France has the largest cinema market in Europe with annual audiences consistently above 200 million. Given that France and the UK have roughly the same population, the extra 30 million plus admissions in the former are worth exploring in terms of differences in exhibition structure and practice. On a simple level, France has more screens per head of population suggesting that French audiences have more choice and a shorter distance to travel, wherever they live, than their UK equivalents. It isn’t so much the number of screens, however, but the number of cinema sites.
My impression from these figures (and trips to different parts of France) is that more small cinemas have been retained in small towns in France. In larger towns/cities, existing buildings have been more carefully preserved and turned into small multi-screen venues. Multiplexes seem to have been built in France on out-of-town sites or in new shopping developments, but certainly not on the scale that this has happened in the UK.
The French system puts much greater emphasis on the ‘cinémas art et essai‘, the official designation of the French version of specialised cinema, with emphasis on the concept of art cinema. Each year there is a published list of ‘approved’ films and cinemas that screen these films are able to apply for the ‘art et essai‘ designation which enables them to receive public support. In 2015, 1159 cinemas received the designation (see http://www.art-et-essai.org/7/le-classement-des-salles). The total support came to €14.5 million euros. With 20% of cinema screens subsidised in this way, it’s no surprise that French audiences have easier access to cinema. I do note that the art et essai cinemas are not evenly spread. The figures suggest that the ‘Lille Region’ had only 48 such screens in 2015 while other regions such as Lyon and Bordeaux had over 200. Lille, France’s fourth city/urban region has only three cinemas in the city centre, all of which show a diverse range of films.
Subtitling and dubbing
The real distinction between types of cinemas in France comes with the approach to dubbing. Given that American films had 52% of the market with French films at 35.5%, over 60% of films originated in a language other than French (CNC 2016) – the exact figure depends on how many ‘non-French’ films actually came from francophone countries and how the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) defines a French film. France is one of the four largest European language groups that supports a professional dubbing industry. As in Italy, Germany and Spain (i.e. the FIGS group), all foreign language films can be dubbed into French. Cinema listings show these dubbed films as ‘VF’ (version française). Native French films are also described as VF. ‘VO’ is ‘version originale’ and usually means that the film is subtitled in French, so ‘VOST’ (version originale sous-titrée) or ‘VOSTF’. As the illustration here demonstrates, an out of town multiplex may dub everything not in French, but cinemas in the centre hoping to attract a cinephile audience will play non-French films as ‘VOST’. Children’s films that are not in French, especially animations, will however be dubbed everywhere (as they are in nearly every cinema market).
Two of the Lille cinemas shown in the listings mag above (i.e. Majestic and Le Métropole) focus primarily on specialised titles but the UGC (see photo above) covers both specialised and mainstream, showing US blockbusters in both dubbed and VOSTF versions. The other two cinemas listed on this page are specialised cinemas for young audiences (L’univers) and for independent film/shorts/documentary (L’Hybride). I find the cinema offer in the centre of Lille to be more diverse than in UK cities of a similar size. I was struck by how comfortable and welcoming the foyer of the UGC seemed to be compared to the soul-destroying emptiness of my local Cineworld in Bradford.
Ciné Sémaphore, Nîmes
Ciné Sémaphore is the art et essai cinema in the centre of the old city of Nîmes in Southern France which is currently seeking UNESCO World Heritage status. Nîmes has a population of around 146,000 yet it supports this six screen artplex plus a four-screen traditional cinema, Kinepolis ‘Forum’, also in the city centre, and a modern suburban Kinepolis multiplex with 12 screens. The Sémaphore is a cinephile’s dream. The six ‘salons’ come in different sizes and seat 654 in total. I visited one of the smallest (40 seats) and a slightly larger 90 seat screen. There is a pleasant café bar with a good selection of food and the ticket prices are a reasonable €7 (with a full array of the usual discounts). It produces an excellent monthly brochure which includes events for children, students and community groups. Later I discovered that the cinema is one of five owned by the arthouse distributor Haut et Court, having been bought last year – though it still has the feel of a locally-controlled cinema. I also learned that the Sémaphore (which has been open for 38 years) holds an annual ‘British Screen Festival’ in March each year, organised by volunteers – see this English language website.
