Distribution and Critics: How has reviewing changed since the 1960s?

mfb

Some time ago I acquired four copies of Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) from 1969. MFB, published by the BFI, was incorporated into Sight and Sound (S&S) in May 1991. My own subscriptions to both MFB and S&S go back to 1971/2 and it is clear that both publications changed quite significantly at the start of the 1970s. Current digital subscribers can access archive copies of Sight & Sound and MFB going back to their origins in 1932 for an extra subscription fee.

This glimpse into the films reviewed in 1969 reveals several interesting changes in both distribution policies and critical attitudes. 1969 represents one of the last years in which the UK could still be described as a territory in which cinemagoing was a ‘mass media activity’ with 215 million admissions for the year. (In 1959 there had been 580 million and in 1949, 1.4 billion). The UK ‘studio system’ (Rank and ABPC/EMI) was on its last legs and the ‘inward investment’ of Hollywood money into the UK and elsewhere in Europe was beginning to dry up. Film studies was not yet established in UK universities but the first hints of a new generation of film scholars who would eventually challenge the rather cosy world of the 1950s/60s ‘critics circle’ were just beginning to appear. I want to try to explore what the most important changes might have been in both distribution and critical standpoints.

The number of titles

The first surprise is the relatively limited number of films released in the UK in 1969. MFB once prided itself on being a ‘journal of record’ – if a film was released in the UK it should be included in MFB. That hasn’t really been the case for several years now (e.g. most Indian and Turkish films released in the UK don’t appear in S&S) and in the July 2015 edition of S&S editor Nick James admits it is impossible to review everything. In 2014 there were 712 films released for a week or more in the UK and Republic of Ireland. In May this year in the UK there were between 15 and 20 films being released weekly. In four months in 1969 MFB reviewed a total of 160 films of which around 20 were ‘short films’ (fiction and non-fiction, including animations). MFB also published comprehensive listings of short films released, only some of which were in the reviews section. With only an average of 30 feature-length films released each month, 1969 saw fewer films on release than 2014 although there were more cinema sites and bigger audiences than in 2013:

mfbtable

Only a handful of cinemas had more than one screen in 1975 – but of course the average cinema auditorium was much bigger, often over 1,000 seats. Today the average screen has less than 400. (The  programme of ‘twinning’ and ‘tripling’ existing cinemas began in the UK in earnest in 1969 and surviving circuit cinemas were mainly converted in the 1970s.)

The sample

I looked through all the reviews for February, April, May and August 1969. I classified each film as ‘Foreign Language’ (noting dubbed and subtitled releases as two separate categories), Hollywood, UK, ‘Other English language releases’ and shorts. Here are the totals across the four months:

Foreign language (subtitles)    35
Foreign language (dubbed)      19
Hollywood                                   37
UK                                                 30
‘Other’ English language          18
‘Shorts’                                         21

I think there are some interesting figures here that need explaining. In 1969 the ‘American independent cinema’ we know now did not exist in the same form. The figures for ‘other English language films’ refer generally to American exploitation films (mainly horror) not distributed via a Hollywood major. But the figures also include several European films (mainly French-Italian co-productions) released in English language versions. These films were often relatively big budget films with European stars made sometimes with Hollywood studio support. They were effectively multiple language versions  and would be dubbed in the local language for release in the four big European markets (France, Italy, West Germany and Spain). There were no Australian or Canadian films in the sample (the Australian New Wave features came later in the 1970s). I haven’t analysed the shorts in detail but a significant number of these films were also foreign language productions. Overall, it is fair to say that nearly half of all the films reviewed were produced outside the UK or US.

I’m relieved that the figures confirm my personal memory of the number of dubbed films on release. In the sample these include thrillers, sex films, spaghetti Westerns, horror films etc. I was surprised to discover several subtitled films that were unknown to me. This was the period when Czech New Wave films were appearing in the UK alongside Swedish and Danish sex films (which were subtitled whereas German and Italian films were dubbed – perhaps reflecting the dubbing traditions of those countries?). This was also the period when auteurs such as Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard appeared alongside Buñuel and Miklós Jancsó.

It’s always difficult to distinguish between ‘British’ and ‘Hollywood’ films and the modern ‘UK/US’ identifier does not figure here so some films might be incorrectly included as ‘British’, but even so, there is evidence that what remained of the UK industry could still produce enough films to nearly match the Hollywood majors, at least in numbers of releases.

mfbchart

Critical practices

The most striking aspect of these 1969 reviews for me is the distinction between the long reviews in the first half of each MFB issue and the ‘shorter reviews’ in the second half. These shorter reviews are deemed to be less important and each is graded according to a dismissive set of criteria: ‘I’ Good (of its type); ‘II’ Average and ‘III’ Poor (these are the exact words used). The shorter reviews are not credited – allowing the reviewer to be as negative as they wish. The longer reviews are reserved for mainstream ‘quality films’ from the US/UK and auteur films. These are not graded in the reviews themselves but each month a selection of films is graded by a group of nine critics from the ‘quality press’ titles (including Sight & Sound). These films are not necessarily the same as those in the MFB reviews for that month since the latter will be reviewed in advance of the release and the former published in the week of release and then collated retrospectively. Even so, it is noticeable that this selection (around 20 titles) includes titles featured in both longer and shorter MFB reviews. The nine critics rate the films using 1 to 4 stars or with a large black dot to represent ‘critical antipathy’. Exactly the same process is still used by Screen International in its collation of critics’ views of the films in competition at Cannes each year. Something similar appears in UK newspapers, although not in so much detail. I’ve made reference to Sight & Sound here and I should point out that at this time (my earliest copy is Autumn 1971), S&S appeared quarterly and included several substantial reviews in each issue plus a single page of thumbnail reviews of around 34 titles, some given 1 to 4 stars.

