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.
The Guardian has published yet another of its lists of the Top 10/20 films/songs etc. of a particular artist or genre. Most of these are just bits of fluff to pad out the pages of its arts supplement and readers will probably find these lists online. The lists are mildly irritating because they ‘rank’ titles – an exercise seemingly aimed simply at generating interest and argument and ‘beneath the line’ comments. In this case, however, the ‘African films list’ does perform a function that could be useful.
‘African Cinema’ is a contradictory concept. As one of the comments on this particular list points out, the continent is diverse with many languages and cultures. It has three significant film industries, in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa (the latter two themselves covering different cultures) and many other sometimes isolated producers across the continent. Africa is also an attractive location for stories and productions funded from Europe and North America. But given all of this diverse production, very few African films make it into distribution in the UK. Very few ever appear in cinemas. Some make it into film festivals and some are now becoming available on DVD and/or online platforms. Because of this general lack of access, the Guardian list should at least raise the profile of African films.
The single most useful aspect of the list is to offer a link to TANO. ‘Tano’ is the Swahili word for ‘five’ and here refers to the UK’s five African Film Festivals (in Scotland, Wales, Bristol, London and Cambridge) which have joined together to offer an online festival of African films from the last ten years – one per year as chosen by audiences at the festivals (not ‘classic films’ as the Guardian implies). The online festival runs from 1st October to 20 October and the first film on offer, Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man (Chad 2010) is still streaming today – and it is very good, so do try and watch it. After that there is a new film every couple of days. I’ve seen only two of the films and I’m pleased to see the others getting a screening. I think the films are available for a “Pay as Much as you think appropriate donation” from £2-£10. The only drawback is that the timing, in Black History Month, clashes with the London Film Festival and a couple of others. There just isn’t enough time to watch them all! Half of the 10 films on offer come from South Africa or Kenya, often with European support. This reflects the shift in support for African productions. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all the African films which reached the UK were from West Africa or North Africa, often part funded/distributed by French cultural agencies.
The Guardian’s promotion is a list ‘written by’ Peter Bradshaw. He lists A Top 10 in the print version and this is extended to a Top 20 online in ‘rank order’. It’s an odd list in some ways. The Top 10 are all reasonably well-known, but the next ten include half a dozen titles I haven’t seen and in most cases wasn’t aware of. I wonder how Bradshaw saw them? Probably, they were screened at festivals, sometimes as restorations or archive prints. Unfortunately the list loses some of its usefulness if readers can’t find the films. The list includes two titles going back to the 1950s and several much more recent titles. It’s certainly worth a look and if you can find any of the films online, I hope it spurs you on to look for the others (several of the Top 10 exist on UK DVDs). It does seem a list designed to attract comment and as commenters have noted, it includes District 9 as a South African film, so why not Tsotsi from Gavin Hood or Chocolat, Beau Travail or White Material by Claire Denis? What is an African film after all?
For the last few years I’ve always tried to visit the annual LFF for three or four days. It’s one of the few benefits of BFI Membership for us ‘out-of-towners’ and although it is an expensive few days, it has always felt worthwhile because of the possibility of finding, among the 250 or so films, some gems that are unlikely to get into UK distribution. It is good for me to feel that I have some grasp of what is going on in international non-Hollywood film and the LFF possibly helps in this, especially since most filmmakers are also present at the their screenings.
The Covid Pandemic has changed everything. This year’s festival has a greatly reduced selection of titles, only some of which will play in cinemas. But in addition, there is a wide selection of festival screenings being offered online via BFI Player. Personally, I’m still in restricted lockdown and I have no desire to travel to London or to go into a cinema anywhere in the current ‘Second Wave’ context. So I’ve purchased some online tickets. I’ve already discovered that there are some significant benefits and disbenefits of an online festival on the scale of LFF. I’ve already tried online visits to some smaller festivals and that has been fine but London is a different issue.
First, it’s nice to save the not inconsiderable cost of train fares and either hotel rooms or rail/tube costs if I stay with friends. I can also make my own tea/coffee and snacks. On the other hand I lose the big screen experience and most online tickets are actually more expensive than the matinee prices I usually pay as an old person. When I got down to actually booking tickets E-tickets, I also realised that the restrictions of screening times in different venues does not totally disappear in the online context. You can check the various procedures and see the programme on the festival website here. I’ll just mention a couple of the issues.
The first point is that you’ll have to use the BFI Player, which so far I’ve only used for free Archive films. The tickets are £10 or more (the usual price of BFI Player screenings I think unless you are a monthly subscriber). Secondly, the online titles are available only at set times. Some titles are showing only once and you must start viewing within 30 minutes of the designated time. Other titles are available over a 72 hour period and one is available over 96 hours. Once you start watching a film, you must complete your viewing in 3 hours. I find it difficult to watch a whole film on my desktop computer in one sitting as it is not a comfortable viewing environment. We’ll have to see how it works out. I think there are some filmmaker intros or Q&As (possibly pre-recorded?) as well as some ‘Industry Events’ and talks. The other big bonus in 2020 is that if you live outside London, there are some cinemas in major cities which are screening a small number of the high profile LFF films during the festival.