My experience watching two films in the Sémaphore mirrored my experience in similar cinemas in other parts of France. In the UK we are used to programmes, even in art cinemas, with up to 20 minutes or more of advertisements, trailers and cinema announcements. Increasingly these ‘preambles’ are shown with the houselights partly up (a horrible state of affairs that damages viewing conditions in otherwise good cinemas). As a result, many of us attempt to enter the auditorium at the last minute to avoid the ads. When we arrived a minute or two after the stated start time in the Sémaphore screen, we stumbled into pitch darkness. With difficulty we found the empty few rows at the front. The feature started almost immediately after just one trailer and proceeded in almost complete dark. What a relief after the compulsory bright ‘exit’ lights and seat guidance lights in UK cinemas. I’m not sure how French Health & Safety regulations work but French cinema operators would struggle in the UK. I think the French approach is to make the audience responsible – i.e. to take their seats before the lights go down.
Good news for discriminating film buffs – Picturehouse at the National Media Museum are now providing information when films are screening in the higher quality 4K DCPS. Thanks to the actual staff on the ground who have followed up this suggestion. The information is online in the weekly listings. The listings already shows films with Audio Description and in the IMAX format: the staff plan to add information on films in 35mm and when a digital version has 7.1 sound.
So Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers film which revisits Capital Pictures (see Barton Fink 1991) and classic Hollywood is in 4K. The film originated on 35mm so 4K will do this more justice, note though, only the Pictureville auditorium has a 4K projector, and that is necessary to project the full quality. Also, this is another film with changing aspect ratios.
Unfortunately, there are still relatively few releases on 4K digital in the UK. Hopefully if exhibitors pay more attention to the issue distributors may up their game.
For 35mm one will have to wait to March 23rd for a screening of Carol in that format. It is definitely worth seeing, the image is lustrous.
Yes, it is welcome opportunities to see films in their proper format, 35mm. The Hebden Bridge Picture House is starting a regular slot on the first Saturday of the month. And the next feature is the 1961 film, Whistle Down the Wind. This is a fine drama, with location filming in Lancashire by Arthur Ibbetson. Most famously it is one of the films that established Hayley Mills as a star. It was also the first film feature for Alan Bates, the start of an illustrious career on celluloid. There is [as usual in British films] a strong supporting cast and fine music by Malcolm Arnold.
This was one of the production efforts of Richard Attenborough when he was [with colleagues like Bryan Forbes] producing interesting and distinctive British films. It is a children’s story and a parable, very much offering their point-of-view on the adult world. As is often the case, including in a series of British films, this point-of-view asks questions about how adults regard their world. It is a definitely a film to be seen on the big screen.
Then the Hyde Park Picture House have the highly praised Carol on 35mm. This is on the same Saturday as Whistle Down the Wind, but fortunately it is also on the Sunday as well. Carol has been praised for the acting of the two leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. But it also has a fine supporting cast and excellent production design by Judy Becker. What should be particularly well served by 35mm is the cinematography of Edward Lachman, who shot the film on Super 16 Kodak film. The adaptation follows closely the very fine novel by Patricia Highsmith, (for me, a fan, possibly her finest) but also adds a couple of significant variations. These serve the cinematic rendering of the story extremely well.
If perchance you miss the latter it is also screening at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum on March 23rd. The bad news so far is that there is no sign of The Hateful Eight on either 70mm or 35mm around West Yorkshire.
Charles Gant provides a regular and interesting column in Sight & Sound on the UK / Eire box-office: the inclusion of Eire is one of those anomalies favoured by British capitalists. His latest piece in S&S February 2016 [another anomaly, published at the beginning of January 2016] provides information about the Box Office for 2015, up until December 13. It does however omit films labelled ‘Bollywood’: the best performing of the latter films were Diwale and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Both of which took over £1.5 million in the UK. The ‘good news’ is
“that admissions [which] dipped significantly [in 2014] bounced back, powered by major hits including SPECTRE (£41 million so far) . . . and Fifty Shades of Grey (over £13 million).”
