Category: Film exhibition

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-US 2017)

Despite Christopher Nolan’s well publicised advocacy of ‘reel’ film and large format production the critical response is something of a lottery. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian did not bother, or forgot, to tell readers in what format he saw the film. Mark Kermode, as one would expect, was more careful, spelling out the formats and advising would-be viewers to pick their venue and screening carefully. The choice is likely also affected by aspect ratios; 70mm IMAX is predominately 1.43:1; digital IMAX is partially in 1.90:1; 70 mm and DCPs are in 2.20:1 though the DCPs will likely screen with not quite black bars at top and bottom; and 35mm prints are in 2.35:1; all in colour.

Given the film was shot on ‘reel’ film 65mmIMAX and 65mm cameras the choice would appear obvious. However, here in West Yorkshire, the choice is limited. A couple of venues are screening digital IMAX; others are using DCPs; so the best option is the Hyde Park Picture House where they are screening a 35mm print. Otherwise you can trek to Manchester and see the film in 70mm IMAX or wait and hope that someone (possibly the Barnsley Parkway  currently screening Interstellar (2014) in 70mm) will screen the 70mm print after the initial release.

It is not just a film to be seen in a ‘reel’ film format, it is a film to be seen and seen in the cinema. I was impressed, as were other members of the audience. I saw it at the Hyde Park in 35mm; I hope I will get to see a 70mm version.

The film not only looks superb, it has a fine soundtrack and an excellent score by Hans Zimmer: give him his due, he credited Elgar who provides one of the key accompaniments in the film. The music runs through much of the film, though mostly it is a subtle background music, occasionally swelling for dramatic moments.

Christopher Nolan not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay. It offers his usual preoccupation with ‘time slip’. Essentially the film offers three intertwined stories/experiences of the mythic evacuation. A one-week odyssey by a private soldier caught on the beaches; a one-day sailing journey by as civilian boat which is part of the rescue flotilla; and a one-hour flight by a RAF spitfire pilot offering aid to the 350,000 troops stranded on the beaches.

In what is effectively montage, and eschewing more traditional parallel cutting, the film takes the viewer back and forth between these small-scale stories. At times it does so with great rapidity. Mark Kermode suggested that viewers will clearly find their way through this complex structure. I found it took time for me to identify the strategy and I suspect audiences will take time to crack this as well.

As the relationship between these individual stories falls into place the film produces a real sense of the complexity of the experiences in the ten days of the evacuation. It also enables a climactic moment, as a fine widescreen shot takes us to a the mythic moment in the story, bringing it from the personal to the epic. There are lacunae in the script, but I only noticed those after the film had finished. At 106 minutes in length there is not the space to dot every ‘i’ or tick every ‘t’.

There are also influences apparent from earlier films dramatising this key British disaster-cum-victory. The definitive version has been that produced at Ealing Studio in 1958 (also Dunkirk), in black and white standard widescreen. That film combines moments of action and drama with periods when the beach is quiet, and the listless soldiers watch and wait. This ‘Dunkirk’ has more action but does retain some sense of the passive as opposed to the active  moments. Both films, as also does Atonement (2007), open with soldiers making their way onto the beach to be confronted by the waiting multitudes and the ships vainly trying to take them off the beaches. Visually this ‘Dunkirk’ also shares some aspects of that panorama with the 1997 version. But there is no giant Ferris Wheel to counterpoint the settings in peace and war.

The film has great pace, excellent performances and very fine cinematographic and production work. Whilst Nolan deserves serious praise for this fine film it is also equally due to the craft people who worked with him. Notably this includes the Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema; the Production Design by Nathan Crowley aided by a team of Art Designers; and  the Film Editing by Lee Smith.

The cast are excellent. Most are fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead as Tommy,  Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Barry Keoghan as George. But there are also several familiar faces in key roles: Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as  Farrier and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Fulton. These are aided by a fine variety of small characterisations that fill out the picture.

The print that I watched was excellent. The image was in soft focus and had a relatively shallow focus: I would have like more depth of field at times. This presumably was due in part to shooting much of the film in natural light but also because the production opted for actual setting and extremely little CGI. The soundtrack was fine though some of the dialogue was muffled. I expect that this will be less noticeable in IMAX screenings which apparently have higher decibels as well. Note, there are also four different soundtrack formats to choose from: IMAX 6-track, 12 track Digital Sound, Datasat and Dolby digital.

I should mention the trailer in the UK. Modern trailers are frequently edited with pace, so the one for this film (in that fashion) does not really give a sense of how the stories actually work together. It also contains one really corny line of dialogue, shown in a single shot. But this is a misconception: in the actual film, as the troops come home this line is presented with real effect in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. And that is where the film leaves us, with one more variation on the recurring line of ‘Lets go home’.

Harmonium – film or file?

