This Hollywood film made mainly in the UK by novice director Rupert Sanders was Kristen Stewart’s second blockbuster lead following the Twilight films (and released between Nos 4 and 5 in that franchise). Neither an outright critical or audience ‘winner’ as such, the film still made nearly $400 million worldwide and was claimed as a major box office hit by its producers and Universal. It cost an estimated $170 million – which by my rule of thumb (a film needs to recoup around three times the production budget to move towards a profit for the producers) means its success was qualified. The questions that interest me are 1) how important was the casting and performance of Kristen Stewart as a factor in audience responses and 2) what are our expectations of narratives created on this scale and with these generic references. The relevant genres here are fantasy, action, war – but surprisingly little of ‘romance’. The source is the Snow White story but here taken back to the original Brothers Grimm story rather than Disney. The worldwide box office suggests that similar stories exist/appeal in non-European cultures (the film did well in East and South East Asia).
The obvious recent franchises which the film relates to are the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy worlds. I suspect that these are more ‘coherent’ fictional worlds – but I have very little knowledge of them so I’m happy to be corrected. Snow White has a certain kind of coherence of locations since many scenes were shot in the more rugged parts of the UK. The two main fantasy locations are the ‘Dark Forest’ and the ‘Fairy Kingdom’. Where the former appears as a generic devastated world full of clever CGI trickery, the latter reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with several almost identical images – most strikingly in the case of the white hart. Miyazaki himself may have borrowed ideas from Western literature but it is the mode of presentation that seems so familiar here. (Guillermo del Toro’s fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth also pop up.) The castle, the focus for the film’s finale, is built on rocks pushing into the sea and though it is a CGI creation it is reminiscent of several such castles in parts of the UK or Northern Europe. I was also reminded of the battle at the end of El Cid (1961). Inside the castle the ‘mirror on the wall’ to which the Evil Queen addresses her famous question “Who is the fairest of them all?” appears to have learned a trick or two from Terminator 2 as it morphs into a molten metal figure. The strangest image for me was that of the Chinese fishing nets in the village of women. I have no idea what this was supposed to summon up but it took me back to Kerala in South India. If none of these intertextual references resonate with audiences perhaps the film’s setting will not seem disjointed – but of course they were leapt on by critics eager to suggest the ersatz qualities of the film.
The casting of a blockbuster like this is crucially important. Budgets of this size imply either a film dominated by cutting-edge technology or an international cast with recognisable stars. The script for the latter must enable some form of consistent performance across the variegated group of actors. Snow White falls somewhere between the two big budget models. The CGI is important, but so are the cast. Since at least the 1930s these kinds of large scale action pictures with historical/fantasy settings have tended towards the casting of British theatre-trained actors or other Anglophone actors with similar training. In 1938 the Australian Errol Flynn crossed swords with the South African Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (with RADA-trained Claude Rains as King John). The current crop of superhero franchises is awash with the modern equivalents of these ‘Imperial actors’ – Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston etc. It isn’t surprising then that Snow White features the South African Charlize Theron and current action hero Australian Chris Hemsworth in two of the three leading roles. Theron is completely at home as the Evil Queen Ravenna. Hemsworth uses an accent I wasn’t able to fathom (he comes across as Mel Gibson channelling Sean Bean) but he too knows what he is doing. How then does Kristen Stewart fit in?
I’ve checked out all Ms Stewart’s roles since 2007 (i.e. her ‘adult’ roles) and she seems to have been cast solely in contemporary or ‘near contemporary’ roles (On the Road is set in the late 1940s). Besides the Twilight series there is only a minor role in Doug Liman’s Jumper which relates to fantasy and the main characters in Twilight relate, I think, to contemporary American teens. Snow White marks a break into a different kind of fantasy, dominated as I’ve suggested by a different acting style. Overall, I think Stewart makes the leap effectively but I do think her vocal delivery is a problem. It isn’t the accent as such, which I didn’t really notice, but the diction and projection. I realised that I had watched several of the other films with subtitles in order to catch her dialogue. On this occasion too there were moments when I couldn’t follow her dialogue. She tends to shorten sentences, to ‘swallow’ the ends of words etc. It’s a naturalistic mode and fits the portrayal of young people in contemporary America but in this kind of film, alongside not just the leads but also the band of renowned British/Irish character actors playing the (eight!) dwarves, it creates a disjuncture. My memory suggests that in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart begins to change her approach – but I must watch that film again. Partly I think it’s just a case of of playing a wider variety of roles. It is interesting though just how many young actors come out of Australia capable of appearing in American and British films with no problems and performing alongside both theatre-trained Brits and Americans. Kristen Stewart has an Australian mother – perhaps she can tap into home advice?
