As is fairly well publicised this new title is a production involving Netflix and they control the distribution. Their tendency to offer token or zero theatrical access is also well known and has caused controversy at festivals, notably at the major Cannes event. So Netflix have expanded [only slightly] the theatrical access for this film, presumably so the film is a contender for awards at important festivals.
This release had a screening in the Leeds International Film Festival this autumn. Oddly it was not in Leeds but at the Harrogate Everyman. I do not think this venue has featured in any previous Festivals. And, if it is designed in same manner as its partner in Leeds, then I would question the designation of ‘theatrical’. The festival’s web pages did not shed any light on this unusual programming. A friend told me that he was advised that the reason was that Netflix were insisting that screenings were in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound system. [More on this later]. Apparently the Harrogate multiscreen is the nearest venue with these facilities. I did look up the title’s website, which had a function to check for convenient screenings. After checking seven of the cities or towns listed I found that I could see it in London on Boxing Day. This only started at 8.30 p.m. That would have cost me a return train ticket to London, an overnight hotel and two days away from home, [and my new housemate Dylan]. My colleague Roy Stafford has seen Roma and will be posting a review.
There seem to be several reasons why it is so difficult to see this film theatrically, already voted by the critics as the top title of the year in both Sight & Sound and in ‘The Guardian. One important facet has been set out with commendable clarity by Wendy Cook, General Manager, in the Hyde Park Picture House Members’ Newsletter;
“All the films we play in our cinema have a distributor of some kind. That will range from a large international company like Sony or Twentieth Century Fox to a small team of one or two people focussed on getting their film to the audience. They will understand their audience and the potential scale of that audience combined with the scale of the distribution … like the number of cinemas that the film play in, the marketing, how many screenings etc.
Netflix funded Roma, they are not however a distributor. They are not interested in reaching audiences through cinemas because they have their own platform and they want as many people as possible to engage with that. …
So, this year Netflix have initiated a strategy that gives some of their titles a limited release into Curzon Cinemas and handful of about three venues across Scotland and Wales.
This means is now open to the consideration of the major awards season but it is still not widely available for cinemas like us to book it.”
The cinema is one of a number of independent venues who have written to Netflix questioning the limited availability of this and other titles. [See the report by Screen]. It seems that the ‘window’ for theatrical exhibition is 3 to 6 weeks and exclusive to Curzon Cinemas. Curzon claim they only act as exhibitor and that bookings are through Netflix direct. So vast stretches of Britain and of the exhibition sector miss out. This is not helped by other players in the Industry. Screen International appear to have carried confusing reports on the issue. The Guardian suggested, erroneously, that the title would be available across Britain. The British Film Institute issued a Janus-style statement sympathising with the exhibitors but also praising the ‘availability’ via streaming. If my friend was rightly informed then the insistence by Netflix on certain technical standards for screenings would also be a major limitation.
I have so many objections to this, let me set out the important ones.
The rationale for Netflix’s stance on this has been surmised by some reviewers. Netflix operates a subscription streaming service.
“The company’s primary business is its subscription-based streaming OTT service which offers online streaming of a library of films and television programs, including those produced in-house.” (Wikipedia).
This service can be accessed across a range of products including computers, smart televisions and various mobile phones, Their prime interest is in signing-up more customers. This applies across the board. I went to look at their webpages and you can only access these by ‘signing up’.
The way Netflix organises access leads to restriction of trade, which means that would be customers for their commodities can only purchase via a highly controlled and selective environ. The EEC has already taken Google [and other internet companies] to task for what seem to be parallel restrictions. I am not a fan of the EEC but they would seem more likely to take media companies to task for similar practices than any of the British Parliamentary political parties.
Of course, restrictions of trade in film distribution and exhibition in Britain have been endemic since the Chaplin titles were used in an early form of ‘block booking’. Then as now the main culprits were US companies, as is Netflix, operating here. When the Hollywood studios were taken to task over anti-trust activities the market opened up. But it closed down again when the Reagan administration reversed these rulings. Currently in Britain the major distributors operate a series of restrictions including demanding the main auditorium, minimum bookings and priority over other titles. The latter tend to be independent and foreign language titles. Netflix’ partners in distributing Roma are Curzon who are very experienced in these type of actions.
