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.
In the last few years, January has become a desert as far as diversity in UK cinemas is concerned. The US/UK ‘awards films’ fill all the specialised cinema screens that would usually take a major foreign language film release. Distributors are discouraged from competition with Hollywood and mainstream independent distributors. So, currently, 12 Years a Slave (eOne), American Hustle (Columbia/Entertainment) and Gravity (Warner Bros) are still in cinemas alongside The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal). Dallas Buyers’ Club (Universal) and Her (Warner Bros/Entertainment) are to open soon. We did get The Missing Picture the Cambodian entry for Foreign Language film (in French) a couple of weeks ago but only in a very small number of cinemas and the Palestinian entry Omar has not yet been released in the UK.
I’ve complained about this before but it is getting worse and as Charles Gant reported in Sight and Sound (February), 2013 was the worst year for foreign language films at the UK box office since he started monitoring data in 2007. I genuinely fear that we are going to lose the audience for these films. The two most dynamic film industries in the world in terms of production and domestic success in 2013 are China and South Korea. When was the last time you saw a Chinese or Korean film at the cinema? I should point out that both exhibitors and distributors are part of the problem, but both are likely to rely on perceptions of what audiences want. Where do these perceptions come from? If younger audiences have never had the chance to see foreign language films how can they form a view about them?
It’s very important to support any foreign language films you can find on release. We do get regular South Asian films in our multiplexes but they remain ghettoised. Please, please go and see what is on offer. I’m hoping to catch a Pakistani film today and a Chinese film on Tuesday (a special screening at Cornerhouse by the indispensable Chinese Film Forum UK). I’m also looking forward to tonight’s last two episodes of The Bridge on BBC4. The popularity of foreign language drama on UK TV is one of the few pluses at the moment.
February should bring the new Claire Denis film Bastards and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best – while the former is most likely to attract devotees, the latter sounds like a return to more accessible filmmaking. I’m sure both will feature on the blog and I hope they find their audiences in cinemas.
It’s only March but here is one of the films of the year in the UK. Lore is a profoundly German story based on a British novel and brought to the screen by Australian director Cate Shortland with a German cast and a mixed Australian/German crew. The film was shot across various locations in Germany by the Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw using Super 16mm. Dialogue is in German with English subtitles.
Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room (2001) comprises three separate stories each of which refers to the impact of the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany on the personal lives of young characters. ‘Lore’ (short for Hannelore) is one of the three stories/characters. Ms Seiffert wrote the stories when she was still relatively young, attracting immediate attention and a Booker nomination. Her parents are German and Australian and this resonated with Cate Shortland who is married to a German. Shortland wrote the script with Robin Mukherjee, a film and TV writer with experience of stories about children.
Lore is older in the film than in the book as far as I can see. I think she is 16 in the film, though she appears both older and younger in this powerful story. It begins in May 1945 at the end of the war in Germany. Lore is the eldest of five children and her father, a German officer, has returned from the East. The family must flee as the Russians are coming from the East and the Americans from the West. The family reach a country house in Southern Germany, but first the father and then the mother effectively disappear, taken by, or surrendering to, American forces. Lore is left with the responsibility of taking her siblings, including a baby, across defeated Germany, through difficult terrain and across the zones controlled by American, Russian and British troops to her grandmother’s house on an isolated part of the North Sea coast. I’m not sure that geographical accuracy is a crucial element of the journey, but we know that it is a long way and that it is a difficult journey. Not surprisingly Lore learns a lot about herself on the journey. Her younger sister and the twin 8 year-old boys are not really able to help her much.
Lore begins her journey as the daughter of a leading Nazi soldier and the one ‘friend’ she makes on the journey is ‘Thomas’, a young man who might be Jewish. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I won’t refer to specific events, but Lore is forced to confront many difficult questions and she is a changed young woman who arrives at grandmother Omi’s house. Powerful filmmaking like this depends on both great direction and performances. Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Molina are excellent, the casting throughout works very well and especially for the group of children who are the main focus for much of the film. The Press Book (available from the Artificial Eye website) gives some useful background on how the film was made. Much of it was shot in Eastern Germany with ruined houses and landscapes of forests and meadows beautifully presented. The cinematography adds to this with its soft textures in Super 16 and the light and mists of morning and the gloom of forests. The press images don’t really do justice to the landscape and mise en scène of the interiors but the official trailer gives glimpses.
