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.
The media is full is of the withdrawal of this recently completed film by a major Hollywood corporation. It is an undesirable development. However, a few caveats are in order.
The accusations against North Korea are less compelling than official spokespeople suggest. Internet experts (there was one on Radio 4 yesterday) make the point that the evidence is tricky and difficult to pin down.And the complaints about ‘freedom of expression’ are somewhat hypocritical.
President Obama’s claim to end the boycott of Cuba provides one parallel – as Cuban cinema was one victim of this over the years. Moreover Hollywood is always happy to block films that do not fit with its interests. This Film is not yet rated (USA, 2006) provides a compelling case study of the operation of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. This system regularly blocks access or restricts audiences for films that do not fit its values (though these are not actually available to the public).
In the UK the British Board of Film Classification operates a similar policy of restriction. Judging by the comments that accompany a certificate their major obsession is protecting us from the use of colloquial language – a protection from which Ken Loach’s films have suffered.
Sony Pictures commenting on the withdrawal of The Interview explained that this was due to pressure from exhibitors. A nice reversal of the norm, as it is usually the distributors pressurising exhibitors. You have probably had a similar experience to me at a multiplex on some occasion – the premier release occupying the major auditorium but with a smaller audience than in some of the minor theatres.
From its earliest days the cinema industry has been dominated by major firms largely sited in advanced capitalist economies. And they have consistently denied screen space to competitors, alternatives and especially films that deny their interests. It would be interesting to know if any major Hollywood studio has had a pitch for a tale about CIA plots against Fidel Castro – and what response they gave.
The MPAA has just released figures for the Top 20 film markets worldwide in 2013. The Hollywood majors are most interested in the financial return so they list markets by value:
2013 Box Office (US $ billions)
1. US & Canada 10.9
2. China 3.6
3. Japan 2.4
4. UK 1.7
5. France 1.6
6. India 1.5
7. South Korea 1.4
7. Russia 1.4
9. Germany 1.3
10. Australia 1.1
11. Brazil 0.9
11. Mexico 0.9
13. Italy 0.8
14. Spain 0.7
15. Argentina 0.4
16. Netherlands 0.3
16. Turkey 0.3
16. Taiwan 0.3
19. Sweden 0.2
19. Switzerland 0.2
19. Malaysia 0.2
The total box office worldwide was $39.5 billion.
The major caveat that needs to be noted is that these are mainly the figures collected by rental tracking agencies which are part of the Hollywood-dominated international film industry. Where such agencies don’t operate (large parts of Africa, Middle East and Asia) it is difficult to gather data on box office. Some estimates suggest that the true figure for India would be more like $3 billion. The chart does not rank film territories according to admissions. Although most ticket prices in the territories above are roughly similar at US$6-9, prices in India are lower and in Japan much higher.