If there is a weakness in the film’s casting it isn’t Kristen Stewart but perhaps it is the lack of star-power in the supporting roles, specifically Ravenna’s brother Finn and ‘Prince William’, Snow White’s childhood playmate and the exiled Duke’s son. Neither actor plays their role badly but they don’t have the presence that a more distinctive figure might bring (although Sam Claflin as William is one of the lead performers in the Hunger Games franchise). On the other hand, truly distinctive performers such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane are included in the controversial decision to use CGI techniques to present character actors as dwarves. McShane could have played Ravenna’s brother and Winstone could have played William’s father.
I think a great deal of the criticism of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Snow White is prompted by her success in Twilight and critics’ (and non-fan audiences’) antipathy to that franchise. It’s worth noting the other aspects of her performance that do contribute to the film. She moves athletically and convincingly enough in the action scenes, but also looks quite regal with her exposed neck and shoulders. Best of all is her portrayal of a Snow White with grimy fingernails and a wild look after a night in the Dark Forest. (The prominent front teeth in the image above contrast with theusual bland white choppers of Hollywood leads.)
IMDb lists Stewart’s salary for the film as $9.5 million. Presumably what the film’s producers are buying is Stewart’s Twilight audience. This prompts consideration of Tom Austin’s 2002 paper, ‘Gone With the Wind Plus Fangs‘: Genre, Taste and Distinction in the Assembly, Marketing and Reception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (included in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: bfi). Austin refers to Hollywood’s ‘commercial aesthetic of aggregation’ that produces a ‘dispersible text’. He identifies Coppola’s Dracula as the first in a cycle of blockbuster classic horror tales and suggests that it is constructed so that it can be marketed in different ways – as an auteur production by Coppola, a star vehicle for any of its four stars, a reworking of a popular myth, a literary adaptation, a horror film etc. Each of these options might appeal to a different audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a slightly different kind of ‘dispersible text’. It is also part of a looser contemporary cycle, this time of reworkings of fairy tales. If Stewart brings the Twilight audience of younger women, Hemsworth also has an audience – crucially more likely to include young males. Charlize Theron may not have a specific following as such, but as Ravenna she offers another interesting role for ‘older’ women (cf with Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods). Just as important perhaps is the array of CGI effects. Director Sanders comes out of TV advertising and he has certainly been able to create striking visual sequences working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser and designer Dominic Watkins. The cycle itself might also attract audiences. The real question is how well this aggregation works. I’ve already hinted that the visual style does seem to be too obviously ‘grabbing’ ideas from earlier films – and perhaps not integrating them fully. The low critics/users ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes suggest that the sequel may have difficulty reaching the same size of audience again. Many of the pro and anti comments refer to Kristen Stewart’s performance. The prequel that has now been announced for 2016 replaces Stewart with Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt (Theron and Hemsworth remain) and changes director to Cedric Nicolas Troyan, another novice director who was visual effects director on Snow White. This looks like a gamble to me. Losing Stewart and her fan audience means a big box office hole to fill.
The box office of the prequel will give some indication of how much Kristen Stewart was a ‘star attraction’ in Snow White and the Huntsman and it will be helpful in thinking about the development of Stewart’s star image in 2012.