To these could be added that
“home-grown titles aimed at the older demographic cleaned up at the box office. Maggie Smith featured in two of the year’s biggest – The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel (£16.01 million) and The Lady in the Van (£11.26 million).”
The bad news is that
“It’s in foreign-language film, however, that 2015 recorded the real crushing disappointment. Continuing and deepening the recent downward trend.”
Whereas The Great Beauty in 2013 took over a million pounds, with the exception of the two Hindi films, none did this in 2015. Gant provides a list of the Top-grossing Foreign-Language Films in 2015. Starting at just over £700,000 we have, Wild Tales, followed by Force Majeure, Timbuktu, The Salt of the Earth, The New Girlfriend, The Connection, Girlhood, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, Marshland and at the end with just under £145,000 Mommy. He adds alongside a list of English-Language Indie/Crossover Titles. In front with over £21 million is The Theory of Everything followed by Legend, Suffragette, Far from the Madding Crowd, Birdman, Sicario, Amy, Brooklyn, Selma and at the end with nearly £3 million Ex Machina. There are so many depressing features here. That Suffragette, which has little notion of the actual movement, took nearly three times the box office of the highly intelligent Selma. That, in particular, the bland Brooklyn, the poorly scripted The Theory of Everything and the incoherent Birdman all took more than either Timbuktu or Girlhood (both in my top ten). The only salve is that the excellent documentary Amy did well. The Editor of S&S, Nick James, comments on this. However, his main thrust is directed towards critics, which I think is misdirected. Just look at IMDB’s numeration of reviews: much criticism is lost in the Tsunami of online reviews. More to the point Gant quotes Louisa Dent of Curzon Artificial Eye: Curzon is involved in both distribution and exhibition. She comments:
“For audiences, it has to be something special for them to go to the cinema.’
This parallels a comment made by a manager at Picturehouses. That appears to be the rationale for their programming. Our local Picturehouse [in Bradford at the National Media Museum] tends to show the sort of films in the foreign-language list once only: and along with what we call classics, these tend to be programmed on a Tuesday evening or on a Sunday afternoon. Though the cinema offers a wider range of programming with a greater number of special screenings and rare films like those of Vera Chtylova, there still seems to be a similar tendency at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. The latter cinema obtains its films through Picturehouses and another problem is that the Hyde Park tends to the same days and sessions, Tuesdays and Sundays for these films. Single screenings of a particular film [unless it is had extras, like musicians or Q&As] seem to me to be an anachronism. And in parallel fashion the two proper independent exhibitors sited only twelve miles apart competing at the same time is unhelpful. Once upon a time there was an exhibitor’s forum for Yorkshire, though there were more independent outlets then. This apparent lack of cooperation leads to the films we miss: as Roy has noted Hard to be a God has yet to enjoy a screening in West Yorkshire. And that applies equally in a cinematic format to the BFI re-issue of the 1967 Far From the Madding Crowd. The latter could rely on at least one distinguished audience member, because it is much more faithful to Thomas Hardy’s own version. Roy, in his pick of the year, thought West Yorkshire did quite well. I disagree: Manchester’s Home and Sheffield’ Showroom both screened the two films we missed, and both tend to multiple screenings. Gant also notes that
“With all of Curzon’s titles now available on its Curzon Home Cinema platform the same day as theatrical release.”
The latter policy not only undermines the firm’s own exhibition chain but it ignores the future: as potential viewers switch to online downloading. There appears to be a lemming-like drive amongst the UK companies involved in film distribution and exhibition towards the ‘popular’. So we get extended runs of films like Carol and Joy. The former is excellent, the latter sounds so, But both are in multiplexes, who I bet will win out in the competition. Meanwhile Angela Jolie’s interesting By the Sea only turned up in Leeds at the Showcase multiplex: yet it looked exactly like an independent exhibitor film. Gant and James are right to be depressed. And Roy writes on another aspect of this downward spiral. Still, time will tell. I listened this afternoon to the excellent Ian Christie in a Radio 3 discussion that I taped. He remarked that: “The death of cinema has been forecast many times, but it is still alive’. Let us hope he can repeat that line in the future.