The temporary closure of Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in the UK (Regal cinemas in the US) and the reduction of Odeon screenings in the UK to weekends only is being seen by some as a sign of an imminent collapse of the industry, following the postponement of the next James Bond epic. Lots of accusations are being made but we need a much more considered analysis of what is happening before jumping to any conclusions or pointing fingers. A very useful start at analysis came on Tuesday from Charles Gant in a piece published in Screendaily. Unfortunately it is paywalled with limited free subscription, but if you can get in, it is recommended. I’ll try and develop some of his points and add others here. Full disclosure first – I am currently ‘shielding’ and not going to any public events and that includes cinemas, so I am watching films online. If I was young and healthy I would consider cinema visits – but probably not to Cineworld or Odeon.
The central argument is that Cineworld and its specialist brand, Picturehouses, are following a policy of not booking films that transgress the so-called ’16 week exclusive cinema release window’. In the current crisis this means that most of the high profile releases are not available to Cineworld because they are coming from Netflix or independent distributors on short releases of less than 16 weeks. This follows the long saga of Nolan’s Tenet. That film got a lot of publicity but the failure by Warner Bros. to commit to a release date caused major problems for cinemas. Warner Bros. worried too much about North America and damaged the larger part of their market overseas. The other studios have taken note and either pushed major releases back or gone for online releases.
So no big studio pictures and no Netflix etc. deals for Cineworld. As a specialist brand Picturehouses could be taking foreign language releases or English language ‘art films’, but many of these are released in the UK by Curzon, Picturehouses’ rival which follows a dual release policy with titles going online at virtually the same time they open in cinemas (apart from some high profile releases such as Parasite). The UK’s other major cinema chains include Vue, which also has a policy of maintaining the 16 week window, but which seems to be struggling but continuing with a current offer of new studio product, independents and re-issues. Smaller chains such as Empire, Reel Cinemas and Light Cinemas are also open as is Everyman which targets the same market as Curzon and Picturehouse in terms of social class, food offer etc. Then there are the major independents and they are largely unaffected by problems associated with studio releases since they don’t normally book them anyway. HOME in Manchester, Glasgow Film Theatre, Watershed in Bristol and Showroom in Sheffield are all open and starting this week they are showcasing films from the London Film Festival ‘live’ and selling out their reduced seating capacity in some cases. Of course there are smaller and less established independent cinemas at risk and they should be and seemingly are receiving subsidies.
Some points of supreme importance in the current circumstances:
✦ the big chains in the UK are mainly owned by investment funds or entrepreneurs who have no direct interest in cinema. In many cases they treat the multiplex simply as a means of attracting audiences to buy over-priced concessions. In some cases they are actually managed by people with long experience in the business but those investors who make the ultimate financial decisions don’t know much about their audiences if the chains are run/programmed centrally. How much control do local managers have over what is shown?
✦ the chains in the UK are addicted to major Hollywood releases. The ‘health’ of the UK film market is always measured each year on the success of a handful of titles. This is why it is an addiction business model – take out a Bond, Star Wars, Marvel adaptations etc. and the admissions are in danger of falling. The average cinemagoer in the UK goes to the cinema two or three times a year to see blockbusters and the chains rely on these visits. The regulars at the major independents go to the cinema at least once a month or more and aren’t that bothered about studio pictures.
✦ if we look abroad, many industries have kept going during the pandemic. Some, despite a major Hollywood presence in their cinemas, still have a market for local films. In the UK, the most successful ‘British films’ still need American investment and are often distributed by Hollywood studios – that’s why they aren’t available to fill the gaps in the current schedule.
✦ the UK audience has been trained by the business to expect and enjoy blockbusters. The business model has effectively removed the ‘medium budget’ films from cinemas, so audiences are offered the blockbuster or the relatively inexpensive horror film or comedy. Now offered smaller independent films, audiences don’t know what to expect.
I remember an ancient allegory from my study of economics in the 1960s. The suggestion was that industries that needed support to stay in business could never prosper in the long term – in the offensive language of the time this was referred to in terms of ‘iron-lung’ babies needing to be made strong enough to survive without support. This allegory was supposed to warn us about the dangers of long-term public subsidies. Ironically, now it is ‘subsidised cinema’, funded by the BFI, BBC, Channel 4 etc. that is likely to survive (as it did in the 1980s) while those companies addicted to American inputs into UK production (and the big budget Hollywood productions using UK studios) are suffering most. The current UK government is mostly useless in this instance, damaging the BBC and ignoring the fate of the UK film freelances who are likely to suffer. Of course, pulling out of the EU and ignoring European initiatives will just make matters worse. We need proper film policies that focus on cinema culture alongside support for domestic productions not dependent on Hollywood funding. We also need proper film education in schools and colleges. We don’t need governments that have curtailed film education within English and media education more broadly in their attempts to return to the 1950s. The one thing that has cheered me in the last few weeks is the success of the re-release of La haine in cinemas in the UK. People are discovering a classic of French cinema for the first time in many cases. I’ve taught this film many times over the years, introducing students to a film in Black and White with subtitles which they could see was well worth watching. (Notes on this blog to download free.)
I’m going to continue watching festivals online, streaming from MUBI and DVDs from Cinema Paradiso. And as soon as it’s safe for me I’ll be back in Manchester at HOME and all the other local independents in West Yorkshire (and my annual visit to Glasgow). If it wasn’t for all the people in mainstream cinemas and those working on Hollywood productions losing their jobs, I would actually be very happy if James Bond never re-appeared.
Many film studies students and even their lecturers today will probably not know the name Jim Cook. I’m proud and privileged to say that he was my colleague and my friend for almost 45 years and I know just how important his contribution to film education has been. Jim was born into a working class family in Warrington and remained a proper ‘Lancashire lad’ throughout his life. After a degree at Birmingham University in the early 1960s Jim spent some time in France and then returned to take up teaching English in London at Stationers’ Company School in Hornsey and the Jewish Free School. Throughout his time as a student, Jim had enjoyed his pursuit of two favourite forms, jazz and blues music – preferably live in pubs and clubs – and film, both Hollywood and European art cinema.
In the late 1960s Jim joined the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT) which from 1970 published the journal Screen and the separate Screen Education Notes. Jim quickly found himself on the SEFT Committee for 1968/9 and on the Editorial Board of Screen by the start of 1970. In those early days, SEFT publications were often concerned with readings of specific films that might be useful in classrooms and profiles of important directors (at a time when forms of auteurism were very strong in nascent film education provision). They were not yet concerned as much with pedagogy or with the politics of educational access and the culture of the classroom. It is significant then that Jim Cook was one of the SEFT members who contributed to a discussion about classroom film teaching that took place at the annual SEFT Summer School in 1969. The discussion was transcribed and appears in the January/February 1970 Screen. It was Jim who challenged the orthodoxy of the time (thematic approaches) and asked the difficult questions: “Where do we go from here?” It was also Jim who encouraged SEFT to continue to develop teachers’ groups outside London and to encourage those teachers to organise themselves rather than rely on the SEFT office all the time.
At this time major changes were taking place at SEFT and within the British Film Institute’s Education Department. Partly this was a result of major changes in personnel in both organisations and, with those changes, new ideas about the relationship between a publicly-funded body and a membership organisation which received support from that public funder. In the midst of this Jim Cook found himself Chair of SEFT from 1971-2 and responsible for a series of difficult negotiations. At the end of this process SEFT had become a different kind of beast with a clear sense of exploring new theoretical work in film and the BFI’s re-named Educational Advisory Service (EAS) was more clearly aligned to supporting teachers in the field. SEFT was also better resourced and in a stronger financial position.
