Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.
The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.
I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.
MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.
This was my third visit to Glasgow Film Festival as a punter. It’s an ambitious festival with a strong local-global feel. It appeals to its local audience with a diverse range of events and activities, often linked to screenings of well-loved Hollywood films. There is also a focus on Scottish filmmakers – writers, directors, stars and their films and in the last couple of years a new ‘Industry’ strand supporting Scottish filmmaking. But it also celebrates the heritage of Glasgow Film Theatre with a similarly diverse range of foreign language films with directors and stars offering Q&As for some events. It’s this last strand that tends to be the focus for this blog.
Festival co-directors Allison Gardner and Alan Hunter work hard to find films at other international festivals and via their networks and contacts. I’m conscious this year that the range of films on offer felt different but I know that often this is dependent on what is picked up by sales agents or major distributors and then what is selected for Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. I usually hope to visit for three or four days, seeing between two and four films a day so any kind of overview is more about reading the brochure than what I’ve actually seen.
This year, the same sad trends are in evidence across the festival programme as I’ve noted at Leeds and London in recent years – the gradual shrinkage of the range of films available from Africa and Asia. I couldn’t find a single African or Indian film. Glasgow is one of the centres for the Africa in Motion festival later in the year, but the Indian cinema problem is I think as much to do with the failure of the distributors of Indian independent films to get involved in international distribution. This year, Glasgow did highlight Irish films and ‘Baltic’ films in two of its strands as well as casting a wide night for other strands such as Documentary, FrightFest and ‘Pioneer’ (first-time directors).
My usual 3/4 days expanded to six this year because of the weather which prevented me leaving by train. Unfortunately the snow was so bad that parts of the festival closed down completely and I was faced with only a limited programme on my extra couple of days. I must praise the staff at GFT for re-opening on the Thursday 1st March after struggling to get in to work. As co-director Allan Hunter quipped, the Blitz spirit was abroad on Rose Street.I think I ended up seeing more films than usual that have already or are soon about to open on general release. I also probably saw more archive prints. My highlights of the festival were therefore Sweet Country and Zama and, a revelation, the three films I managed from the Ida Lupino retrospective. I hope to be back in Glasgow next year – perhaps better prepared for ‘Red’ snow warnings!
Keith has already posted his review of the films of 2017. I agree with many of his picks, but disagree on a couple and want to list a few different titles.
It was a strange year for me in the sense that I was overseas for nearly a month in February/March and most of what was on offer were ‘awards movies’. I also missed the Glasgow Film Festival which in the last few years has provided me with access to ‘festival films’ I might have missed. On the other hand it has been a good year for festivals at HOME in Manchester. Somehow, I still managed to watch over 100 films in the cinema and many more on DVD/download. Here are my highlights:
Most overrated films of the year
La La Land and Dunkirk (2017)
These were two of the most lauded and most discussed films of the year. Neither of them are ‘bad’ films and both have many good points to recommend them. Yet, overall, they didn’t move me or suggest that they deserved prizes. I saw La La Land in Canada with a large and appreciative audience a few weeks after it opened and all I can think is that they might never have seen or might have forgotten what a classic MGM musical might be like. As for Dunkirk, I might have felt differently if I hadn’t first seen the 1958 version of the story and explored documentary material. I suspect that the spectacular nature of the film, especially on IMAX/70mm screens was far more important for some audiences than the meanings the film generated.
Mainstream films of the year
It is significant that the four mainstream films I’ve chosen include three African-American films and three films with women as the central characters – the two key issues in 2017’s film releases.
Two outstanding films about North American life
These two, very different, films were both directed by women. Both explore women’s lives in specific regions of respectively, Maritime Canada and America’s Mid-West. Neither found a large audience but I suspect that those who did see them enjoyed them very much.
European film of the year
Frantz (France-Germany 2016)
I thought this was an astonishing film. There were plenty of other European films I enjoyed but also several I was unable to find in cinemas or that haven’t yet been released in the UK.
British films of the year
Lady Macbeth seems to have divided audiences, including my colleagues. I don’t understand why. Alongside the magnificent God’s Own Country it has figured prominently in both British and European awards competitions. These two début films give me hope for British cinema.
Asian releases of the year
It is getting harder to see important films coming out of South and East Asia at the cinema and I’ve chosen two films here from the handful of titles I was able to see. There was also another Koreeda film this year, After the Storm (Japan 2016) which was up to the same high standard this master has established. I also enjoyed many of the films in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ programme.
Archive films of the year
Cloud-Capped Star (India, Bengal 1960)
Overall, I would have to concede that this year I have been more interested in the archive programming provided via HOME’s ‘States of Danger and Deceit‘ and also the archive elements of other HOME seasons and festivals. I wish there were more current films that matched the artistry and intensity of these archive gems.
Festival film of the year
The Rider (US 2017)
I hope this gets a UK release soon. It matches Maudie and Certain Women in its vibrant presentation of the local in North America.
Your Name (Japan 2016)
The success of this film (and The Red Turtle) gives me some hope that anime will finally get established in the UK. I just hope we can still get to see the Japanese versions in cinemas.
The films I missed that I wish I had seen
The Levelling (UK 2017), I Am Not Your Negro (US 2016)
I’ll try to find these two on DVD at some point in 2018.
December has been terrible in UK cinemas with nothing but family films and mainstream blockbusters on offer and now we await the usual flood of American ‘awards films’. We’ll be struggling to find the foreign language releases and then looking forward to festivals such as Glasgow in February.
LoveFilm, the DVD/Blu-ray rental service in the UK, has announced its closure as from October 31st. This UK company was taken over by Amazon some time ago and used as the basis for developing Amazon’s online rental offer alongside the Amazon Prime service. Rental of ‘physical digital product’ has been replaced by online rental/purchase by enough punters to make the LoveFilm rental business no longer attractive to Amazon.
Why does this matter?
The US has switched to online digital downloads and streaming much more quickly than the UK and certainly than most of Europe. The US offer is led by Amazon, Netflix and iTunes etc. However, it seems largely driven by younger viewers’ demands for blockbusters and TV series/serials rather than the kinds of films older people like and the Netflix catalogue appears to be much weaker on specialised films and, especially, subtitled films.
We were ‘early adopters’ of LoveFilm before the takeover by Amazon and we’ve generally been happy with the service and with the range of film titles available. I have no real interest in online films, except when there is no easy alternative DVD/Blu-ray. My first choice is always a physical disc. Discs are more reliable than downloads especially for customers with slow broadband and downloads don’t usually offer the ‘extras’ which on foreign language titles and classic films can be very useful and informative. As a film studies teacher, I also need physical discs to use for film extracts when teaching or when screening whole films under licence. The more the emphasis on online (bolstered by Apple’s decision to drop optical drives from its computers) the more I worry about the availability of discs.
The UK service cinemaparadiso has been suggested as an alternative to LoveFilm. You can check it out at www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk
I’ve looked briefly at what is on offer and the operation looks very similar to LoveFilm with both DVDs and Blu-rays to rent. It might be marginally more expensive as the least expensive option is a monthly subscription of £6.98 which offers four titles per month (2 postings of 2 titles) with no restrictions on how long you want to keep them before returning them for new discs. If you are interested in the most popular option of £9.98 per month for six titles (2×3), you can start with a free trial of the service for the first 14 days.
cinemaparadiso claims to have a catalogue of over 90,000 titles on offer with a strong showing for ‘world cinema’. When I did a few searches (for ‘Isabelle Huppert’, ‘Indonesian Films, ‘Mani Ratnam’ etc.), it did seem that there were more titles on cinemaparadiso than LoveFilm. But I also came across that annoying habit of listing titles and then declaring them ‘unavailable’. I also found a mistake in one listing, so I don’t know how robust the catalogue is.
I think I will give this a try, if only to check out the new titles I discovered in my search. If anyone has already used this service (which claims to have been running since 2003) please let us know what you think of it by commenting on this post.
‘A season of films celebrating Patricia Highsmith, the extraordinary woman behind ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and ‘Carol’.”
This was a programme of films based on novels by Highsmith and included 13 titles. It was organised by the Filmhouse, an independent cinema in Edinburgh, with support from the British Film Institute and Waterstones book chain. The programme was circulated as a package to independent exhibitors and there were screening around the UK, including at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. This was a really interesting idea, well put together and supported by a package of materials which can be seen on the still-existing WebPages.
However the programme was also extremely limited in terms of what audiences were able to see as the packages relied on digital formats, and just not theatricals DCPs but also digital video. This is a problem that is now endemic in British distribution and exhibition with few venues actually offering a distinction in their publicity between actual photo-chemical film, theatrical digital and what is essentially home based digital video. My comments are less a criticism of Filmhouse itself and more a critique of common practices in British ‘film’.
As far as I can establish all the titles were available to screen from DCPs. However, these were sourced from a variety of materials:
“Other films in the season are a combination of materials already in electronic form, some being standard definition and some high def.” [Information from Filmhouse Cinema]
This variation first came to my attention when I saw a circular from Filmhouse to exhibitors regarding one of the titles:
” I’m just getting in touch about the DCP of ENOUGH ROPE.
It looks very good, but it is a straight scan from a print, not a restoration. This means that the image will have some scratches and dust, especially at reel ends. The sound is a bit crackly in parts.
The main reason I’m mentioning this, is that audiences nowadays are use to digital restorations and a clean image. This is the only material available to us. I just wanted to warn you in advance in case anyone comments on this.”
I think this is not just about ‘restorations’ and in fact few of the films in the programme appeared to have been restored. It is actually about the different characteristics of photo-chemical film and digital. The ‘random silver halide grain’ in film is of a different order from the pixels in digital. The industry has been working to achieve similar characteristics on digital, hence we get the surface grain added to digital versions. But in my experience in most digital packages the contrast, definition and colour palette is at least slightly different. This is less of an issue with 4K DCPs but all these titles appear to have circulated on 2K DCPs. The most recent ones, like Carol (UK, USA, Australia 2015) were presumably not that noticeable as they had already been transferred to digital for the initial release. Though in the case of Carol there was also a 35mm print which I found superior in colour and contrast. For this programme only the DCP version was available. In a similar fashion The American Friend / Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany, France 1977) was on a DCP though the BFI have a reasonable 35mm print of the film.
I did not make much of an effort for the films that I had seen recently on a theatrical format. When it came to the older films, some of which I had never seen, I was slightly wary. Apart from the differences between digital and photo-chemical formats I have discovered that there is a serious variability between digital versions of film. I remember watching a DCP of Billy Wilde’s Some Like it Hot (USA 1959). The screen image was fuzzy and lacked good definition : the only explanation I could think of what that a video version had been uploaded onto a DCP. I have since discovered from talking to projectionists that this indeed is quite technically easy and does indeed occur. So I now not only check the format for the screening but, as far as possible, what the source might be.
This proved to be an issue with some of the titles in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ programme. Several of the European titles had no release dates recorded for the UK on IMDB and neither was there a record of a BBFC Certificate being issued on that website.
And there were serious problems with some of the older films which appear to have been transferred into some digital format for this programme. This meant I saw few of the titles. Fortunately my colleague Roy was exemplary in seeing them and reviewing them. And he included comments on the quality of the screenings.
Deep Water / Eaux profundes, France 1978. No UK release listed on IMDB and no BBFC record.
“The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack.
The Glass Cell / Die gläserne Zelle (West Germany 1978) No record on IMDB for the UK or on BBFC.
“My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller …”
Enough Rope / Le meurtrier (France, West Germany, Italy 1963).
I did go and see this film but it was not exactly as the Filmhouse note led me to expect. As Roy noted in his review:
“I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’.”
This Sweet Sickness / Dites-lui que je l’aime (France 1977)
IMDB does not have a UK release listed for this film though it did receive an X Certificate from the BBFC in 1979. This would have been on 35mm film but it seems that no copy is now held in the UK. So it seems likely that some other source was used. Roy noted in his review:
“I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again.”
Roy added that in these cases he was able to watch the film and basically overlook the flaws. This was mainly true for myself with Le meurtrier. But I also think that this affected my overall impression of the film. I certainly think that the craft people who worked on these films deserve to have their handiwork seen in the manner and format intended. Of course, this is not a new problem with the advent of digital. In the days when 35mm was the norm there were frequent variations in the quality of the image and sound that audiences experienced in cinemas. Once video arrived the possibilities expanded. I remember in the 1980s going to see Mandingo (USA 1975) at a multi-screen. The quality was extremely poor and I discovered after the screening that the source was a VHS video back-projected. Since then it has become technically easier with digital.
There is an example of providing older films on digital where the standards offered were higher. This was Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, launched in 2014. Some of the titles were on film but the majority were on DCPs. I saw quite a number of these and the standard was uniformly high. Of course Scorsese is an important figure in restoring and circulating classic films. Moreover he had the assistance of The Film Foundation and Polish Film and Cultural Institutes. But how come this package was clearly superior to one involving the British film Institute?
A related example is by the Cinémathèque Française. A friend told me that they had declined to licence a proposed public screening of one of their titles as the screening was being sourced from a digital video. An example other archives should follow.
Apart from any objections to the loss of quality there are other reasons to question this practice. The specifications for DCP agreed internationally lay down quality criteria. But sourcing from video, analogue or digital, subverts these standards. Also it is likely to have a long-term detrimental affect on the exhibition sector. I have several friends now who for much of the time opt for home video viewing over visiting the cinema. One of these has a high-quality projector and Blu-ray player: he claims there is not a lot of difference between that and seeing the film at the cinema. In the case of films sourced from video this is clearly correct. And the complication here is that the offenders are by and large distribution companies whose incomes include non-theatrical sales and rentals and who therefore are to a degree immune from the effects in the exhibition sector.
But exhibitors aggravate the problem by their failure to adequately inform the public. Two of the cinemas I visit regularly do include information about titles that are on digital or film and/or whether the DCP is 2K or 4K. But nether provides information on the use of other formats like DVD or Blu-ray. And most exhibitors do not provide even this information. I know of several Film Festivals that do provide detailed information about formats, [one being The Leeds International Film Festival]: but there are many Festivals that do not. I think I am a little of a pain for some of these with my constant enquiries regarding the format for a particular screening.
This ambiguous treatment of film and digital formats is further complicated by ambiguous use of terms like ‘cinema’. It use to be that the alternative to the cinema was a film society, usually offering 16mm. Now many of these use digital video and quite a lot use the title of ‘pop-up cinema’. There is something of this ilk near where I live. It uses a non-theatrical Projector and either DVD or Blu-ray sources: and publicizes itself as a ‘cinema’. I expect cinemas to follow theatrical standards but that often seems a vain hope.
There are many WebPages regarding the comparison between 35mm film, D-Cinema and digital video. There does not seem to be a consensus but the archivists I have spoken too tend to think that good quality 35mm film has a higher resolution than 4K DCPs. There is less consensus regarding contrast but chromaticity diagrams show differences across the colour palette. One colleague argues the equivalence would be at about 7K. 35mm film varies due to lighting, movement, stock, and the transfer but I think there is no doubt that none of the digital video formats are in any way equivalent.
The essential reading is FIAF Digital Projection Guide by Torkell Sætervadet, 2012 – International Federation of Film Archives.
I’m against the idea of ‘Best Of’ lists, no matter how they are compiled. I just want to remind myself of the films I saw in 2016 and which ones I enjoyed most and hope to remember or return to in the future. This year I saw over 100 films in a variety of cinemas and probably as many on DVD or recorded from TV. This year, for the first time, I also watched a few films online, mostly for work purposes. Wherever possible, I prefer to see a film on a cinema screen. In my selection below, I’ve chosen just from films on release in the UK in 2016 and I’ve excluded festival screenings and archive films unless they made it into (re-) distribution this year.
So, in no particular order, here are eleven titles that represent one person’s UK perspective on global cinema in 2016:
Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015) This was the surprise arthouse hit of 2016, perhaps helped in the UK by the success of the crime serial Trapped on BBC4. Though quite different as a narrative, the TV serial (watched by perhaps a million viewers) may have piqued interest in Icelandic stories.
Court (India 2014) An astonishing début feature that offers a satire about the Bombay court system explored through the lives of a judge and two barristers engaged in the kind of case that clutters up the courts for no good reason.
Güeros (Mexico 2014) Actually released in the UK in November 2015 but still making its way round community cinemas in early 2016, this beautifully shot (black & white, Academy ratio) film is both nostalgic for 20th century ‘New Wave’ cinema and at the same time ‘modern’ in its feel for aspects of Mexican film culture.
Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015) Although too ‘sweet’ for some critical tastes, this film by Naomi Kawase seemed to me to tell its simple story very well and it delighted those audiences perceptive enough to pick it out.
Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan 2015) This film probably gave me more pleasure than any other I saw in 2016. Kore-eda Hirokazu consistently scores for me and I always try to see his films. Two of the excellent performances in Sweet Bean above came from actors associated with Kore-eda.
The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switzerland 2015) This was the film which impressed me most at the Glasgow Film Festival early in 2016 and again on its UK release a few weeks later. The detailed presentation of social and political history is important, but especially so when presented with such creativity.
Hell or High Water (US 2016) I enjoyed this film immensely and I include it here simply because it represents a return to a form of genre filmmaking for adult audiences that has been missing for far too long in American cinema.
Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015) This film, about a community of nuns attacked and assaulted by soldiers and then supported in recovery by a French doctor, had a powerful emotional effect on me. In a strange way it seemed to link to the smaller community of women in Our Little Sister, whose problems were less traumatic and life-threatening. In both cases I wanted to know more about the communities. Anne Fontaine is a remarkable director.
A United Kingdom (UK-US-Czech Republic 2016), L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016) and Arrival (US 2016) are films released in the UK in last three months. I found all three to be riveting viewing and I intend to write about them at some stage. They each raised different ideas in their storytelling and their use of ideas.
The eleven titles here include four directed by women and since I didn’t make my selection on gender criteria that is a hopeful sign that more films by women are getting into distribution. There are two films by Japanese directors, two by Brits and two by French directors (both women). I don’t see many American films these days and the two American films listed here were directed by a Canadian and a Scot. I’m disappointed there are no Chinese films and only one Indian film. Partly this reflects the quality/appeal of the commercial releases available from these territories and partly the lack of theatrical releases for independent films from South Asia and East Asia in the UK. I did consider putting Raman Raghav 2.0 (India 2016) on the list and I did enjoy aspects of the latest Rajnikanth film, Kabali (India 2016) but mainstream Hindi films didn’t really attract me.
Films on release that could have been included on the list include Dheepan, The Measure of a Man and Julieta. I surprised myself by not including I, Daniel Blake. It is an important film and it has ignited a debate and attracted audiences beyond Ken Loach’s usual supporters. In many ways it is a fine example of film craft and it has moved audiences profoundly. But I was still disappointed that it didn’t argue for a coherent organised resistance to what is happening in the UK. I hope the social media campaign promoting it will generate something substantial. (However, like all Loach’s films, it has been seen by more people in France than in the UK.)
In 2016 I still managed to find the major foreign language films on release, but the number of cinemas showing them continues to shrink. Films released by Curzon Artificial Eye rarely turn up at Picturehouse in Bradford and I’m now even more reliant on trips to HOME in Manchester. Over the Christmas period, foreign language cinema seems to have disappeared completely – on cinema screens and TV. I fear the situation will only get worse in 2017. One slight cause for hope is that the Odeon circuit seems to have expanded its releases of mainstream Chinese and Polish films as well as generally offering more diversity than the other multiplex chains.
This week has seen the demise of two important names in film sales and distribution. The UK company Metrodome has been placed in administration and the international sales agent Fortissimo Films, based in the Netherlands and Hong Kong, has applied for voluntary bankruptcy. Many commentators have linked the two news announcements as indicators of an accelerating crisis in the distribution and exhibition of specialised, and in particular foreign language, film in the UK.
The Metrodome announcement has come at a time when the company has several films on release and more forthcoming – The Childhood of a Leader opens today and is receiving very strong reviews. Fortissimo Films is less well-known in the UK, but many films from East Asia and South East Asia have made it to the UK via Fortissimo’s local acquisitions and sales to UK distributors.
In a useful posting by The Skinny, Glasgow Film Theatre’s Allison Gardner and Jason Wood, director of film at HOME in Manchester, discuss the contribution of Metrodome to UK film culture over the last twenty years, suggesting some possible reasons why distributors are struggling and what this means for cinemas like GFT and HOME. The major factor is the expansion of the three chains, Picturehouses, Curzon and Everyman. These companies are building new cinemas but also taking over existing screens and controlling the programming in others. Picturehouses and Curzon are also distributors able to support their own films but increasingly likely to use their other screens for more profitable mainstream blockbusters and ‘live events’ at the expense of films from small independents. Everyman doesn’t seem to show specialised films at all in many of its cinemas.
Wood sees at least one glimmer of hope in these dark times:
“You can see it in the rise of smartly programmed film organisations such as Club des Femmes, The Black Atlantic Cinema Club and Come the Revolution. These organisations are reaching diverse audiences in quite strong numbers, and also challenging traditional male, white patriarchy. It’s quite bracing.”
These groups are to some extent dependent on the kinds of outlets that HOME, Watershed, GFT etc can provide. Keeping specialised cinema alive on screens is an issue of distributors and exhibitors and informed programming – whether it is in-house or provided by groups like these. It is also something being taken up in areas without formal cinemas by the Community Cinema movement led by Cinema For All, the former Film Society body celebrating its 70th birthday this year.
Metrodome is a loss, certainly, but as Wood says, alongside the minor hits that small distributors achieve they are also prone to pay too much for films which never take off in cinemas. Small distributors come and go, often selling out to larger companies. But apart from the difficulties of getting their films into cinemas they now face a second threat from online rental/purchase since this is likely to eat into their profits on DVD sales – which in many cases will have been the mainstay of the business. When we see some official statements from Metrodome’s administrators the possible impact of online competition may be evident.
The loss of Fortissimo is slightly different. Fortissimo’s role was to acquire rights in East Asia and then to sell them on in territories in the West.
“In recent years, it has also become much more difficult to source independent films in Asia, where most local studios have in-house sales teams.” (Screendaily)
As a consequence of Fortissimo’s departure after 25 years, there may be even fewer Asian titles in UK distribution and less chance of exposure for new directors. We will be increasingly reliant on festivals like HOME’s recent CRIME: Hong Kong Style.
Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution, Geoffrey Macnab, I.B. Tauris 2015, £16.99, 272pp, ISBN 9781784534899
Distribution is the sector of the film industry that remains mysterious to many film and media students – and many teachers. There are very few books or other resources that properly explain and analyse the film distribution business. Geoffrey Macnab is a highly respected film journalist and critic. He isn’t a film scholar as such but he has written very useful industry studies such as J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Routledge 1993) as well as works on directors and individual films. He’s well placed to write about distribution and this paperback is certainly a valuable resource that every film/media library or staffroom bookshelf should acquire. It’s not without weaknesses, however. Some derive from the book’s publishing context and some from the difficulties inherent in a pioneering project.
The book has been published partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what was first known as the Kinematograph Renters’ Society Ltd. and which now calls itself the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) – the trade association for the film distribution sector in the UK. The book opens with a preface by David Puttnam, the current president of the FDA and closes with a postscript by Mark Batey, the FDA Chief Executive. In between Macnab offers eleven chapters covering the main issues in UK film distribution during the century of KRS/FDA operation from 1915-2015.
Each chapter is given an important film title as its heading. Chapter 1 is Chaplin’s The Tramp (1915) and Chapter 11 is The King’s Speech (2010). Most readers will probably make a good guess at which films appear as the titles of other chapters – although you do have to understand the nature of the British rather than US business. Apart from Chapter 7 covering the 1970s and titled Star Wars (1977), each other chapter carries the title of a successful British film – and Star Wars was indeed made at Elstree and represents one of the ‘Hollywood UK’ titles that have done so much to characterise UK production and exhibition ever since.
Each chapter is not solely focused on a single film, but it is significant that, as a good journalist, Macnab knows how to structure a story to bring out the highlights of the history of UK distribution in an entertaining read. Important issues such as the changing policies of the British Board of Film Censors (which since 1985 has changed ‘Censors’ to ‘Classification’) crop up alongside other institutional changes (e.g. the coming of sound and the competition from television in the early 1950s). Macnab also introduces us to accounts of working in the distribution business from the 1930s through to setting up the new distribution company Optimum Releasing in 1999.
Many of these accounts are fascinating and invaluable for any kind of ‘institutional’ study of British film. They also remind us that, ultimately, distribution is all about making sure the film print gets to the cinema in time for the screening.
The endnotes reveal how much time Macnab must have spent poring over Kine Weekly and the Kinematograph Yearbook in the BFI Library to find material for the earlier chapters. He must have been able to go back to his own research for earlier publications and he has clearly got very useful contacts for his current film journalism practice. On that note, the book feels very up-to-date in its concerns. However, things are moving very quickly in film distribution and during 2016 Macnab himself has already been writing in Screendaily about the end of the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) – the mechanism which saw distributors helping to fund the digitisation of UK cinemas – and what might come next as the unwieldy business model of exclusive ‘windows’ for product on different platforms gradually disintegrates.
Because the book is for the general reader who may be a film fan or the industry professional with an interest in the history of their own business, Macnab sensibly keeps the narrative flowing rather than taking a more distanced position and trying to analyse how distribution functions as a business model in the context of the international film market. The book also lacks coverage of aspects of the distribution business like Sales Agents, Film Festivals and Film Markets – and indeed distribution practices in other territories. In terms of what it does do though, it’s generally very good – though some of the historical accounts are ‘broad brush’ and lack insights from more detailed research.
Delivering Dreams carries a ‘Select Bibliography’ of books on British Cinema and the British Film Industry and endnotes/references for each chapter. The contents page lists an index but, because I was sent a proof copy to review, the index was not yet completed. Teachers definitely need an index for this book, so check it out before you buy.
[This review first appeared in Media Education Journal No. 59, Summer 2016 and is published here with permission – see http://www.ames.scot/mej.html]