The film industry puts a gun to its head?

Cineworld at the community stadium in York. Photograph: YorkMix

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.

HOME is open with a diverse programme across 6 screens

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.)

La haine 25th anniversary re-release in cinemas

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.

5 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    A tweet has just reminded me that Indian cinema fans are arguably the most affected by the Cineworld closure/Odeon weekend-only policy as these are the main two outlets for all kinds of Indian films in the UK – Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu as well as Hindi films. Cineworld could surely keep some cinemas open where there is a sizeable diasporic South Asian community?

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  2. john David hall

    I have actually been to the cinema numerous times since they sort of reopened in their quiet way, and been heartened by the choice on offer at Home which picked up on various films that I thought I had missed during lockdown, given my antipathy to streaming services, such as Lynn and Lucy. Also Memories of Murder had a decent revival at Vue The Light, of all places, and may even be running now. I cannot count the number of times I sat through trailers for Bond and Black Widow, so maybe a bit cheeky to snatch them away again, though I haven’t watched a Bond film since I was aghast at how bad Skyfall was.
    Down in London now to see Shirley at the NFT which may well be my lone concession to London film fest this year, though Home have more to offer when I get back.
    The closing of cinemas, although pandemic inspired, can be looked on as analogous to your local bank branch closing because mostly you can do it all online without queuing, and why shouldn’t these service providers save money on premises and staff if they can albeit while providing a poorer service ? Seems to me that if there wasn’t a pandemic some hedge fund might have to invent one. As soon as they change the Academy Awards so that a qualifying film does not have to go on general release, then job done.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I’m not sure about your analogy John. First, there is clearly a market for films on cinema screens as you yourself demonstrate and while that is true independent producers, distributers and exhibitors will try to show films, especially if they are subsidised in some way. The question about the success of HOME and Watershed etc, is whether the films they know will work with audiences can still be made if the Hollywood studio model collapses. I think they could but I’m not sure. Second, banking and the cinema industry are not analogous in every aspect. They might be if the studios still owned the cinemas, but not in the current situation in North America and the UK. Only Showcase shares ownership with a studio. Otherwise it’s a battle between chain exhibitors and studio distributors that is leading to the gun to the head situation.

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  3. keith1942

    In Leeds Bradford we have Cineworlds [2], The Light [Bradford], Odeon, Showcase and Vue [2]. I do not regard The Everyman as a cinema.
    But among independents we have The Cottage Road [Morris chain], Hyde Park Picture House [currently closed for re-development] and Bradford Pictureville. There is no longer a Picturehouse closer than York.
    All of these cinemas do actually screen mainstream large budget films; I think that those open have all screened ‘Tenet’ and I saw the earlier Nolan titles at The Hyde Park Picture House. I think the independents also use titles from smaller distribution chains like Curzon and Picturehouse.
    So I think all of the indpendents will feel the effects of the current downsizing. A major Hollywood film-maker [I think Spielberg] envisaged cinema becoming a niche and expensive entertainment like opera. And I am with John and Roy that streaming is no substitute for actual cinema. In addition I actually am much more interested in photo-chemical screenings than in digital. Maybe I should get back to reading more.
    Meanwhile the Hyde Park Picture House is planning screenings outsourced at the Leeds City Varieties. see – https://hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk/strand/Varieties?dm_i=6024,3BRR,QL30S,DA37,1

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  4. john David hall

    One thing is for sure, we are going to be getting a more interesting set of offerings than usual from the ‘mainstream’ outlets while they seem to be incapable of attracting the tentpole films. I saw Miranda July’s latest, Kajillionaire, at Vue this afternoon. Social distancing was easy as there was just the two of us there, so not much profit margin for the cinema. There were still big ‘coming soon’ posters for the Bond film. Having seen Memories of Murder there recently too, it will be interesting to see to what art house depths they have to descend to in order to keep some product on the screen.

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