Roy has already reviewed this film and I think he is gives a good sense of what makes it interesting viewing. However, he did not comment on the quality of the screening so maybe he was more fortunate than me. The film seemed interesting but I was constantly distracted by the poor quality of the image. To give examples; there were frequent long shots of a single character in mid-screen and mid-distance and the figure was fuzzy; there were also two-shots where the character farthest from the camera, but active in the frame, was fuzzy. Overall there was a lack of definition and, especially in the interiors, there was a lack of contrast. It seems likely that the film relied to a degree on natural light but even in this case I still thought the definition poor.

I saw the film in Cubby Broccoli at the National Media Museum (now renamed Science Media Museum and programmed by Picturehouse). I checked with Picturehouse and they stated that the film was screened from a 2K DCP.

So I then contacted the distributor, Eureka. They sent the following:

” The film has screened in multiple cinemas across the country and this is the first time that this has been brought to our attention. I apologise if your enjoyment of the film was spoilt in any way, and appreciate your feedback. I’ll pass your feedback on both to the cinema and our production team, because the film did screen from DCP at that venue – that is the only format that was made available to them.”

I followed up this reply with an enquiry about what was the source material for the DCP. This has not received a response. I have had other examples of this lack of response from distributors. I suspect it means they are not happy with the question.

This is where the ‘film or file’ in the title comes in. I was fortunate enough to attend the George Eastman Museum Nitrate Weekend; everything on 35mm. At a discussion I noted that archivists were distinguishing between:

‘film – i.e. acetate or nitrate relying on halide silver grain’.

‘file – digital relying on pixels’.

Even in the 2K digital cinema packages I am sure there is a difference between these two. However, it seems it is technically simple to up load digital video (DVD or Blu-Ray) onto a DCP. A projectionist I asked advised that once this is done there is not an obvious difference in the technical information on a DCP. But there is clearly a difference in quality. DCPs have technical specifications, detailed on a helpful page on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Cinema_Package). Likewise for Blu-ray [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blu-ray]. The comparison put simply is between something like 25 gigabytes for the video disc [or only five for DVD] and averaging a 100 gigabytes for DCPs. I gather DVDs do vary: some are lower than a 100; higher quality ones can get close to 300, and the latter take far longer to load on the server.

35mm prints vary: this was apparent at the George Eastman Nitrate Picture Show. And it has long been a point of comment by critics. One of the arguments for digital is that there is a common standard of projection. Using source materials below the specifications for DCPs clearly subverts this. Critics do not help as whilst they frequently comment on the quality of the style and technique they much less frequently comment on the quality of the actual screenings. [Roy does quite often do this]. Two friends did not remember noting a lack of quality when they saw the film but another friend remembered that he thought the image was not very good.

I tend to avoid reviews before a film because they so frequently reveal plot, character and even dialogue. And I avoid many trailers because they frequently offer a skeleton of the entire plot. But now I find I am researching films online beforehand to try and ascertain what sort of quality file is likely. I am also compiling a list of known suspects.

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.

Favourites from 2016

The outstanding film - Our Little Sister</i

The outstanding film – Our Little Sister

This was not the greatest year for new releases but there were some fine and powerful dramas and documentaries. One positive aspect was that nearly half the films that I saw at a cinema were on 35mm. Less positive was for D-Cinema; only 4 or 5 DCPs were in 4K; this despite distributors bragging on a many occasions that the source was a ‘4K restoration’.

New releases:

Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015).

This was a sheer delight: one of the best films of the decade.

Dheepan (France 2015).

A fine and socially conscious drama, combining realism and imagination.

Son of Saul / Saul fia (Hungary 2015).

Rarely have I experienced such intense drama: a European Holocaust film with real substance.

Taxi / Taxi Teheran (Iran 2015).

Simple, actual, funny and fascinating.

Victoria (Germany 2015).

Impressive use of digital technology and the style completely fitted the drama.

Documentary:

The Pearl Button / El botón de náca (Chile, France, Spain, Switzerland 2015).

Visually superb and politically sharp.

Performances:

I enjoyed Amy Adams in the fine science fiction film Arrival (Canada, USA 2016). And Nellie’s cross-gender performance as Marvin in Paterson (USA 2016) certainly deserved the Palm Dog: unfortunately posthumously.

A fine restoration in 35mm:

Kean / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lover / Kean ou Désordre et Génie, France 1924

Restored by the Cinémathèque française with tinting restored by Náradni filmavŷ archiv.

rr_03b_kean

An impressive preservation of a film print:

By the Gosfilmofond of a nitrate print of Ramona (USA 1927) and screened at the George Eastman Nitrate Weekend.

Two great discoveries of the Year:

A Japanese Tragedy  / Nihon no higeki (1953)

At the Sheffield Showrooms, a rare Japanese film drama.

Laughter in Hell, USA 1933.

Effectively a pre-code movie and the most intense and brutal chain-gang film that I have seen.

Special commendations:

For the Parkway Cinema in Barnsley for screening The Hateful Eight (USA 2015) from a 70mm print in the full 2.76:1 ratio.

The Cinémathèque française deserve a further commendation: a friend told me that they declined to licence a theatrical screening of a title sourcing digital video.

The worst film:

London Has Fallen (UK, USA, Bulgaria 2016).

In my defence there was a dearth of interesting titles that week.

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.

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).

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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.

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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: