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.
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.