At an aesthetic level there are questions of what exactly one gets for one’s money.
‘Devices that are compatible with Netflix streaming services include Blu-ray Disc players, tablet computers, mobile phones, smart TVs, digital media players, and video game consoles (including Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii).’
This streaming apparently requires compatibility in 4K and with Dolby Atmos sound. And, of course, 4K on TVs and streams is not the same as 4K via a theatrical digital projector using a DCP;
’90 and 300GB of data (roughly two to six times the information of a Blu-ray disc’
And at present Blu-ray is superior to streaming,
‘it’s worth looking at the specifications for Blu-ray and streaming services. On paper, Blu-ray is certainly the quality winner, with the standard supporting video encoded using H.264 at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, delivered at a bit-rate of up to 40Mbit/s.
Compare that to Netflix, which is representative of other streaming services. It also uses the H.264 codec at a resolution of 1,920×1,080, but streams at around 12Mbit/s maximum. That’s a big difference between the two. To get its streaming rate down, Netflix has to throw away more detail in its video stream compared to the Blu-ray version ‘ [See ‘Quora’, ‘What Hi-fi’ and ‘Film-Tech‘ ].
Technical comments on sound suggest that there is an equivalent loss in audio reproductions.
The caveat in this quotation applies to all formats. Currently 35mm would seem to be superior to 4K digital but this depends on the source, the print and the projector. And similar facets would apply to Digital projectors, televisions and streaming equipment. But the mean would suggest that there is a vast difference in vision and sound between seeing something at a cinema and watching it on Netflix.
In a bizarre twist Roma, filmed on a digital format at 6.5K and using Dolby Atmos sound, has also been released [mainly in the USA] on 70mm film.
Several commentators have suggested that
‘this is the way things are going.’
My cinematic hearts ‘sinks into my boots’. Viewing life has got harder with the advent of digital. Titles that are shot processed with digital technologies vary considerably. Films originated on 35mm or 70mm or 70mmIMAX rarely have parallel contrast, definition or complete colour palette in digital projection.
Of course the entire film industry is about making profits from commodities, and surplus value. But Netflix is part of the expanded global system. 137 million subscribers round the world. Valued at a billion dollars for every million subscribers, [note, by the stock markets!]. Most notably leverage [debts] of over 20 billion dollars. [See Wikipedia]. At the level that such companies make deals the feelings and desires of actual audience members are inconsequential. Meanwhile the artists [or auteurs as critic love these days] are in hock to cultural capital. Seemingly as driven for the cultural aspect as the capitalist is for the value aspect. We have British film-makers working in the USA and mostly producing work that lacks the complexity and style of their home-grown products. And there are parallel examples from Europe and Asia. I like a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s films, more so those that come from a culture in which he is [or was] embedded than from one of capitalist media behemoths.
Wendy Cook has seen Roma and thought it,
“a really magnificent and important film”
The Sight & Sound review by Nick Pinkerton praised both the black and white cinematography and the use of the Atmos sound system. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian found it ‘dazzling’ and ‘inspiring’. Common mortals like me will have to take this on trust for the time being.
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.
The Board of Governors for the BFI is supposed to include two members who represent the ordinary users. As regular readers will know there is currently only one representative, and for some of us there is not much sign of representation by him. Action on this is overdue. In informing interested people the Board appear to follow the well-worn tactic of bureaucracies, stonewalling. Since a fresh election is overdue I have emailed a number of requests to the Board office asking for explanation. There has been a paucity of replies: this might be down to someone having read my earlier postings. However, a colleague has had the same problem, so I don’t think it is just personal.
Now, at last, the Board Secretary has sent me a response: the main information is as shown below:
I refer to your query in relation to any possible arrangements for the election of a Member Governor in 2015.
In September 2014 the DCMS published the results of the first BFI Triennial Review since BFI became the lead public body for film in 2011. The report was a strong endorsement of the work of the BFI. It acknowledged the important contribution the BFI makes to supporting and enabling the UK film industry and it recognised the benefits that come from bringing the cultural and commercial expertise for film under one organisation. The Review proposed changes to the process of appointment of the Chairman and Governors. While the BFI considers the new process of appointment for the Chair and Governors, including the implications for the Royal Charter, the Board in consultation with DCMS, has extended the term of the current Member Governor, Peter Kosminsky, for one year.
This response begs quite a few questions. The Triennial Review actually stated the following:
Governance and Appointments
The BFI Chair is appointed by the Secretary of State and that the appointment is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA).
The BFI Board members are appointed by the Secretary of State and the appointments made in accordance with OCPA principles, to be implemented as vacancies arise on the Board (with the exception of the Member Governor post(s)).
Clearly proceeding with changes stemming from the Review does not necessitate postponing the election of Member Governors. Apart from any prejudices among the Governors and management, there is at least one other possible factor. Revisiting the Review I noticed the following:
5.15 Cabinet Office guidance on good corporate governance recommends a majority of non-executive Board members come from the commercial private sector, with experience in running complex organisations. In the BFI’s case, such expertise would not need to be limited to the creative sector.
As far as I can make out this process of Triennial Reviews was introduced in 2011. So it clearly bears the hallmarks of the current political illusion that ‘commerce’ always knows best. The period of austerity has actually demonstrated that this social group is driven by self-interest than any commitment to wider interests
Moreover this line conflicts with other pronouncements regarding the BFI and its predecessor The Film Council. These would include supporting British independent filmmaking: supporting young filmmakers: supporting diversity: supporting films of aesthetic or documentary value: supporting access to the wider world cinema. Indeed the Review document contains such contradictory statements. The BFI and DCMS review the size and make-up of the Board with a focus on increasing the diversity of the Board through future appointments. They mention women and ethnic minorities. There appears to be no mention of working class representation or audience members. The current Board members listed on the BFI Website are: [note, amount of detail varies for individuals]
Greg Dyke became Chair of the BFI in March 2008. Formerly Director-General of the BBC, Greg is also Chairman of the Football Association and Chancellor of the University of York.
Josh Berger is President and Managing Director, Warner Bros. Entertainment UK, Ireland and Spain.
Pat Butler is a partner at the Resolution Group and an expert in corporate and business strategy, operations and performance improvement.
Charles Cecil is a video game designer and co-founder of Revolution Software. In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for services to the computer games industry.
Alison Cornwell is Group Chief Financial Officer of Vue Entertainment International. She qualified as a chartered accountant in 1990 and spent 5 years in corporate finance before joining Disney’s International TV business. At Disney, In 2005 Alison left Disney to become CFO of private equity backed Sparrowhawk Media which acquired the international assets of Crown Media Holdings. In 2008 Alison was appointed CFO of the international film distribution company, Alliance Films.
Pete Czernin lived and worked in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years for a number of production companies and studios. In 2005 he partnered with Graham Broadbent and set up Blueprint Pictures, a London-based feature film production company.
Ashley Highfield is CEO of Johnston Press. Previously he has held high-level posts at Microsoft and the BBC.
Tom Hooper is an Oscar-winning film director. His features include Les Misérables, The King’s Speech and The Damned United.
Matthew Justice is currently Managing Director of Big Talk, the multi award-winning film and television production company.
Oona King, Baroness King of Bow, is a member of the House of Lords. She is a writer, broadcaster and political campaigner and a Diversity Executive at Channel 4.
Peter Kosminsky is an award-winning writer and director behind some of the most important and revelatory television of the past three decades.
Timothy Richards is the CEO of Vue Entertainment, which boasts over 66 million annual admissions from 1319 screens in 145 state-of-the-art cinemas worldwide.
Jonathan Ross OBE is a mainstay of British television and radio, rarely off the airwaves either as a presenter or as a host of his own distinctive style of celebrity guest interviews.
Lisbeth Savill [Deputy Chair] is a partner in the law firm Latham and Watkin’s London office in the firm’s Entertainment, Sports and Media Practice.
Andrea Wong is President of International Production for Sony Pictures Television (SPT) and President of International for Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE).
One of the least diverse sections of British society is found in the leadership of the commercial sector, as women’s and ethnic groups frequently point out. Moreover by definition when one becomes a leader in commercial enterprise one ceases [if one ever was] to be working class. The list indicates that it is only from the higher end of this sector that appointments are made. So there are no representatives from the Trade Unions or from the UK Film Societies, who actually have a national presence. Senior Managers attend Board Meetings: note though there is no reference to a representative of the BFI staff.
This emphasis follows on from another recommendation:
One of the key recommendations made in this Review is the development of a Business Development Strategy, focused on establishing a new commercial model which will optimise the value of the BFI’s various assets, and identify new ways to increase income from private sources. Once established, this Strategy should help reduce dependency on Grant-in-Aid Department for Culture, Media & Sport.
This seems to me a staging post on the way to privatisation: though this view was roundly criticised at a recent Film Society Federation meeting. But the example in other sectors, including in the arts and culture, suggest that this is part of just such a process.
What makes the situation worse is the apparent inactivity of the current representative. With the honourable exception of Cy Young, these elected representatives have never appeared that interested in representation. Evan so Peter Kosminsky would appear to put his predecessors in the shade. As far as I can make out he has not issued a single report during three years to the people who elected him. He will only accept communications through the Board office. And he does not reply even to these communications: certainly not either to me or to a colleague who I checked with. And I have searched the minutes in vain for some comment by him: only his name in the list of attendees.
A colleague helped by unearthing his statement and manifesto for the 2011 election. In fairness to him it should be admitted that he makes no mention of representation at all.
But I think it is fair comment to point out that in the UK ‘representation’ is normally assumed to being open to the views and comments of those who elect the representative. He did write that
I would do everything in my power to protect the BFI from outside interference and from the erosion of its education and commissioning budgets
Unfortunately he does not seem to have had much success in this. He also wrote re the Regional representative post
As a confirmed non-South-East of England resident, I’m putting myself forward for election as a governor in that category. [i.e. Regional Representative].
I have to say I was surprised to find that him state in an interview that he lives in Wiltshire: not the inference I drew from his statement. Taken together with the listing of other Board members it appears that there is no representation from north of Watford – which includes the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland and Wales!
Unfortunately there seems to be little pressure either on the Board or on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to rectify this situation. Readers might give this some thought.
And note that Peter Kominsky also wrote in his statement that he regularly attends screenings at the National Film Theatre/Southbank. If someone sees him there perhaps they could ask him to tell them about his three years service on the Board: and whether he intends to give the electorate the opportunity to decide if they wish him to represent them for a further year.
PS Mark Newell advised me that there is now a notice regarding the extension of the Regional representatives term in the BFI newsletter and on the Website – presumably someone read this posting!
And there are some news sets of minutes up as well.
Mr. Turner is an extraordinary film. Its reception stands as an exemplar of audience and critical responses in 2014. I was surprised when we turned up at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House on a wet December evening to find a queue outside for a film released more than six weeks ago. The large audience was mainly over 50 and they were seemingly absorbed over 150 minutes. By contrast, when I had shown the trailer to an A Level student audience back in October before it opened they didn’t think that the film would be particularly successful. However, despite strong critical responses and the Cannes acting prize for Timothy Spall in May, many of those in attentive older audiences have come out of screenings saying that they didn’t understand/enjoy the film as much as they had hoped. One friend said that it felt long and drawn out – but that actually he’d never been bored. I can certainly understand this: my first reaction was that I’d seen three different essays rather than a coherent film. One is an essay about ‘performance’ constructed around Timothy Spall’s portrayal of J.M.W. Turner, ably supported by turns from various Mike Leigh regulars and some new faces (mostly obscured by whiskers and bonnets). The second is about cinematography, production design, costume design etc. – a visual essay about representations of art and daily life in the first half of the 19th century. Finally there is Mike Leigh’s diligently researched and at times inspired musings on theatre, art and new forms of communication in the same period. All three essays are high quality but they don’t combine to make the conventional film narrative that the popular audience is no doubt expecting.
When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and felt frustrated until I found the Cannes press notes. Alongside the Sight and Sound interview these helped me to make sense of what I’d seen. The long synopsis of the film explains the background to each scene. Even then I needed to find out more about the chronology of events. Leigh does not provide any indication of dates as such so it isn’t clear that the narrative runs from 1828 until Turner’s death at the age of 76 in 1851. At first I struggled to be sure that the narrative was linear. It’s worth at this point acknowledging that the film isn’t a straight biopic and there is no ‘requirement’ to present the events in a documentary fashion. Ironically, those potential spectators who have decided not to watch a ‘costume picture’ – as well as those audiences upset that the narrative doesn’t conform to the conventional mode – do not recognise that Mr. Turner is an art film (as distinct from a film about art). It’s probably wise to state the other things that Mr. Turner ‘isn’t’ as well. It isn’t a straightforward film about Turner’s ‘artistic vision’ as such. Leigh says that he watched many films about painters before writing the script. He also has his own background of an early art education to draw on, but he wants to avoid both the kind of films that make artists into mad geniuses (e.g. Minnelli’s Lust for Life) or to try to recreate the artistic vision in terms of the filmic image in simple terms. What he does do is to focus on the artist ‘working’, getting his sleeves rolled up, grinding ingredients for paints etc. He also gives us ideas about Turner’s approach in oblique ways, such as the joke about the elephant in the Hannibal canvas. I found these ideas about the working life of the painter one of the most interesting aspects of the film (see the image below about the hanging practices of the Royal Academy).
Something else that Leigh hasn’t made is a film about the personal life of the painter and his relationships. We see something of Turner’s involvement with three women, but only rarely do we learn anything about these women and what Turner means to them. I’m not a Mike Leigh fan and partly it’s because I find that characters in his films are sometimes presented in a cruel way. The housekeeper is shown as a devoted servant/housekeeper who is occasionally ‘used’ sexually but who clearly dotes on her employer. She has a progressive skin disease, psoriasis, which I should have recognised from Denis Potter’s The Singing Detective. This is shown but not commented on. She also has a comic way of moving about the house – rather like, as one of my friends commented, Julie Walters as ‘Mrs Overall’ in Acorn Antiques. It wasn’t until I read the Press Notes that I realised that this housekeeper ‘Hannah Danby’ (Dorothy Atkinson) is the niece of Mrs Danby (Ruth Sheen), the woman with whom Turner has two children who in 1828 are young women. I must have missed that exchange of dialogue – some of it was difficult to hear. Turner is most settled when with a third woman, the twice widowed Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Overall, I think it is possible to see Turner as a rounded character who has many good qualities despite his deception of these women. But I never see Leigh as a humanist. He seems to want his characters to be exaggerated in some way. I’m trying to imagine a Mike Leigh melodrama where some form of ‘excess’ or exaggeration would be worked into the style of the film, but I just can’t see it.
The visual essay in the film is based around the cinematography of Dick Pope, Leigh’s long-time collaborator. Working with a digital format for the first time, Pope had the inspired idea of using classic 1950s lenses (used on the Everest documentaries in the early 1950s) with an Alexa camera. According to Pope:
These are lenses that have since been re-mounted and are now in great demand in advertising. A very retro lens construction, with tiny rear lenses . . . They have a very gentle, very romantic character, and are truly lovely at 75mm or 100mm on faces. They were a fundamental tool for this movie along with Alexa and Codex.
“This film was a joy to shoot”, admits Pope. “We had resplendent weather for the duration. Perhaps Turner’s blessing from heaven? I don’t think the project could have been done with grey or cloudy weather because, as the painter admits at the end of the film: “Sun is god”. (from the Codex website: http://www.codexdigital.com/casestudies/painting-with-light)
‘Codex’ refers to the Codex Digital company which has become an industry leader in terms of recording, storage and workflow hardware and software to be used with digital cameras. Pope argues that it was his experience using Codex RAW systems on a previous shoot that made it a good choice for Mr. Turner.
I’ve suggested that Leigh’s approach to representing Turner’s ‘vision’ ‘isn’t conventional. The main tenet of Leigh and Pope, working with production design and effects was to see the second quarter of the 19th century as Turner himself saw it. He was given the title of ‘painter of light’, the same term often used to describe what a cinematographer does. Pope and Leigh were lucky with the weather after they decided to follow Leigh’s usual practice and shoot only on location. Pope relied on available light as much as possible, waiting for the right time of day. He matched Turner’s palette by choosing the same colours where possible and then tweaking the digital images. The landscape shots are stunning but Pope argues that much of the film is about the interiors and this is where the 2.35:1 ‘Scope frame proved most useful, allowing Leigh to compose single shots with complex movements of actors in 19th century buildings and also to give us Turner’s perspectives on these scenes. I can see that I’m going to need the Blu-ray of Mr. Turner and to study it in detail to see exactly what Dick Pope means in his interviews.
I realise that I’ve not mentioned the acting and the music. The latter worked well, but there was so much else going on I didn’t have the time to think about it. The acting is what you might expect from a Mike Leigh film in which every actor enthusiastically gets into character through rehearsals and improvisation. Timothy Spall learned to paint so he would look authentic in the role (I think that I’ve learned about Turner’s sketching style which seemed odd to me as a non-artist). Much has been made of Spall’s grunts, another example perhaps of the Leigh method of discovering a reference in descriptions of Turner and then exaggerating it. I didn’t mind this so much – Spall creates an interesting character, physically different perhaps to the real figure, but believable as a painter both validated and criticised by his peers.
The only criticism I would have of the whole production is that I thought the lighting of the images created by merging Pope’s cinematography with CGI to visualise Turner’s experience of seeing the Temeraire being towed to the breakers’ yard (the subject of his most famous painting) just didn’t work. Pope tells us the sunset is real and that it was shot in virtually the same part of the Thames estuary as the painting’s setting. He argues that the CGI that creates the movement of the ship(s) works well, but for me it has that artificial sheen. The image above comes from an interview on IndieWire.
The film has been Leigh’s most successful at the box office, making £6.3 million as its cinema run is coming towards its end. It did however cost over £8 million and needs to make around £20 million to move towards covering its costs. The international and the North American ‘domestic’ markets are going to be very important plus those ancillary sales.
I hope I’ve convinced anyone who has got this far that the film is very well worth seeing. Just don’t expect a conventional artist biopic! The trailer below includes the CGI mentioned above (and also shows the very beautiful opening credits design) – but beware it is one of those trailers that shows you glimpses of many of the best scenes in the film:
In the last few years, January has become a desert as far as diversity in UK cinemas is concerned. The US/UK ‘awards films’ fill all the specialised cinema screens that would usually take a major foreign language film release. Distributors are discouraged from competition with Hollywood and mainstream independent distributors. So, currently, 12 Years a Slave (eOne), American Hustle (Columbia/Entertainment) and Gravity (Warner Bros) are still in cinemas alongside The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal). Dallas Buyers’ Club (Universal) and Her (Warner Bros/Entertainment) are to open soon. We did get The Missing Picture the Cambodian entry for Foreign Language film (in French) a couple of weeks ago but only in a very small number of cinemas and the Palestinian entry Omar has not yet been released in the UK.
I’ve complained about this before but it is getting worse and as Charles Gant reported in Sight and Sound (February), 2013 was the worst year for foreign language films at the UK box office since he started monitoring data in 2007. I genuinely fear that we are going to lose the audience for these films. The two most dynamic film industries in the world in terms of production and domestic success in 2013 are China and South Korea. When was the last time you saw a Chinese or Korean film at the cinema? I should point out that both exhibitors and distributors are part of the problem, but both are likely to rely on perceptions of what audiences want. Where do these perceptions come from? If younger audiences have never had the chance to see foreign language films how can they form a view about them?
It’s very important to support any foreign language films you can find on release. We do get regular South Asian films in our multiplexes but they remain ghettoised. Please, please go and see what is on offer. I’m hoping to catch a Pakistani film today and a Chinese film on Tuesday (a special screening at Cornerhouse by the indispensable Chinese Film Forum UK). I’m also looking forward to tonight’s last two episodes of The Bridge on BBC4. The popularity of foreign language drama on UK TV is one of the few pluses at the moment.
February should bring the new Claire Denis film Bastards and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best – while the former is most likely to attract devotees, the latter sounds like a return to more accessible filmmaking. I’m sure both will feature on the blog and I hope they find their audiences in cinemas.