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 announcement by the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield that they have been denied ‘on date’ bookings for films distributed by Artificial Eye/Curzon Film World is an example of a trade practice known as barring. This practice and the associated practice of alignment were in operation in the UK up to the arrival of the multiplex and the demise of the ‘circuit cinema’ – the single, double or tripled traditional cinema – in the early 1990s.
Alignment refers to vertical integration in the film industry and the practice of a distributor favouring its own chain of cinemas over those of a competitor. In the 1950s and 1960s in the UK the duopoly of Rank (Odeon) and ABPC (ABC) meant that in many locations there were two circuit cinemas competing for audiences. Each of the distributors not only favoured their own films in their own cinemas but also made deals with the Hollywood studios, aligning a Hollywood studio with their chain. Thus ABC cinemas showed Warner Brothers and MGM and the other studios went with Odeon.
Barring was the practice whereby a distributor simply refused to allow one of its films to be shown in a rival’s cinema. Barring orders specified a radius of x miles around one of their cinemas inside which the film couldn’t be shown by a competitor.
These practices have been looked at by UK industry regulators (e.g. the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Office of Fair Trading etc.) on several occasions in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. The EU is also concerned about the effects of such practices. In the main however, the advent of the multiplex from the 1990s onwards has meant that ‘alignment’ is no longer an issue and all multiplexes have the same access to the same mainstream films because barring is not possible without alignment. But the state of play in the specialised film market is rather different.
The specialised film market is difficult to describe (the definition comes from the UK Film Council and now the BFI) but lets assume it means all those films that are not likely to show across the mainstream multiplex market. They might appear on some multiplex screens but mostly will be seen in ‘independent’ cinemas. This sector is now changing and becoming dominated by three companies: Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman. These three chains are all growing – opening/acquiring new cinemas, often ‘artplexes’ with 2, 3, 4, or more screens. Curzon is the biggest distributor of specialised films but Picturehouse also has a form of control over bookings for films by smaller cinemas. Curzon and Picturehouse effectively control the market for specialised films. If their bookers don’t like your film, you have little chance of distributing it in the UK. Neither of them seem interested in Chinese, Japanese and South Korean films for instance – or Indian art films or independents.
The victims of the potential oligopoly control of this market are the public sector cinemas – those operating as charitable trusts and dependent on public funding. These are the cinemas once known as ‘Regional Film Theatres’. Once these cinemas were abandoned by the BFI in terms of a booking service (i.e. negotiating booking s of films with distributors) they had to choose either to book films directly themselves (very difficult), use the new service set up by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) or go to groups like City Screen (Picturehouse) who would deal with the other distributors. This made the independents more likely to follow the main distributors and to shift towards more commercial policies as the market got tougher and as other forms of public funding began to dry up. So, over the last ten to 15 years the programming policies of specialised cinemas has changed. The changes were signalled for me by the decision of Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle (booking service through City Screen) to show Sex and the City 2 in 2010, a decision which I understand divided the staff at the time. Now I am hardly surprised any more when I see a trailer for Star Wars at a Picturehouse cinema or the new Avengers movie showing at a Curzon or Everyman.
Keith in his recent posting is justified in complaining when the distributors (and their associated cinemas) get public support for these new programmes. There are three specific forms of support. The BFI puts money into the development and production of British films as part of cultural policy (as do European funds such as EU MEDIA) – with the aim that these be seen by diverse audiences. Similarly, certain foreign language films are supported in distribution to increase the diversity of the film offer. Finally, European funding goes to cinemas which show European films as part of the Europa Cinemas network (which includes the Showroom in Sheffield, Pictureville/Cubby Broccoli in Bradford – now operated by Picturehouse – and the Hyde Park in Leeds. The barring applied to the Showroom by Curzon, illustrated in Keith’s post, goes against the reasoning behind this cultural support. It restricts access to films showing in the bigger cinemas at Showroom. It also penalises a cinema which is at the centre of the BFI’s Audience Development programme as the centre of Film Hub North.
The BFI’s response to Curzon’s actions was in my opinion pretty feeble. The BFI is the nominated agency of British public policy in relation to distribution and exhibition as part of UK film culture. It should be making more robust statements or putting pressure on Curzon to desist this practice. Barring and alignment are not good for audiences, publicly-funded cinemas or UK film culture generally.