Jim was appointed to a position in the Education Advisory Service of the BFI in 1973 with responsibility for developing film (and eventually ‘media’) education work with adult students. This covered at least three distinct but related activities. The BFI was partnered at this time with the Extra-Mural Department of London University and a four year programme of evening classes had been developed which enabled students to undertake assessed work and to sit an exam each year in pursuit of a qualification in Film Studies. Each 2 hour class ran for 24 weeks and included screenings and seminars. Classes were held on BFI premises in Dean Street, in Soho preview cinemas and at a number of other locations in London. The tutors comprised BFI staff and others chosen from the small group of film academics then teaching in a limited number of education institutions. In most cases staff worked in pairs and developed ideas about team teaching. This in turn led to discussion of pedagogy during meetings of all the tutors and introduced students to the idea that ‘authority’ figures don’t have all the answers – since the tutors sometimes themselves thought differently about approaches to film study and how to read the films.
As the Extra-Mural provision developed it was claimed that this programme of classes constituted one of the largest film education programmes in Europe. Jim Cook had a leading role in developing the programme as he also had in helping to set up one-off events such as Weekend Schools and crucially, the development of the annual BFI Summer Schools which became of great importance in the 1970s and ’80s. The BFI had run summer schools for several years but in the early 1970s they became more concerned with introducing new theoretical work in film. Organising the schools became a major focus for the EAS from 1972 and for several years they were held over two weeks at the University of Stirling with its wonderful Macroberts Centre Cinema and with support from the Scottish Film Council. They attracted international delegates and pushed forward theoretical ideas for anglophone film studies. The BFI took over the Summer School’s education role from SEFT and SEFT then began Easter Schools specifically for teachers in schools and colleges. Jim’s other main BFI role was to seek to develop adult film education in the regions and the nations of the UK supporting and stimulating local initiatives. In all these activities, Jim will be remembered for his enthusiasm, his wide knowledge of film and his ability to build networks – as well as his prowess in ‘free dancing’ and general carousing during late night relaxation at the disco.
In the early 1970s, with film and media studies still barely established in any sector of UK education, there were not many ‘academic’ books about film and certainly few which attempted to develop film teaching or to suggest new forms of classroom/lecture theatre work. Members of SEFT and the BFI’s Education Advisory service did not face the imperative to publish research findings as part of their employment contract as lecturers. But they did have a responsibility to publish guides and discussion papers to support the film education ‘project’. Jim took his work seriously and he contributed papers for day schools, seminars, summer schools, teaching packs, guidance notes and articles for journals distributed by SEFT and BFI Education.
In 1979 Jim co-edited a BFI pamphlet with Mike Lewington on Images of Alcoholism, drawing on an event at the National Film Theatre and in 1981 he edited, with Alan Lovell, one of the ‘BFI Dossier’ Series, No. 11 Coming to Terms with Hollywood dealing with US politics in the 1930s and the later period of HUAC, McCarthy and blacklisting in the 1940s and 50s. Again this was linked to an NFT season of films. Jim edited a second ‘Dossier’ in 1982, No. 17 Television Sitcom. In 1994, a year after he left the BFI, Jim edited another collection for BFI publishing, alongside
Jim Cook left the BFI in 1993 after 20 years in post. The BFI was changing, partly because of the changing funding context. Education too was changing. Film and media courses had been widely established in formal education, but the wider aim of media education for all was still some way off and the future for adult education and informal learning opportunities was beginning to look much more difficult. For the next few years Jim performed various roles including supervising dissertations at the Institute of Education in London, acting as an External Examiner at what is now London Metropolitan University and teaching film at the University of Warwick, which required onerous commuting. In the midst of all of this he also tried to write the novels he’d pondered over for several years. Sadly these attempts didn’t reach publication.
Jim gradually moved out of formal contact with the BFI and eventually out of London to join his partner Ulrike Sieglohr in Stoke-on-Trent, developing his friendships with her colleagues at Staffordshire University. He retired from teaching in 2002 but still enjoyed his cinema visits and the chance to discuss the films he saw. I learned a great deal from Jim. I had enjoyed teaching with him on the Extra-Mural courses and later I loved discussing the movies we’d just seen, at Cornerhouse and then HOME, in the fabulous traditional pubs he seemed to have found for our trips to Manchester. Adios compañero!
Screen Education – from film appreciation to media studies by Terry Bolas (Intellect 2009) was an invaluable resource for the early history of Jim Cook’s role in film education. I am also very grateful for help from Christine Geraghty and Ulrike Sieglohr in providing both information and guidance in compiling this tribute to Jim’s work in film education.
When I venture out of the beleaguered land of Brexit I always look on the Europa Cinemas website to check out the most interesting cinemas in the cities I hope to visit. On a recent trip to Bordeaux I discovered the aptly named ‘Utopia’. The Utopia is situated in Bordeaux’s UNESCO World Heritage district – the entire early 18th century city centre with more listed buildings than any other French city outside Paris. ‘Utopia St. Simeon’ is housed in a former church and offers 5 salles distributed around the building. There are 555 seats distributed across the 5 screens. The cinema opened in 1999. There is also a large and friendly bar-restaurant and tables outside in the square. It’s a great place to visit and just enjoy the atmosphere but it’s the programme which provides the real joy.
Scanning through the programme for September 2018 is a real eye-opener for a UK cinephile. There are films that have been big prizewinners but are yet to open in the UK such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey 2018) and new films from France and Germany that I doubt will appear in the UK. There are documentaries and programmes of short films and animations and there are re-releases. In France re-releases seem to get much better distribution than in the UK and the programmes seem to be more ambitious. Utopia showed Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan 1991) in the uncut 236 minute version, Joseph von Sternberg’s Japanese film Anatahan (1953), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (US 1950) and a day of polars with three Jean-Pierre Melville films and a Tikano Takeshi. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and other independent American releases are joined by new films from Kurosawa Kiyoshi and one of several events remembering May 1968. I was most surprised to see details of a 2012 Belgian documentary about the great Lancashire classical singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) with a Q&A with the film’s producer.
Thinking about it carefully, the programme is not that dissimilar to HOME in Manchester, a much bigger enterprise with the same 5 screens (but also theatre spaces and galleries). But I would argue that there are more foreign language films and a greater diversity of films in general. The one difference is that in the UK, without as much funding support, independent cinemas are forced to show the more commercial US and British pictures, the so-called ‘Hollywood art’ or ‘awards films’ to cross-subsidise foreign language films. In France it would seem that ‘cultural cinema’ still survives and the commercial releases are in the multiplexes, three of which are relatively close to Utopia in the centre of Bordeaux with around 38 screens between them. There is a second Europa Network Cinema, Cinéma Jean Eustache in Pessac outside Central Bordeaux. This also has five screens.
At the time of our visit, I decided to see Leave No Trace for the second time (my partner was seeing it for the first time). The film was in its opening week at the Utopia, one of the few films on the programme that got a UK release before France. The film shows up very well on a second viewing and confirms its position as one of my films of the year. The screening followed the French pattern – a single trailer for a new French film starring Romain Duris (Nos batailles, France 2018, which looked interesting) and then straight into the feature with no ads or exhortations to join a membership scheme. The standard ticket price is €7 and the morning matinée is just €4.
If you visit Bordeaux, do look up the Utopia, it’s only a 100 metres from the main shopping street. If there isn’t a film you want to see it’s still worth soaking up the atmosphere and having a beer or a coffee. If you are travelling to Europe, the Europa Cinemas Network is a great resource, listing 1121 cinema in 677 cities in 44 countries. As the number of countries suggests, the network extends beyond Europe into Asia and there are three Europa cinemas in Quebec. The aim of the network is to promote the exhibition of European films and to encourage understanding by audiences, especially younger audiences. The network model offers member cinemas support and funding via the Creative/MEDIA and Eurimages programmes in exchange for programming with a significant amount of European film screenings.
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.
These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.
Some time today this blog site will pass 1 million page views. It’s not that many considering that we’ve been online since 2008, but it’s still a sign that people are interested in a wide range of films. Perhaps more significantly we know that we’ve been visited from over 200 countries – more than the number of members of the UN – so our reach is genuinely ‘global’ (see the little ‘Visitor Flags’ indicator) in the sidebar. We hope at least some of those page visits have helped to entertain and inform.