There is a great deal happening in in the global film industry, most obviously in China and in the responses to Chinese developments seen in Hollywood. In the UK, while we are affected by those developments, there are also specific issues concerning local production, distribution and exhibition. In this post I want to focus on just one company – but what it is doing has wider implications for the rest of the industry.
‘Curzon’ (or more properly, ‘Curzon World’), is the brand name for a company which is now a significant player in UK distribution and exhibition. Its current operation is the result of the merger between what was once two separate companies, the distributor Artificial Eye founded by Andi and Pam Engel in 1976 and the Curzon cinema group named after the original Curzon cinema in Mayfair that first opened in 1934. Artificial Eye had itself acquired a mini-chain of art cinemas in Central London comprising the Renoir and the Chelsea Cinema, both taken over in the 1980s and the Lumière (closed in 1997). Access to these three cinemas, all in prime positions, enabled an art cinema distributor to ensure that their titles would get time on a first run to establish a profile before moving to VHS and later DVD releases. In 2006 Artificial Eye, for some time the leading distributor of art cinema in the UK, merged with Curzon adding the most prestigious art screen in Mayfair and the most influential (the three screen Curzon Soho) to the two Artificial Eye venues. Immediately, the newly-merged company had a total of 9 screens in London (the tiny Curzon Richmond was formerly owned by Philip Knatchbull, now the CEO of Curzon). This meant that Curzon became an important gatekeeper for art cinema in the UK since specialised films are dependent on a strong London opening and no other exhibitor could match the Curzon screens in terms of Central London location. However, Curzon’s future expansion was still hampered by its lack of screens outside London where City Screen/Picturehouse was starting to develop a lucrative chain in university towns and other middle-class centres.
Over the last few years, led by Knatchbull, the newly-branded Curzon World group has pursued several policies which have significantly altered its market position:
1. Acquisitions and new builds have seen the group acquire an existing cinema in Knutsford (the former LEA-owned cinema) and new cinemas in Ripon (North Yorkshire), Canterbury, Sheffield and London Victoria, all branded ‘Curzon’. (More are in the pipeline.)
2. ‘Partnership’ schemes have seen Curzon take on the programming of existing cinemas and part-time cinemas in various arts centres in West Sussex, Devon and Aberdeenshire as well as at Mondrian (Southwark), Soho (Ham Yard Hotel), Pinewood Studios and a digital initiative with HMV at their Wimbledon store. Curzon also books films and shares events with Cornerhouse in Manchester (but doesn’t programme directly). It is also seeking new partners for its ‘Curzon Connect’ scheme which offers programming and the Curzon ‘brand’ to part-time operators. Digital distribution and the increasing range of ‘live’ opera, theatre, ballet and art exhibitions makes small cinemas more viable in country towns with wealthy middle-class populations.
3. Curzon has become an online exhibitor – VOD rental – as a complementary activity to its DVD and cinema operation. Artificial Eye’s films are available online as soon as they are in cinemas, the justification for closing this distribution ‘window’ being that audiences who live far from a Curzon cinema will still be able to see new films during the initial promotional period when the title’s profile is still high.
The latest Curzon expansion sees the re-opening of one of its original properties, the Renoir in Bloomsbury on March 27 as ‘Curzon Bloomsbury’. The extensively re-designed cinema will have 6 screens (4 with 30 screens or less, 1 with 55 and 1 with 139). When the cinema was first opened in 1972 it had a single screen seating 490, before twinning in the late 1970s. I’ve known the cinema across all its incarnations and I suspect it will remain the ‘Renoir’ for me. It’s importance is that it looks as if Curzon intend it to be their prime site for foreign language films (or, more likely, the main support to the larger Curzon Soho, now seemingly threatened by Crossrail developments). The new Bloomsbury will open with a festival of ‘Auteur cinema’ and one of the first releases to feature on a long run will be Roy Andersson’s Venice-winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. The 55 seat screen (named ‘Bertha DocHouse) offers conference facilities and is intended to be a ‘home’ for documentary features.
The Bloomsbury will bring Curzon’s full-time screen count up to 27, 18 of which are in London. However, it looks as if no more than 10 of these screens will regularly programme foreign language cinema – or indeed English language ‘art cinema’. Curzon is the best of the three major specialised cinema chains in terms of subtitled films, but in its new cinemas it is clear that mainstream films and live events are the main part of the programme. On my trawl through Curzon’s 21 screens today I found not a single subtitled film playing. Screens are dominated by Still Alice, Second Best Marigold Hotel and X+Y, none of which are ‘art films’. How on earth can distributors of foreign language and art cinema expect to build a profile for their titles when the most important exhibitor in London for their product behaves in this way?
The other major disturbing feature of the new Curzon operation is its focus almost exclusively on the wealthy white middle-class market. The emphasis is on small luxurious screens, bars and restaurants and very high ticket prices. It will be interesting to see the new Bloomsbury prices. The screen sizes in some of the new cinemas are around 40-50 seats and in Curzon Victoria a ‘peak’ time ticket will cost you £15 or £18 for a ‘Pullman’ seat. Working people in London can perhaps afford these prices. But how about Curzon Sheffield where the equivalent ticket is £11.50? This is almost twice the price of the smaller independent cinemas in Yorkshire. At least in Sheffield there is a choice (The Showroom price is £8.10) but in Ripon, the Curzon is the first cinema in the town for some time. This new era of specialised cinema is not for the likes of me – I enjoy lower prices and a nice cup of tea at several venues.
Curzon are changing the face of specialised cinema alongside the other two chains Picturehouse and Everyman. We’ll try to look at them soon.