Art films, or more precisely foreign language art films, are struggling to find an audience in the UK. (Sight & Sound, February 2016 has an editorial bemoaning this situation and it was discussed in Keith’s post.) At the same time, the value of the videogames market keeps on increasing. It seems at least possible that some of those audiences who have stopped watching art films are now playing certain kinds of videogames. I hadn’t thought too much about making this connection until one of the guest critics on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (download here) remarked that certain kinds of videogames were for people who liked to work hard at ‘reading’ a story. It was probably Naomi Alderman (the novelist who writes about gaming for the Guardian), but all four reviewers of two videogames that have been successful in 2015 said that the experience was more like ‘work’ in that they had to take notes in attempting to construct a narrative. They compared playing videogames with both films and television – suggesting that TV, by comparison, was so ‘easy’ that if it were invented now there would be outrage about how it was rotting the brains of its audiences.
So, is this a useful observation? We need to be careful because there are so many variables in play here. First, it isn’t the so-called ‘specialised’ cinemas that are losing audiences. What they are doing is increasingly moving towards showing Hollywood blockbusters and Anglophone ‘quality films’. Audiences have stopped watching foreign language art films partly because they are difficult to find in cinemas. But they haven’t turned away from subtitles. On Sunday night Channel 4 started broadcasting a German language drama and has announced free streaming of several more series via its ‘Walter Presents’ offer (which looks very exciting). BBC4’s Danish/Swedish subtitled serial Broen ⎮⎮ Bron, which finished over Christmas, attracted on average 1.4 million UK viewers. The biggest audience for a foreign language film in UK cinemas in 2015 was not much more than 100,000 viewers.
We are constantly told that the videogames industry is bigger now than the film industry in value terms – and probably in terms of the number of players. Such comparisons are difficult to make. Games often cost much more to buy/rent than films (but probably provide better value in terms of hours of engagement). Videogaming also covers a wide range of different kinds of interactive experiences. I’m not able to compare them, but I suspect a game played on a phone while sitting on a train is a different proposition than the two games discussed on Saturday Review. One of these, Fallout, is a big budget blockbuster and the other, Her Story, is an ‘indie’ game. The reviewers found that both required ‘work’ to construct a narrative, but Her Story sounds nearest to the experience of art film, even though its potential narrative is closest to crime fiction, i.e. a supposedly ‘generic’ rather than ‘literary’ narrative.
I did once play computer games, back in the early 1990s. I eventually concluded that a) I wasn’t very good at it – I lacked certain skills and that b) I could also become addicted to certain kinds of relatively simple games. So I stopped. I realise that videogames are now much more sophisticated but I’m not really attracted – though I have read several compelling arguments about how they have helped advance ideas about narrative. The crucial question is not about the small group of dedicated cinephiles but about younger audiences who might enjoy videogames, subtitled TV dramas and foreign language art cinema. How should cinemas attract them back? How should we educate distributors and exhibitors so that they consider this audience and cater for it? Anyone got ideas?
Here’s the trailer for Her Story:
Some time today this blog site will pass 1 million page views. It’s not that many considering that we’ve been online since 2008, but it’s still a sign that people are interested in a wide range of films. Perhaps more significantly we know that we’ve been visited from over 200 countries – more than the number of members of the UN – so our reach is genuinely ‘global’ (see the little ‘Visitor Flags’ indicator) in the sidebar. We hope at least some of those page visits have helped to entertain and inform.
The announcement by the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield that they have been denied ‘on date’ bookings for films distributed by Artificial Eye/Curzon Film World is an example of a trade practice known as barring. This practice and the associated practice of alignment were in operation in the UK up to the arrival of the multiplex and the demise of the ‘circuit cinema’ – the single, double or tripled traditional cinema – in the early 1990s.
Alignment refers to vertical integration in the film industry and the practice of a distributor favouring its own chain of cinemas over those of a competitor. In the 1950s and 1960s in the UK the duopoly of Rank (Odeon) and ABPC (ABC) meant that in many locations there were two circuit cinemas competing for audiences. Each of the distributors not only favoured their own films in their own cinemas but also made deals with the Hollywood studios, aligning a Hollywood studio with their chain. Thus ABC cinemas showed Warner Brothers and MGM and the other studios went with Odeon.
Barring was the practice whereby a distributor simply refused to allow one of its films to be shown in a rival’s cinema. Barring orders specified a radius of x miles around one of their cinemas inside which the film couldn’t be shown by a competitor.