The Board of Governors for the BFI is supposed to include two members who represent the ordinary users. As regular readers will know there is currently only one representative, and for some of us there is not much sign of representation by him. Action on this is overdue. In informing interested people the Board appear to follow the well-worn tactic of bureaucracies, stonewalling. Since a fresh election is overdue I have emailed a number of requests to the Board office asking for explanation. There has been a paucity of replies: this might be down to someone having read my earlier postings. However, a colleague has had the same problem, so I don’t think it is just personal.
Now, at last, the Board Secretary has sent me a response: the main information is as shown below:
I refer to your query in relation to any possible arrangements for the election of a Member Governor in 2015.
In September 2014 the DCMS published the results of the first BFI Triennial Review since BFI became the lead public body for film in 2011. The report was a strong endorsement of the work of the BFI. It acknowledged the important contribution the BFI makes to supporting and enabling the UK film industry and it recognised the benefits that come from bringing the cultural and commercial expertise for film under one organisation. The Review proposed changes to the process of appointment of the Chairman and Governors. While the BFI considers the new process of appointment for the Chair and Governors, including the implications for the Royal Charter, the Board in consultation with DCMS, has extended the term of the current Member Governor, Peter Kosminsky, for one year.
This response begs quite a few questions. The Triennial Review actually stated the following:
Governance and Appointments
The BFI Chair is appointed by the Secretary of State and that the appointment is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA).
The BFI Board members are appointed by the Secretary of State and the appointments made in accordance with OCPA principles, to be implemented as vacancies arise on the Board (with the exception of the Member Governor post(s)).
Clearly proceeding with changes stemming from the Review does not necessitate postponing the election of Member Governors. Apart from any prejudices among the Governors and management, there is at least one other possible factor. Revisiting the Review I noticed the following:
5.15 Cabinet Office guidance on good corporate governance recommends a majority of non-executive Board members come from the commercial private sector, with experience in running complex organisations. In the BFI’s case, such expertise would not need to be limited to the creative sector.
As far as I can make out this process of Triennial Reviews was introduced in 2011. So it clearly bears the hallmarks of the current political illusion that ‘commerce’ always knows best. The period of austerity has actually demonstrated that this social group is driven by self-interest than any commitment to wider interests
Moreover this line conflicts with other pronouncements regarding the BFI and its predecessor The Film Council. These would include supporting British independent filmmaking: supporting young filmmakers: supporting diversity: supporting films of aesthetic or documentary value: supporting access to the wider world cinema. Indeed the Review document contains such contradictory statements. The BFI and DCMS review the size and make-up of the Board with a focus on increasing the diversity of the Board through future appointments. They mention women and ethnic minorities. There appears to be no mention of working class representation or audience members. The current Board members listed on the BFI Website are: [note, amount of detail varies for individuals]
Greg Dyke became Chair of the BFI in March 2008. Formerly Director-General of the BBC, Greg is also Chairman of the Football Association and Chancellor of the University of York.
Josh Berger is President and Managing Director, Warner Bros. Entertainment UK, Ireland and Spain.
Pat Butler is a partner at the Resolution Group and an expert in corporate and business strategy, operations and performance improvement.
Charles Cecil is a video game designer and co-founder of Revolution Software. In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for services to the computer games industry.
Alison Cornwell is Group Chief Financial Officer of Vue Entertainment International. She qualified as a chartered accountant in 1990 and spent 5 years in corporate finance before joining Disney’s International TV business. At Disney, In 2005 Alison left Disney to become CFO of private equity backed Sparrowhawk Media which acquired the international assets of Crown Media Holdings. In 2008 Alison was appointed CFO of the international film distribution company, Alliance Films.
Pete Czernin lived and worked in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years for a number of production companies and studios. In 2005 he partnered with Graham Broadbent and set up Blueprint Pictures, a London-based feature film production company.
Ashley Highfield is CEO of Johnston Press. Previously he has held high-level posts at Microsoft and the BBC.
Tom Hooper is an Oscar-winning film director. His features include Les Misérables, The King’s Speech and The Damned United.
Matthew Justice is currently Managing Director of Big Talk, the multi award-winning film and television production company.
Oona King, Baroness King of Bow, is a member of the House of Lords. She is a writer, broadcaster and political campaigner and a Diversity Executive at Channel 4.
Peter Kosminsky is an award-winning writer and director behind some of the most important and revelatory television of the past three decades.
Timothy Richards is the CEO of Vue Entertainment, which boasts over 66 million annual admissions from 1319 screens in 145 state-of-the-art cinemas worldwide.
Jonathan Ross OBE is a mainstay of British television and radio, rarely off the airwaves either as a presenter or as a host of his own distinctive style of celebrity guest interviews.
Lisbeth Savill [Deputy Chair] is a partner in the law firm Latham and Watkin’s London office in the firm’s Entertainment, Sports and Media Practice.
Andrea Wong is President of International Production for Sony Pictures Television (SPT) and President of International for Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE).
One of the least diverse sections of British society is found in the leadership of the commercial sector, as women’s and ethnic groups frequently point out. Moreover by definition when one becomes a leader in commercial enterprise one ceases [if one ever was] to be working class. The list indicates that it is only from the higher end of this sector that appointments are made. So there are no representatives from the Trade Unions or from the UK Film Societies, who actually have a national presence. Senior Managers attend Board Meetings: note though there is no reference to a representative of the BFI staff.
This emphasis follows on from another recommendation:
One of the key recommendations made in this Review is the development of a Business Development Strategy, focused on establishing a new commercial model which will optimise the value of the BFI’s various assets, and identify new ways to increase income from private sources. Once established, this Strategy should help reduce dependency on Grant-in-Aid Department for Culture, Media & Sport.
This seems to me a staging post on the way to privatisation: though this view was roundly criticised at a recent Film Society Federation meeting. But the example in other sectors, including in the arts and culture, suggest that this is part of just such a process.
What makes the situation worse is the apparent inactivity of the current representative. With the honourable exception of Cy Young, these elected representatives have never appeared that interested in representation. Evan so Peter Kosminsky would appear to put his predecessors in the shade. As far as I can make out he has not issued a single report during three years to the people who elected him. He will only accept communications through the Board office. And he does not reply even to these communications: certainly not either to me or to a colleague who I checked with. And I have searched the minutes in vain for some comment by him: only his name in the list of attendees.
A colleague helped by unearthing his statement and manifesto for the 2011 election. In fairness to him it should be admitted that he makes no mention of representation at all.
But I think it is fair comment to point out that in the UK ‘representation’ is normally assumed to being open to the views and comments of those who elect the representative. He did write that
I would do everything in my power to protect the BFI from outside interference and from the erosion of its education and commissioning budgets
Unfortunately he does not seem to have had much success in this. He also wrote re the Regional representative post
As a confirmed non-South-East of England resident, I’m putting myself forward for election as a governor in that category. [i.e. Regional Representative].
I have to say I was surprised to find that him state in an interview that he lives in Wiltshire: not the inference I drew from his statement. Taken together with the listing of other Board members it appears that there is no representation from north of Watford – which includes the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland and Wales!
Unfortunately there seems to be little pressure either on the Board or on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to rectify this situation. Readers might give this some thought.
And note that Peter Kominsky also wrote in his statement that he regularly attends screenings at the National Film Theatre/Southbank. If someone sees him there perhaps they could ask him to tell them about his three years service on the Board: and whether he intends to give the electorate the opportunity to decide if they wish him to represent them for a further year.
PS Mark Newell advised me that there is now a notice regarding the extension of the Regional representatives term in the BFI newsletter and on the Website – presumably someone read this posting!
And there are some news sets of minutes up as well.
There is a great deal happening in in the global film industry, most obviously in China and in the responses to Chinese developments seen in Hollywood. In the UK, while we are affected by those developments, there are also specific issues concerning local production, distribution and exhibition. In this post I want to focus on just one company – but what it is doing has wider implications for the rest of the industry.