I found this imagery and also elements of the story made me think of other films, for example Katalin Varga another film in which a mother and son take a journey across the landscapes of Transylvania. After the screening, discussing the film with a friend, we both thought of the German concept of ‘Heimat’ that almost indefinable sense of a German attachment to ‘home’/’homeland’. Edgar Reitz made a famous series of films under the title of Heimat from 1984 onwards and indeed there is a genre of German cinema called Heimatfilme which was important in the early 1950s in particular – often set around rural communities with a focus on landscape and folkloric traditions. Heimat was a concept that encapsulated ideas about identity that were corrupted by Nazi ideology in relation to ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Aryan purity’. In that sense, Lore is an anti-Heimatfilm that explores the breakdown of such links and the experiences of young characters brought up within a Nazi family and now facing postwar reality. There is also a German film genre known as Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, a kind of German film noir focusing on the dramas of lives in the rubble of German cities in the immediate post-war years. Most of them were made between 1946 and 1949. The most famous of these in international cinema is ironically a film made by Roberto Rossellini, Germany Year Zero (Italy 1948). As the entry in The Encyclopedia of European Cinema (ed. Ginette Vincendeau, 1995) points out, these films often featured narratives in which the legacy of Nazi ideology played a significant role. Those made in the DDR (East Germany) had specific anti-fascist messages, e.g. The Murderers Are Amongst Us (DDR, 1946). In this context, Lore is a kind of modern version of a rural Trümmerfilme. The film narrative is not ‘resolved’ as such but we are clear that there must have been many teenagers like Lore who grew up in a domestic sphere, confident about their own future only to find themselves confronted with a very different world.
Lore‘s success in only limited distribution has prompted the British Film Institute to award the first funding offer under the new ‘Sleeper’ strand of its Distribution funding screen. £40,000 is available to help Artificial Eye to release the film in ten further cinemas. This funding is only available to distributors who are ‘invited’ to receive it because the film has had good reviews and good box office response on opening. This ‘responsive funding’ is now easier to make work with digital distribution since copies of new ‘prints’ are much easier and cheaper to get to cinemas. However, it is still the case that there aren’t enough screens on which to show films like this. So, please watch out for Lore coming your way – it’s a film not be missed!
Last week in the foyer of a specialised cinema I stumbled over a large standalone promotion for the new Meryl Streep film Doubt. About 8ft high, 4 ft wide and 18 ins deep, the cardboard construction struck me as physical evidence of what’s been happening to specialised cinemas in the UK. I won’t name the cinema since I’m sure the situation has been forced on them – and anyway, something similar is happening across the country.
Since the start of the year, it has been difficult to find new foreign language films on any kind of significant release (i.e. more than 20 screens across the UK). I’ve seen one film in the French Institute and half a dozen booked for my own courses and events. I’ve also been to a special event on Cuban Cinema, but in the general film programme the films with subtitles that I’ve seen have all been UK/US productions (Defiance, Slumdog Millionaire and Che). The screens I would have visited are filled with other American product – The Wrestler, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Milk, Rachel Getting Married, Frost/Nixon and now Doubt. These films are all showing in multiplexes, so why are they on specialised screens as well? As far as I can see, there is no reason to think that they are ‘art films’ as such. To turn it round the other way, what should have been an important release – Tokyo Sonata, a Cannes prizewinner with a growing critical reputation, opened on just three prints. The only foreign language opening (discounting Hindi and Tamil films) with more than three prints has been A Christmas Tale with seven.
In these circumstances, cinemas have no choice but to put on the American films. OK, it’s all about getting Oscar-nominated films in front of the public, but this doesn’t wash. Where is Laurent Canet’s The Class? It is scheduled to open after the Oscar ceremony on February 27. My only other hope is Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad and the Weird – a film I’m looking forward to seeing soon. This looks like a wide release – into multiplexes. I’m trying to find out if all the prints are subtitled.
So, am I getting paranoid? I don’t think so. True there are more foreign language films getting a release in the UK now, but when you investigate, it’s only one or two prints in order to bolster the DVD release. I don’t have anything against the so-called American ‘independents’, except that most of them aren’t – and they are crowding out what I want to watch.