Category: Film culture

Thoughts on French Film Exhibition Practice

The UGC Ciné Cité multi-screen cinema in the centre of Lille.

The UGC Cine Cité multi-screen cinema in the centre of Lille.

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.

Cinemas and Screens 2015 (Sources: CNC/BFI)

Cinemas and Screens 2015 (Sources: CNC/BFI)

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 cinema built inside the old Chamber of Commerce building in Amentières

The cinema built inside the old Chamber of Commerce building in Armentières first built in 1881.

This information display outside the cinema shows how the area was before 1914 with the same building in different use.

This information display outside the cinema shows how the area was before 1914 with the same building in different use.

The cinema is now a multiplex showing popular French and American films on its five screens. Armentières is a small town in Picardy with a population of 25,000 within commuting distance of Lille centre.

The cinema is now a multiplex showing popular French and American films on its five screens. Armentières is a small town in Picardy with a population of 25,000 within commuting distance of Lille centre.

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 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).


A peek through the glass doors of the UGC Ciné Cité in the morning.

A peek through the glass doors of the UGC Ciné Cité in the morning.

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.

Sémaphore Cinema, tucked  away on a side street – but well worth discovering.

Sémaphore Cinema, tucked away on a side street – but well worth discovering.


Ciné Sémaphore brochure

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.

Sémaphore Salon 5 – comfortable seats, good-sized screen and a great image in the dark!

Sémaphore Salon 5 – comfortable seats, good-sized screen and a great image in the dark!


My favourite films in 2015



This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:

Selma USA 2014.

A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.

Mummy Canada 2014

The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.

Phoenix, Germany 2014

A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.

Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014

A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.

A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.

The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.

Timbuktu Mauritania 2014

The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.

45 Years UK 2015

Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.

Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015

Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.

The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015

Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.

Carol USA 2015

What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.

Best Animation:

Song of the Sea Eire 2014

Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.

White God

White God

Best Canines:

White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.

The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.

Best Documentaries:

National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014

Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.

Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013

The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.

Best wedding on film:

Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014

The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.

Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:

Les Misérables France 1928


This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.

Best film accompaniment:

This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Best early sound film:

Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.

The film most worth waiting for:

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.

Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.

The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015

Steve Jobs USA 2015.

Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.

2015 in the cinema

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Girlhood (France 2014)

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

Piku (India, Hindi 2015)

Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)

Theeb (Jordan 2015)

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.

Half of the ten films above are  films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.

I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.

Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.

I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?

I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.

2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.

Live theatre on the cinema screen


A few weeks ago, the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote the following in a weekly ‘op ed’ column (i.e. not on the film pages):

Another Fiennes mess
There comes a time when you must put your hands up and confess you don’t get something. I don’t get people wanting to watch live theatre beamed into a cinema. But there it is: everyone except me loves it. These events are box-office gold, especially for hot-ticket events such as the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet.

Yet there’s an unintended consequence here: possible danger to actual Shakespeare films. In Sight and Sound magazine, the industry observer Charles Gant reports that when Ralph Fiennes made his excellent film version of Coriolanus, it failed to break the £1m barrier; but the live-feed of the Donmar Warehouse theatre Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston has breezed up to £1.2m – and counting.

This could alter the economics of Shakespeare on the big screen: if cinemas prefer live-feed Shakespeare, it could dissuade producers from tackling the expensive business of original adaptation. The future equivalent of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight or Kozintsev’s Lear could be at risk. So there. I knew my live-feed prejudice was justified. (

As many of this blog’s followers will know I am wont to moan about Bradshaw’s reviews. But mainly this is because he appears to have a great deal of influence on whether people go to see the films he reviews. Whether we agree or not in our views on films isn’t important but if a bad review stops people seeing a worthwhile film it is important. In this case, however, I am pleased to see him airing a subject which, increasingly, I find alarming.

I should say first that Bradshaw was immediately criticised in some quarters for his London-centric view. For people near enough to a multiplex or a specialised cinema, live theatre (or opera which appears to be the most popular, according to some figures) is an unexpected bonus. Non-metropolitan audiences don’t have to visit London or pay the very high prices to watch a version of a particular production. So far, so good. But there are several points to make.

Who are these audiences for live theatre/opera? I haven’t attended any such screenings so I haven’t got much first-hand evidence but there have been various audience surveys. One by Nesta and The Audience Agency published in 2014 found that ‘National Theatre Live’ had had no impact on attendance figures at regional theatres and that in London, live audiences had actually risen by 6.9% in theatres close to those which had been used to broadcast live shows. This report refuted the claim that ‘live theatre’ broadcasts would ‘cannibalise’ theatre admissions. The National Theatre’s own Annual Report for 2013-4 claimed:

“NT Live reached a total UK audience of 890,000 (in over 500 cinema screens across the country) and overseas audience of 597,000. It is now regularly available in 1,000 cinemas across the world in more than 35 countries; the worldwide audience since National Theatre Live launched in 2009 has now reached 2.7 million”. (see

This research mirrors earlier NESTA findings. One conclusion is that the audience for live theatre/opera/ballet is the same mainly middle-class audience that goes to London shows, but now they are able to experience those shows nearer home. In general these are not ‘new’ theatre audiences, nor are many of them ‘cinema’ audiences. I have to rely on first-hand observation now. When I first saw the crowds coming for live theatre broadcasts in Bradford I realised that I didn’t recognise anyone and that they all seemed ‘dressed up’. They also flocked to the café-bar and had paid twice the usual ticket price. My observations were confirmed when I ran a day event on Kurosawa Akira and his film Throne of Blood (Japan 1957), a version of Macbeth. All seemed to enjoy the day but when I tried to interest them in future film screenings, one small group told me that they were ‘theatre people’ and didn’t go to the cinema!

The question about what ‘live theatre’ actually is – since it isn’t cinema and it isn’t the same as watching a play ‘in the flesh’ – hasn’t really been explored to any great extent that I’ve come across. In response to Bradshaw, some liked the idea of close-ups via the camera’s lens and others didn’t. I’m not in a position to judge and all I can say is that I don’t find the prospect of something staged for one medium being mediated through another a particularly attractive proposition. I’ve now seen dozens of trailers for NT Live shows and none of them appeal. But I’ve no problem with people who do want to see theatre in this way. Which leads me back to Bradshaw’s comments.

I’m not particularly bothered about filmed Shakespeare. I’ll watch Kurosawa or Kozintsev quite happily but Shakespeare in English leaves me cold. I know, but there it is. What I am bothered about is that every ‘live theatre broadcast’ takes away a screen that could be showing a real film and often a specialised film desperately searching for an outlet. The number of films released in the UK has increased to over 700 a year, but there hasn’t been a similar increase in screens. Compared to other major film markets, the UK is ‘under-screened’. France and the UK have roughly the same population (65-66 million) but there is a disparity in screens:

France (data from Cineuropa)

5,653 screens, 2,020 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 11,731

UK (data from Statistical Yearbook 2014)

3,867 screens, 756 cinemas

Number of inhabitants per screen: 16,394

Keith has recently come across examples of archive films he wanted to see that have been moved out of the most suitable screen because it was reserved for ‘live broadcasts’ on specific days. This will happen more and more as the funding of arts in the UK suffers under the Tories. It is worth noting that some of the screens used for ‘live broadcasts’ were upgraded (since they must be digital for the satellite feed) with public funds and that the BFI attempted to see that they were used to screen a diverse range of specialised cinema. That commitment to what was once called ‘cultural cinema’ is now gradually dying out. What were once publically-funded cinemas are being taken over or displaced by the privately-owned chains Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. The purpose of these chains is to make money and live theatre provides not only a sell-out crowd but also a ready supply of patrons for restaurant catering. Cinema managers can claim that they are bringing ‘high art’ to local cinemas (Picturehouse calls its programme that includes live broadcasts ‘Screen Arts’). But those ‘arts’ are being offered to the same people who go to local theatres, not introducing art cinema to new patrons.

My conclusion is that ‘live events’ should be put on in new buildings managed for that purpose or that cultural policy should be to create new publically-funded cinema screens for the diverse range of cinema. It’s not going to happen under this current government, but the cinema lobby needs to get back to concepts of cultural cinema (or something similar with a different title) and prepare for future funding opportunities. We’ve got to start talking about the missing screens and getting some agreements about what to do. And if we need concrete evidence of the problem, the statement by Unifrance, the French film export body, this week makes painful reading. French exports did very well around the world in 2014, except in the UK:

. . . the poor performance of French films in the UK market, the state of which the report described as “alarming”.

The report said that the UK remained a difficult market with fewer and fewer French films making it onto screens in the territory and only one majority French production generating more than 50,000 entries. (Screendaily 1/12/2015)

The decline of opportunities to see films from Europe’s biggest film industry is very noticeable. Back in the summer we noted the pathetic distribution of several major titles and it’s something we are going to keep banging on about. If audiences don’t get a chance to see foreign language films they are going to lose interest in the possibilities pretty quickly. Chains like Picturehouse now regularly show foreign language films just once in their Tuesday ‘Discovery’ slot and they promote their restaurants and live events as major attractions alongside a programme increasingly dominated by ‘Hollywood art’ films.