‘Curzon’ (or more properly, ‘Curzon World’), is the brand name for a company which is now a significant player in UK distribution and exhibition. Its current operation is the result of the merger between what was once two separate companies, the distributor Artificial Eye founded by Andi and Pam Engel in 1976 and the Curzon cinema group named after the original Curzon cinema in Mayfair that first opened in 1934. Artificial Eye had itself acquired a mini-chain of art cinemas in Central London comprising the Renoir and the Chelsea Cinema, both taken over in the 1980s and the Lumière (closed in 1997). Access to these three cinemas, all in prime positions, enabled an art cinema distributor to ensure that their titles would get time on a first run to establish a profile before moving to VHS and later DVD releases. In 2006 Artificial Eye, for some time the leading distributor of art cinema in the UK, merged with Curzon adding the most prestigious art screen in Mayfair and the most influential (the three screen Curzon Soho) to the two Artificial Eye venues. Immediately, the newly-merged company had a total of 9 screens in London (the tiny Curzon Richmond was formerly owned by Philip Knatchbull, now the CEO of Curzon). This meant that Curzon became an important gatekeeper for art cinema in the UK since specialised films are dependent on a strong London opening and no other exhibitor could match the Curzon screens in terms of Central London location. However, Curzon’s future expansion was still hampered by its lack of screens outside London where City Screen/Picturehouse was starting to develop a lucrative chain in university towns and other middle-class centres.
Over the last few years, led by Knatchbull, the newly-branded Curzon World group has pursued several policies which have significantly altered its market position:
1. Acquisitions and new builds have seen the group acquire an existing cinema in Knutsford (the former LEA-owned cinema) and new cinemas in Ripon (North Yorkshire), Canterbury, Sheffield and London Victoria, all branded ‘Curzon’. (More are in the pipeline.)
2. ‘Partnership’ schemes have seen Curzon take on the programming of existing cinemas and part-time cinemas in various arts centres in West Sussex, Devon and Aberdeenshire as well as at Mondrian (Southwark), Soho (Ham Yard Hotel), Pinewood Studios and a digital initiative with HMV at their Wimbledon store. Curzon also books films and shares events with Cornerhouse in Manchester (but doesn’t programme directly). It is also seeking new partners for its ‘Curzon Connect’ scheme which offers programming and the Curzon ‘brand’ to part-time operators. Digital distribution and the increasing range of ‘live’ opera, theatre, ballet and art exhibitions makes small cinemas more viable in country towns with wealthy middle-class populations.
3. Curzon has become an online exhibitor – VOD rental – as a complementary activity to its DVD and cinema operation. Artificial Eye’s films are available online as soon as they are in cinemas, the justification for closing this distribution ‘window’ being that audiences who live far from a Curzon cinema will still be able to see new films during the initial promotional period when the title’s profile is still high.
The latest Curzon expansion sees the re-opening of one of its original properties, the Renoir in Bloomsbury on March 27 as ‘Curzon Bloomsbury’. The extensively re-designed cinema will have 6 screens (4 with 30 screens or less, 1 with 55 and 1 with 139). When the cinema was first opened in 1972 it had a single screen seating 490, before twinning in the late 1970s. I’ve known the cinema across all its incarnations and I suspect it will remain the ‘Renoir’ for me. It’s importance is that it looks as if Curzon intend it to be their prime site for foreign language films (or, more likely, the main support to the larger Curzon Soho, now seemingly threatened by Crossrail developments). The new Bloomsbury will open with a festival of ‘Auteur cinema’ and one of the first releases to feature on a long run will be Roy Andersson’s Venice-winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. The 55 seat screen (named ‘Bertha DocHouse) offers conference facilities and is intended to be a ‘home’ for documentary features.
The Bloomsbury will bring Curzon’s full-time screen count up to 27, 18 of which are in London. However, it looks as if no more than 10 of these screens will regularly programme foreign language cinema – or indeed English language ‘art cinema’. Curzon is the best of the three major specialised cinema chains in terms of subtitled films, but in its new cinemas it is clear that mainstream films and live events are the main part of the programme. On my trawl through Curzon’s 21 screens today I found not a single subtitled film playing. Screens are dominated by Still Alice, Second Best Marigold Hotel and X+Y, none of which are ‘art films’. How on earth can distributors of foreign language and art cinema expect to build a profile for their titles when the most important exhibitor in London for their product behaves in this way?