The critics

Most of these reviews in MFB and Sight & Sound are by the same handful of distinguished film journalists – professional film critics such as David Wilson (MFB editor), Jan Dawson (MFB assistant editor), Penelope Houston (Sight & Sound editor), Tom Milne, Richard Roud etc. At this point, few of these writers were themselves film academics or had necessarily engaged directly with the kinds of theoretical work just beginning in some educational contexts – though there was already some tension between them and the new writers in a journal like Movie, begun by Oxford graduates in 1962 (see Victor Perkins’ comments in this tribute to Ian Cameron, Movie‘s prime instigator). The MFB reviewers were not all the same and new names were beginning to appear. The real changes would start just a few years later, especially when new recruits to BFI Publishing and other departments then began to write for the Institute’s publications. Part of the change in personnel would also be linked to the range of film titles covered.

The films

The 139 titles in 1969 referred to above had several glaring omissions when viewed from 2015. In the four issues sampled there are no films from Africa or the Middle East or Australia/NZ and only one from Latin America (Memories of Underdevelopment 1968, the first of several Cuban ‘New Cinema’ films to get a UK release). Besides a handful of Japanese art and exploitation films, the only Asian title is an Indian film by Tapan Sinha (Atithi/The Runaway, 1965). MFB does not give the language, but the director worked mainly in Bengali. European films are much more in evidence, including Czech and Polish as well as Swedish, Danish, German, Italian and, of course, French. One other oddity is that there are at least a couple of American ‘made for TV’ films given a UK cinema release. This practice carried on for several years into the 1970s when Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1972) and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile (1980) got UK cinema releases despite being shown only on US television.

Overall it is clear from the distinction of long/short reviews that MFB’s editor felt more comfortable dealing with well-known auteurs or other directors connected to a ‘new wave’ already validated such as the Czech New Wave in 1969. BFI members and UK cinemagoers generally would have to wait a few years for exploitation films and popular genre pictures to be treated as worthwhile subjects for discussion. To give just a couple of examples, Mario Bava’s Diabolik is given a short review and graded ‘III’ (presumably as a dubbed film it was instantly relegated in this way). The UK comedy Till Death Us Do Part, an early entrant in the cycle of TV comedy spin-offs which kept British film studios working during the 1970s, was similarly dismissed (Category ‘II’) but the children’s epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was given a long review. I haven’t seen either film but I believe both were popular with audiences and I suspect a certain kind of snobbery was involved in treating them differently. There is also some slippage in defining ‘short films’. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert and Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story are respectively 45 and 60 minutes long. They went out together as a double bill in 1969 and are given separate ‘long reviews’. Chris Marker’s Cuba Si! is a 55 minute ‘personal documentary’ and is reviewed (unsigned) as a Non-fiction/Short Film. Yet Marker was also a celebrated auteur – but presumably not as much in favour as the other two.

Conclusions

What does this mini-research study tell us? It does reveal the extent of dubbing in 1969 in the UK cinema market. Dubbing has remained important across the FIGS (France, Italy, Germany, Spain) countries but has virtually disappeared in the UK. Without it, European films in the UK get less exposure. The overall balance of UK/Hollywood/Europe that existed in 1969 has now gone but on the positive side we do now get a wide range of (mostly) subtitled South Asian films plus films from Latin America, East Asia and occasionally Africa. Shorts have disappeared from mainstream reviewing and programming.

Film reviewing has become more ‘democratic’ and less narrowly focused. Academic film studies has informed reviewers who now have a wider perspective on global cinema. Whether the reviews are now ‘better’ – better written, more entertaining, better informed – is a different question. It could be argued that the film exhibition sector in the UK now has a much wider range of venues and a much wider range of films on offer. In reality, however, the choice for most cinemagoers, especially outside London and a handful of big cities, is much more limited. The 2015 offer seems to me both more ‘bland’ in the mainstream and more ‘niche’ for the arthouse/specialised sector. Many people who want to watch films will find what they want online or on DVD rather than in cinemas. The UK exhibition has been relatively static in terms of admissions for several years now (despite a significant increase in the population over the last ten years). 2015 looks like pushing admissions up from last year’s 157.5 million but probably not over the 175.9 million of 2002, the highest total of recent years.

I hope that this will the first of several mini case studies of UK exhibition and distribution. What this sample wasn’t able to show is how admissions in 1969 were spread across all titles screened. My hypothesis is that in the 1960s, because films were released to two distinct ‘circuits’ (Odeon and ABC), each mainstream release received more or less the same promotion and that there was a much smaller gap between the most popular and least popular release in terms of admissions.

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2 comments

  1. keith1942

    Good Roy. Obviously one problem continues – the valuation by critics. Nowadays in S&S we have the problem of longer reviews for ‘classics’ on BluRay/DVD than for supposedly lesser films released theatrically.

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