These practices have been looked at by UK industry regulators (e.g. the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Office of Fair Trading etc.) on several occasions in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. The EU is also concerned about the effects of such practices. In the main however, the advent of the multiplex from the 1990s onwards has meant that ‘alignment’ is no longer an issue and all multiplexes have the same access to the same mainstream films because barring is not possible without alignment. But the state of play in the specialised film market is rather different.
The specialised film market is difficult to describe (the definition comes from the UK Film Council and now the BFI) but lets assume it means all those films that are not likely to show across the mainstream multiplex market. They might appear on some multiplex screens but mostly will be seen in ‘independent’ cinemas. This sector is now changing and becoming dominated by three companies: Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. These three chains are all growing – opening/acquiring new cinemas, often ‘artplexes’ with 2, 3, 4, or more screens. Curzon is the biggest distributor of specialised films but Picturehouse also has a form of control over bookings for films by smaller cinemas. Curzon and Picturehouse effectively control the market for specialised films. If their bookers don’t like your film, you have little chance of distributing it in the UK. Neither of them seem interested in Chinese, Japanese and South Korean films for instance – or Indian art films or independents.
The victims of the potential oligopoly control of this market are the public sector cinemas – those operating as charitable trusts and dependent on public funding. These are the cinemas once known as ‘Regional Film Theatres’. Once these cinemas were abandoned by the BFI in terms of a booking service (i.e. negotiating booking s of films with distributors) they had to choose either to book films directly themselves (very difficult), use the new service set up by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) or go to groups like City Screen (Picturehouse) who would deal with the other distributors. This made the independents more likely to follow the main distributors and to shift towards more commercial policies as the market got tougher and as other forms of public funding began to dry up. So, over the last ten to 15 years the programming policies of specialised cinemas has changed. The changes were signalled for me by the decision of Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle (booking service through City Screen) to show Sex and the City 2 in 2010, a decision which I understand divided the staff at the time. Now I am hardly surprised any more when I see a trailer for Star Wars at a Picturehouse cinema or the new Avengers movie showing at a Curzon or Everyman.
Keith in his recent posting is justified in complaining when the distributors (and their associated cinemas) get public support for these new programmes. There are three specific forms of support. The BFI puts money into the development and production of British films as part of cultural policy (as do European funds such as EU MEDIA) – with the aim that these be seen by diverse audiences. Similarly, certain foreign language films are supported in distribution to increase the diversity of the film offer. Finally, European funding goes to cinemas which show European films as part of the Europa Cinemas network (which includes the Showroom in Sheffield, Pictureville/Cubby Broccoli in Bradford – now operated by Picturehouse – and the Hyde Park in Leeds. The barring applied to the Showroom by Curzon, illustrated in Keith’s post, goes against the reasoning behind this cultural support. It restricts access to films showing in the bigger cinemas at Showroom. It also penalises a cinema which is at the centre of the BFI’s Audience Development programme as the centre of Film Hub North.
The BFI’s response to Curzon’s actions was in my opinion pretty feeble. The BFI is the nominated agency of British public policy in relation to distribution and exhibition as part of UK film culture. It should be making more robust statements or putting pressure on Curzon to desist this practice. Barring and alignment are not good for audiences, publicly-funded cinemas or UK film culture generally.
A friend has just drawn my attention to a circular from the Sheffield Showroom to its customers. It includes the following:
Force Majeure is a new and award-winning Swedish film being released in the UK this weekend (10th April). It was our intention to show this film on its release date however we have been recently informed that Curzon Film World, the film’s distributor, will not accept our booking and that from now on Curzon will not allow us to show their films on release date.
Showing the best British, independent, European and foreign language films has been our long-standing programming offer to you and we know from your feedback that you have appreciated our commitment to bring these films to you.
Whilst we recognize that Curzon, as a private company, can operate however it wishes, it receives substantial amounts of public funding to help support the release of its films and supporting public policy objectives for ensuring as many people as possible have the opportunity to see them.
The reference to public funding includes the monies from the British Film Institute to support the distribution of ‘less commercial’ films. It always struck me that the policy was misplaced – what provides variety and quality for UK film-buffs are the sadly decreasing number of independent cinemas. This includes the Showroom, our own Leeds-based Hyde Park Picture House and the new Manchester Cornerhouse cinemas: bizarrely renamed Home.
From before the 1st World War when the burgeoning Hollywood film industry planted its foothold in Britain, distribution has been the problem for film-goers. They enjoy a dominant position and [predictably] box office trumps critical quality. The French have a much more enlightened policy of film culture: and in the UK other arts do a lot better.
My experience of raising issues with film institutions is bleak. We need to follow the advice that Roy penned last year – support your local independent cinemas. I sincerely hope that the Showroom rides this one out.