The other major disturbing feature of the new Curzon operation is its focus almost exclusively on the wealthy white middle-class market. The emphasis is on small luxurious screens, bars and restaurants and very high ticket prices. It will be interesting to see the new Bloomsbury prices. The screen sizes in some of the new cinemas are around 40-50 seats and in Curzon Victoria a ‘peak’ time ticket will cost you £15 or £18 for a ‘Pullman’ seat. Working people in London can perhaps afford these prices. But how about Curzon Sheffield where the equivalent ticket is £11.50? This is almost twice the price of the smaller independent cinemas in Yorkshire. At least in Sheffield there is a choice (The Showroom price is £8.10) but in Ripon, the Curzon is the first cinema in the town for some time. This new era of specialised cinema is not for the likes of me – I enjoy lower prices and a nice cup of tea at several venues.
Curzon are changing the face of specialised cinema alongside the other two chains Picturehouse and Everyman. We’ll try to look at them soon.
This event was held at the National Media Museum as part of the Bradford Film Summit. The latter three-day programme did not seem to be that well publicised: I missed a couple of interesting looking events. Apparently there are newsletters that go round but I have only just discovered these.
The Roadshow bought together a number of voluntary and professional groups over a day to hear about and discuss film provision in Yorkshire. We had representatives from the National Media Museum, Cine North, the Film Hub, The Picture House Chain, Leeds International Film Festival, Mini Cine and the Pavilion Arts Project. Also I met people from film clubs and societies, a voluntary run cinema and several local exhibition projects. The day started with a networking session – i.e. socialising over teas and coffees. This gave us a chance to say hello to people, offer introductions and find about a bit about what people did. There is actually a wider range of film projects on the ground than one realises. Chris Fell later mentioned fifty projects or venues in Leeds with whom the Film Festival liases. So one came away with a larger picture of film going ‘up north’.
We then had a series of talks, mostly illustrated by short films or film clips. The first three were members of a Film Hub set of advisers, available with particular expertise for projects. There was Katherine Penny at the Media Museum, Jen Skinner with Reel Solutions and Michael Wood from Mini Cine. At the moment they mainly provide advice on aspects of business and fundraising, audience development and programming.
Then Katherine Penny talked about the Bradford Animation Festival and six short animated films that are available for screenings in 2015. In fact we had a chance to see all six later. There is quite a varied selection, a couple are suitable for children and a couple are definitely adult. My favourite was The Elephant and the Bicycle (France/Belgium 2014, Cert. U), a moral tale with a nice sense of visual humour. The most impressive was Hipopotamy (Poland, 2014, Cert. 18), beautifully drawn but fairly enigmatic. The whole DCP or DVD runs for about 50 minutes.
We had a nice lunch and later Chris Fell, Director of the Leeds International Film Festival, talked about their Short Film City Project, which enjoys funding from the Film Hub North. Chris showed us a couple of examples from 2014, including the winner of the Audience Award. In fact a number of the Short Films at the Festival have been reviewed on this Blog. Chris talked in particular about the difficulties in developing audiences for Short Film programmes. The project, with partners, is ongoing. I have to say that the best examples at the 2014 Festival offered more in 15 or 20 minutes than one gets from some 100-minute features.
Will Rose from the Pavilion Arts Project talked about two films commissioned by them: 9 Intervals and Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography. Both these have been reviewed on this Blog. The latter was screened recently at the Rotterdam International Film Festival; and is set to appear in Glasgow and New York. Will received a bursary from Film Hub in order to attend the event.
Chris Bate from the Film Hub North rounded off the presentations by highlighting the support that can be offered to film projects. Their new Website goes up very shortly and there are links to funding and bursary opportunities, and a regular newsletter. There was more networking over tea.
The day ended with a presentation from Picture House of their forthcoming release Dark Horse. This is a feature-length documentary due for release in April this year, [reviewed elsewhere].
At the moment the Film Hub North is linked via the Sheffield Showroom, but its own new site should be up soon.