The temporary closure of Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in the UK (Regal cinemas in the US) and the reduction of Odeon screenings in the UK to weekends only is being seen by some as a sign of an imminent collapse of the industry, following the postponement of the next James Bond epic. Lots of accusations are being made but we need a much more considered analysis of what is happening before jumping to any conclusions or pointing fingers. A very useful start at analysis came on Tuesday from Charles Gant in a piece published in Screendaily. Unfortunately it is paywalled with limited free subscription, but if you can get in, it is recommended. I’ll try and develop some of his points and add others here. Full disclosure first – I am currently ‘shielding’ and not going to any public events and that includes cinemas, so I am watching films online. If I was young and healthy I would consider cinema visits – but probably not to Cineworld or Odeon.
The central argument is that Cineworld and its specialist brand, Picturehouses, are following a policy of not booking films that transgress the so-called ’16 week exclusive cinema release window’. In the current crisis this means that most of the high profile releases are not available to Cineworld because they are coming from Netflix or independent distributors on short releases of less than 16 weeks. This follows the long saga of Nolan’s Tenet. That film got a lot of publicity but the failure by Warner Bros. to commit to a release date caused major problems for cinemas. Warner Bros. worried too much about North America and damaged the larger part of their market overseas. The other studios have taken note and either pushed major releases back or gone for online releases.
So no big studio pictures and no Netflix etc. deals for Cineworld. As a specialist brand Picturehouses could be taking foreign language releases or English language ‘art films’, but many of these are released in the UK by Curzon, Picturehouses’ rival which follows a dual release policy with titles going online at virtually the same time they open in cinemas (apart from some high profile releases such as Parasite). The UK’s other major cinema chains include Vue, which also has a policy of maintaining the 16 week window, but which seems to be struggling but continuing with a current offer of new studio product, independents and re-issues. Smaller chains such as Empire, Reel Cinemas and Light Cinemas are also open as is Everyman which targets the same market as Curzon and Picturehouse in terms of social class, food offer etc. Then there are the major independents and they are largely unaffected by problems associated with studio releases since they don’t normally book them anyway. HOME in Manchester, Glasgow Film Theatre, Watershed in Bristol and Showroom in Sheffield are all open and starting this week they are showcasing films from the London Film Festival ‘live’ and selling out their reduced seating capacity in some cases. Of course there are smaller and less established independent cinemas at risk and they should be and seemingly are receiving subsidies.
Some points of supreme importance in the current circumstances:
✦ the big chains in the UK are mainly owned by investment funds or entrepreneurs who have no direct interest in cinema. In many cases they treat the multiplex simply as a means of attracting audiences to buy over-priced concessions. In some cases they are actually managed by people with long experience in the business but those investors who make the ultimate financial decisions don’t know much about their audiences if the chains are run/programmed centrally. How much control do local managers have over what is shown?
✦ the chains in the UK are addicted to major Hollywood releases. The ‘health’ of the UK film market is always measured each year on the success of a handful of titles. This is why it is an addiction business model – take out a Bond, Star Wars, Marvel adaptations etc. and the admissions are in danger of falling. The average cinemagoer in the UK goes to the cinema two or three times a year to see blockbusters and the chains rely on these visits. The regulars at the major independents go to the cinema at least once a month or more and aren’t that bothered about studio pictures.
✦ if we look abroad, many industries have kept going during the pandemic. Some, despite a major Hollywood presence in their cinemas, still have a market for local films. In the UK, the most successful ‘British films’ still need American investment and are often distributed by Hollywood studios – that’s why they aren’t available to fill the gaps in the current schedule.
✦ the UK audience has been trained by the business to expect and enjoy blockbusters. The business model has effectively removed the ‘medium budget’ films from cinemas, so audiences are offered the blockbuster or the relatively inexpensive horror film or comedy. Now offered smaller independent films, audiences don’t know what to expect.
I remember an ancient allegory from my study of economics in the 1960s. The suggestion was that industries that needed support to stay in business could never prosper in the long term – in the offensive language of the time this was referred to in terms of ‘iron-lung’ babies needing to be made strong enough to survive without support. This allegory was supposed to warn us about the dangers of long-term public subsidies. Ironically, now it is ‘subsidised cinema’, funded by the BFI, BBC, Channel 4 etc. that is likely to survive (as it did in the 1980s) while those companies addicted to American inputs into UK production (and the big budget Hollywood productions using UK studios) are suffering most. The current UK government is mostly useless in this instance, damaging the BBC and ignoring the fate of the UK film freelances who are likely to suffer. Of course, pulling out of the EU and ignoring European initiatives will just make matters worse. We need proper film policies that focus on cinema culture alongside support for domestic productions not dependent on Hollywood funding. We also need proper film education in schools and colleges. We don’t need governments that have curtailed film education within English and media education more broadly in their attempts to return to the 1950s. The one thing that has cheered me in the last few weeks is the success of the re-release of La haine in cinemas in the UK. People are discovering a classic of French cinema for the first time in many cases. I’ve taught this film many times over the years, introducing students to a film in Black and White with subtitles which they could see was well worth watching. (Notes on this blog to download free.)
I’m going to continue watching festivals online, streaming from MUBI and DVDs from Cinema Paradiso. And as soon as it’s safe for me I’ll be back in Manchester at HOME and all the other local independents in West Yorkshire (and my annual visit to Glasgow). If it wasn’t for all the people in mainstream cinemas and those working on Hollywood productions losing their jobs, I would actually be very happy if James Bond never re-appeared.