I’ve followed my usual strategy of ignoring anything American or mainstream UK and anything that will obviously get a UK release. Instead, I tend to go for Latin America, Africa, Asia and smaller European film industries. This year I’ve gone for films from Mexico, Argentina, Iran, Bangladesh, China, Czech Republic and Ireland. The Iranian film is an archive restoration and it’s free, like two other archive picks. I’ll let you know how the experience works out in a few weeks time (screenings from 10-16 October). Whatever happens, kudos for BFI Festival organisers in getting things organised. Buying the tickets, at least, proved to be painless.
Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.
In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.
Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.
Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).
Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.
It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)
The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.
There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.
On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.
The number of film screenings in cinemas fell for me this year. I think that was mainly due to the lack of diversity in the local screenings available and the unfortunate timings of some of the festivals I usually try to attend. It’s true that I did spend more time on the streaming site MUBI (although recently I’ve been very disappointed at the range of films on offer) and also on YouTube catching up with classic Hollywood. I’ve also spent time watching Talking Pictures TV, perhaps the best thing that has happened to UK Freeview television in the last few years.
The rise of Netflix and Amazon as general film and TV streaming sites is increasingly problematic for me, though I recognise that my friends are getting to see a wider range of films, especially if their local cinema scene is even worse than mine. However, the recent furore over the (very) limited cinema screenings of Roma and other Netflix productions is very disturbing. The BBC offered us both Mark Kermode and Neil Brand on BBC4 in 2018, focusing on questions of genre and music in film/film musicals. Both series were intelligently produced and presented by an experienced film journalist and practitioner respectively, both whom are passionate and enthusiastic. That must be a plus. BBC1 have just announced that its Film programme (which usually just took the year as the second part of its title) has been axed. Film 2018 coughed its last some time ago in that dishonourable way that schedulers employ – pushing a programme later and later in the schedule until what’s left of its audience have no idea where it is. We are promised something new on both broadcast and online BBC platforms in 2019. Is it too much to hope that BBC executives will learn from Kermode and Brand?
Here is a list of some of the films that I found most interesting and enjoyable this year. If there are titles missing that you expect to be there, it probably means that I haven’t seen them (e.g. those by Ceylan and McQueen). I’ve listed the films in alphabetical order so there are no preferences displayed. The only title we haven’t blogged about on this site is The Hate U Give which I hope to revisit when the DVD appears in 2019. I saw it with Nick and we were both stunned by its impact and therefore in a year when African-American cinema saw a resurgence, it deserves a mention. Happy as Lazzaro should get a UK release in the Spring but I’m not hopeful for Winter Flies – East European films seem to be very hard to sell to UK cinemas.
I saw six of the films here at festivals, but four of them were subsequently released in the UK. All the films in the list were screened at least once in a UK cinema in 2018.
In 2018 I was pleased to be prompted to explore the career of Ida Lupino as actor/writer/producer and director – thanks Glasgow Film Festival. I was also pleased to celebrate Agnès Varda’s career watching Le bonheur (France 1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (France 1977) on DVD as well as Faces Places. On the negative side I didn’t see any standout British or Chinese language films this year. Many British independent films are increasingly difficult to see and Chinese independent films are similarly hard to find. Six out of fifteen the films here are directed by women.
Cold War (Poland-France-UK 2018)
Faces Places (France 2017)
A Fantastic Woman (Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)
Happy as Lazzaro (Italy-Germany-Switz-France 2018)
The Hate U Give (US 2018)
Leave No Trace (US 2018)
Lucky (US 2017)
Mukkabaaz (India 2017)
The Rider (US 2017)
Roma (Mexico-US 2018)
Shoplifters (Japan 2018)
Sweet Country (Australia 2017)
Wajib (Palestine-France-UAE-Columbia-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)
Winter Flies (Czech Republic-Slovakia-Slovenia-France-Poland 2018)
Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)
I fear for the diversity of films on offer in 2019. I hope I’m wrong but I think finding foreign-language films may become more difficult.
So we come to the end of 2018. A good year for new releases though there are worrying trends in distribution and exhibition. Getting to see rare films can involve extensive travel on public transport. Apart from the Netflix problem there were other films that I failed to catch this year. And there were parallel problems in production; really good titles with the longest list of supporting territories that I can remember.
Of the new releases the ones that stood out for me were;
Dogman, Italy / France
Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, (Hungary / Germany / France, 2017)
Leave No Trace, (USA)
Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku (Japan)
Sweet Country, (Australia, 2017)
The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, (Turkey/ Republic of Macedonia/ France / Germany / Bosnia and Herzegovina/ Bulgaria/Sweden)
The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx (France / Belgium / Germany, 2017)
Zama, (Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon, 2017)
Two fine documentaries:
The Rape of Recy Taylor, (USA, 2017)
Faces Places / Visages villages (France, 2017)
Among the classics I was fortunate to see on 35mm were;
Brüder Brothers, Germany 1929 [Berlinale with accompaniment by Stephen Horne].
Man of Aran, Britain 1934 [on nitrate as well, George Eastman Museum].
Imitation of Life, USA 1934 (John Stahl retrospective at Cinema Ritrovato].
La cousine Bette, France 1928, [A Balzac programme at Giornate del Cinema Muto with accompaniment by Günter Buchwald).
Turksib, USSR 1929. [The Kennington Bioscope 4th Silent Weekend with accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis].