’ with 2, 3, 4, or more screens. Curzon is the biggest distributor of specialised films but Picturehouse also has a form of control over bookings for films by smaller cinemas. Curzon and Picturehouse effectively control the market for specialised films. If their bookers don’t like your film, you have little chance of distributing it in the UK. Neither of them seem interested in Chinese, Japanese and South Korean films for instance – or Indian art films or independents.

The victims of the potential oligopoly control of this market are the public sector cinemas – those operating as charitable trusts and dependent on public funding. These are the cinemas once known as ‘Regional Film Theatres’. Once these cinemas were abandoned by the BFI in terms of a booking service (i.e. negotiating booking s of films with distributors) they had to choose either to book films directly themselves (very difficult), use the new service set up by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) or go to groups like City Screen (Picturehouse) who would deal with the other distributors. This made the independents more likely to follow the main distributors and to shift towards more commercial policies as the market got tougher and as other forms of public funding began to dry up. So, over the last ten to 15 years the programming policies of specialised cinemas has changed. The changes were signalled for me by the decision of Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle (booking service through City Screen) to show Sex and the City 2 in 2010, a decision which I understand divided the staff at the time. Now I am hardly surprised any more when I see a trailer for Star Wars at a Picturehouse cinema or the new Avengers movie showing at a Curzon or Everyman.

Keith in his recent posting is justified in complaining when the distributors (and their associated cinemas) get public support for these new programmes. There are three specific forms of support. The BFI puts money into the development and production of British films as part of cultural policy (as do European funds such as EU MEDIA) – with the aim that these be seen by diverse audiences. Similarly, certain foreign language films are supported in distribution to increase the diversity of the film offer. Finally, European funding goes to cinemas which show European films as part of the Europa Cinemas network (which includes the Showroom in Sheffield, Pictureville/Cubby Broccoli in Bradford – now operated by Picturehouse – and the Hyde Park in Leeds. The barring applied to the Showroom by Curzon, illustrated in Keith’s post, goes against the reasoning behind this cultural support. It restricts access to films showing in the bigger cinemas at Showroom. It also penalises a cinema which is at the centre of the BFI’s Audience Development programme as the centre of Film Hub North.

The BFI’s response to Curzon’s actions was in my opinion pretty feeble. The BFI is the nominated agency of British public policy in relation to distribution and exhibition as part of UK film culture. It should be making more robust statements or putting pressure on Curzon to desist this practice. Barring and alignment are not good for audiences, publicly-funded cinemas or UK film culture generally.

UK film distribution

Curzon-Cinemas-Logo

A friend has just drawn my attention to a circular from the Sheffield Showroom to its customers. It includes the following:

Force Majeure is a new and award-winning Swedish film being released in the UK this weekend (10th April).  It was our intention to show this film on its release date however we have been recently informed that Curzon Film World, the film’s distributor, will not accept our booking and that from now on Curzon will not allow us to show their films on release date.

Showing the best British, independent, European and foreign language films has been our long-standing programming offer to you and we know from your feedback that you have appreciated our commitment to bring these films to you.

Whilst we recognize that Curzon, as a private company, can operate however it wishes, it receives substantial amounts of public funding to help support the release of its films and supporting public policy objectives for ensuring as many people as possible have the opportunity to see them.

[see http://www.showroomworkstation.org.uk/cinema/forcemajeure-note-customers]

The reference to public funding includes the monies from the British Film Institute to support the distribution of ‘less commercial’ films. It always struck me that the policy was misplaced – what provides variety and quality for UK film-buffs are the sadly decreasing number of independent cinemas. This includes the Showroom, our own Leeds-based Hyde Park Picture House and the new Manchester Cornerhouse cinemas: bizarrely renamed Home.

From before the 1st World War when the burgeoning Hollywood film industry planted its foothold in Britain, distribution has been the problem for film-goers. They enjoy a dominant position and [predictably] box office trumps critical quality. The French have a much more enlightened policy of film culture: and in the UK other arts do a lot better.

My experience of raising issues with film institutions is bleak. We need to follow the advice that Roy penned last year – support your local independent cinemas. I sincerely hope that the Showroom rides this one out.

The Homesman (France-US 2014)

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

I missed this on release so I was pleased to catch a showing by my local film club in Keighley’s Picture House. I love Westerns and this is a good one. It is another of the current crop of ‘international’ productions and it did seem odd to see ‘Luc Besson’ in the credits as producer for his Europa company. The French connection helped the film to get a place in the Cannes Palme d’Or line-up in 2014 but it doesn’t seem to have gone down too well in the US. This is a surprise since Tommy Lee Jones is a major figure in American cinema and his previous (modern) Western directorial credit for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) was very well received.

The Homesman has a good pedigree, being an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout whose other great Western novel was adapted as The Shootist (1976) with Don Siegel directing John Wayne for his last film. This new film is an ‘early Western’ – set in the 1850s before the Civil War and involves a perilous journey through the Nebraska ‘territory’ and across the Missouri River into the state of Iowa. It falls to a ‘spinster farmer’ (she’s all of 31!) to transport three women who have become mentally ill (because of the deprivations of the settler’s life) to possible recovery in the East. It is a daunting prospect so Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) hires (‘dragoons’?) a drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones to help her. In a way this is a miniature Wagon Master (US 1950) in reverse and because of its female leadership it’s also connected to Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

Jones certainly took a lot on to make the film, co-writing the script, directing and co-starring. He comes out of the production very well. The relative failure of the film with audiences seems to hinge specifically on a shocking turn/twist in the narrative about two-thirds through. I too found this shocking but I think there were enough narrative cues – revealed story data if you like – to make this event credible. Apart from this the narrative up to this point was harrowing and perhaps too ‘real’ for mainstream audiences. The ending of the film is also not conventional and may fail to satisfy some audiences. Surprisingly there are some anachronisms in the production design and the script suggesting that Jones was more interested in the look of the film than historical accuracy, But then, when you have a cinematographer as gifted as Rodrigo Prieto (responsible for Brokeback Mountain‘s wonderful landscapes) it’s tempting to just let him rip. The film does indeed look very good and the whole cast is excellent. I must pick out Hilary Swank – she would have got my vote for an Oscar ahead of Julianne Moore – and in the supporting cast the Danish actress Sonja Richter produces the most dramatic representation of anguish in her portrayal of one of the three women.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

This is a ‘revisionist Western’ (cf the recent ‘traditional’ Western, The Salvation). The revision here is concerned with the ‘myth’ of the West and modes of representation. Jones makes a number of aesthetic choices which on the one hand appear highly stylised and at one point almost surreal, but which at the same time refer to aspects of the ‘real’ West not explored in many Hollywood Westerns. So, for instance, the journey across Nebraska was actually shot  in North-East New Mexico on a plain that is in effect a continuation of similar landscapes over the border with Nebraska. But this real location is made mysterious in the snow and wind – when Mary Bee loses her way on horseback and appears to be circling the same spot. The terrain is so featureless that it becomes almost an abstract space and the experience of passing through it is dreamlike. Later on a solitary building appears on the plain, almost like an oasis. It is a kind of show house for speculators hoping to ‘open up’ and exploit the potential of the territory. During the final sequence the action switches across the river and there is a palpable sense of shock that a town could be so ‘civilised’ and behaviour so decorous. The Missouri River literally becomes the ‘frontier’ between the ‘garden civilisation of the East and the ‘desert’ of the West.

The film has only recently appeared on DVD in the UK and my advice is not to miss it. This is a serious and ‘grown-up’ Western – a new approach to a fine tradition. But it isn’t what was once called a “shoot-em-up”. Most of all it’s a Western in which women are not required to be only the schoolmarm or the bar girl. You’ll have to decide whether representing the strong character of the lone female farmer and the mental illness of farmers’ wives is progressive or not.

Notes on Screen Acting: Jessica Chastain

Screen acting and 'less is more' control:  Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (2012)

Screen acting and ‘less is more’ control: Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)

Jessica Chastain was recently voted MVP by Broadcast Film Critics’ Association and received the award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Ceremony in January 2015.  It is the first time this award has been given. Chastain was chosen because of the diversity of screen acting work she has achieved in 2014, namely Miss Julie, the directorial debut of Liv Ullmann; her work on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (in which she acts, but she also contributed to the writing); supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. 

Chastain took the opportunity to deflect the award to her collaborators.  She used the rest of her time, on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and in the face of the (then) current controversy about Selma and its lack of Oscar nominations, to quote King and ask for a time of ‘speaking up’ when injustice is seen. Chastain is an actor who does not feel she has to conform to the expectations of her industry, particularly those demanded of female actresses. You can see the whole speech here.

I first saw her alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (2011), a post 9/11 examination of American sense of insecurity and paranoia written and directed by Jeff Nichols (who went on to greater visibility with Mud (2012)). It’s an eerie and unsettling film, in which Chastain had to be reactive to Shannon’s character’s increasingly erratic behaviour and to embody her character’s uncertainty even as she challenges his belief in a coming apocalyptic storm.  It showed that Chastain, who has strong, well-defined as well as a beautiful face, could be the emotional centre in the scene without having to dominate it. This is a quality she brought to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life (2011) in which Chastain (alongside Brad Pitt) had to both be symbols – ‘mother’ or ‘father’ – in this epic (Kubrickian) examination of love and family and a believable, emotional presence. Mallick’s famous control as a director, moving them around within a frame, can lead to an underestimation of what those actors are actively doing to contribute to the overall poetic force of non-conventional cinema. Robert Bresson famously controlled actors’ movement as part of his highly aestheticised approach. Mallick’s use of improvisation – as I remember the butterfly moment (included in the trailer) is one example in The Tree Of Life – shows the freedom and responsibility performers have to understand and direct the action on screen by moving and embodying what they believe the director is trying to achieve.

Chastain is worthy of attention for her screen acting because she is so versatile, encompassing a number of styles for different genres and directors. She has worked in television and theatre, including playing in Wilde’s Salome with Al Pacino, of which a documentary was made. She works on the minutiae – any screen actor such as Michael Fassbender featured earlier on this blog takes on this kind of detail – in order to bring a character into some reality.  Chastain, though, distinctly separates herself from the idea of ‘The Method’ which she alludes to here, in a Variety-sponsored discussion between actors here.  Her comments call to mind Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) exhortation to Dustin Hoffman as the latter suffered for his art on Marathon Man (1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy.’  Acting, for Chastain, is a matter of working together in an area of trust and skill (not the self-absorption that ‘living’ the part demands).

She has, despite this visibility, a tremendous understanding of the kind of restraint that is necessary onscreen to communicate a character who has an inner life, as well as an outer expression. Her second Oscar-nominated performance was for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA operative who moves to be at the centre of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Chastain, working with Kathryn Bigelow as director, seems to recognise that playing this woman has to negotiate the stereotypical gender expectations with a greater finesse than just challenging them head-on. As Maya, the key CIA agent in the search for Osama Bin Laden, she has to embody a character who is strong, analytical, determined and fixated.  The gender of the character is significant since these qualities have a greater impact as held by a female rather than a male character. However, if Maya were represented as a driven, emotionless being then no audience could ultimately relate and empathise with her search.

A brief analysis of the film’s opening scene shows how Chastain balances a lot of these conflicting needs even when she has little to say or do onscreen. Zero Dark Thirty became a very controversial film in its depiction of torture.  This sequence features the torture by the CIA operatives of a prisoner, it is possible to see how Chastain controls her physical movements in the frame. As we watch, we’re not sure which way this woman will go as regards the torture happening in front of her. This has to be conveyed through very short phrases of dialogue and by small physical gestures. The film opens in the prisoner’s cell and then creates a ‘reveal’ as she takes off a suit outside to show she is, as Dan (Jason Clarke) says, ‘rocking her best suit’ for her first interrogation. The dialogue suggests Maya is the ingénue. As she replies ‘I’m fine’ in an emotionless tone, her body language acts contrapuntally to that statement (main picture above). Chastain also has to work within her placement in the frame (see screen grab below). In the sequence outside, Clarke has all the movement in the frame – crossing in front of Chastain, who is relatively still. In the interrogation room, Clarke and Reda Kateb (the prisoner, Ammar) are in the foreground and frequently shot in medium close up. Clarke and Kateb do a different, difficult acting job working in a much higher emotional register.  Chastain stands in the background of the frame or is shown in a cutaway. (Although, importantly, Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser light her in a warm glow whilst leaving Clark’s face in ambiguous shadow).

Chastain:  'Zero Dark Thirty' - small gestures in frame background.

Chastain: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – small gestures in frame background.

Chastain builds a picture of a woman who is both determined to make a difference and quite prepared to take part (without a mask) but someone who recoils at the brutality and violence. The cutaway (below) shows her swallowing hard as the interrogation intensifies and she demonstrates her discomfort by averting her eyes with an involuntary movement. The early ambiguity is important since it will playback later in the film – when Maya takes greater charge in a similar situation and when certain events have a strong emotional impact on her.  The groundwork for a complex character has been laid immediately.

Chastain as Maya - swallowing back her responses.

Chastain as Maya – swallowing back her responses.

Chastain, as a female actor, has achieved – and suffered – great visibility. In looking for the Critics Award film again, I found a number of celebrity reports of it, including this critique of her dress entitled: “At least her hair looks good! Jessica Chastain misses the mark in white Asian-inspired frock as she receives MVP honour at Critics’ Choice Awards.” She has also resisted the cat fight that the media wished to inflame between her and Jennifer Lawrence when they were both Oscar-nominated in 2013. Chastain wrote on her Facebook page, in response to these media reports, “I find it very sad that the media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry.  Filming The Help [her first Oscar-nominated role] was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film I’m most asked about in regards to ‘fighting on set’. Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” Chastain seems unafraid to have her own opinions and to see social media as an outlet for her own (unmediated) views, a feature which became quickly unusual for celebrity accounts in these times of self-branding.

This is significant, since certain kinds of star image and publicity can blight an actor’s ability to do good work and inhabit characters fully onscreen.  What are the models for Chastain’s future career? Here, she discusses her influences and her experiences and is clearly in thrall to the art of filmmaking and has humility in understanding her role within that (see this interview). She is a visible star, but like Julianne Moore (for example) she still seems to have the ability to be credible as a particular type of person, more ordinary than extraordinary. Last year’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an experiment in narrative structure, credited to Ned Benson (although an article I have read that Chastain was strongly involved in the writing process) which tells the story of a relationship breakdown from two perspectives. It was produced as two films – Him and Her.  It has had very limited release so far (not in the UK, except at the London Film Festival) and is on European DVD as Them, a film recut out of the first two. In each, Chastain and James McAvoy play the character and then the other character’s perspective of themselves, an opportunity as Chastain says to play different nuances on the same person. The trailer gives some indication of how, in altering from ‘her’ perspective to ‘his’ it is a question of changing small gestures to infer a different emotion. It’s not had strong reviews (and they contain huge spoilers, in case you want to avoid these). However, the New York Times review ends with this strong endorsement of Chastain, despite its misgivings about the film:

She is an actress who short-circuits conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama.