Category: Film distribution

Patricia Highsmith’s fiction on ‘film’.

Patricia Highsmith

‘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.

silver halide crystals

silver halide crystals

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.

Resolution chart for formats.

Resolution chart for formats.

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.

pop-up-cinema_v1

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.

Films enjoyed and noted in 2016

Student activism in GUEROS

Student activism in GUEROS

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.

Not Independent’s Day?

MetrodomeFortissimo

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.

Book Review: Delivering Dreams: A Century of British Film Distribution

DeliveringDreams

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]

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 http://www.art-et-essai.org/7/le-classement-des-salles). 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).

Lillelistings

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.

semaphoreposter

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!

 

Art films and Videogames

A screenshot from the videogame 'Her Story'.

A screenshot from the videogame ‘Her Story’.

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:

Live theatre on the cinema screen

201401171431_62_nationaltheaterlive

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. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/13/john-lewis-christmas-advert)

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 http://www.cabi.org/leisuretourism/news/24080)

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.

Dr Zhivago BFI restoration trailer

Zhivago trailer

A friend drew my attention to the trailer issued by the BFI for the re-release of Doctor Zhivago (US-UK 1965). Inexplicably this features, not the famous score by Maurice Jarre, but a predominately piano score that rather ‘sounds like Michael Nyman’!

This is bizarre. Besides the insult to a major composer for film it is likely to at the very least confuse audiences. It is possible that fans of the film will avoid this re-issue because it apparently does not have the original score, (which I believe it actually does). People who do not know the film may avoid it because they do not like what seems to be the score. And people who like the music on the trailer may turn up and be irritated by its absence.

I am sure that there is a line in a famous song from The Mikado which would suit whoever is responsible.