Distribution: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

By Holly Aylett and Margaret Dickinson


By Holly Aylett

By the time the dinosaurs had invaded last year, you had to make a conscious decision not to see Jurassic Park. Its record box-office takings should be credited to the marketing department as much as to the film itself. The amount spent on launching such a film in this country, between £500,000 and £1m, is the equivalent of the total production budget for many European films – one of the discomforting facts faced by an independent distributor who tries to survive outside the main cinema chains. Without the independents we would seldom see films made outside the USA. Londoners are more privileged, but for a subtitled film to be seen in the regions is almost a miracle.

Indigenous and US films' shares of national markets (%)

National Market Indigenous (%) US films (%) Others (%)
Belgium 2.2 78.6 19.2
Denmark 15.3 n.a. n.a.
France 35.0 58.3 6.7
Germany 10.5 80.0+ 8.5
Greece n.a. n.a. n.a.
Ireland n.a. n.a. n.a.
Italy 24 68.0 8.0
Luxembourg 2.6 80.0 17.4
Netherlands 13.7 n.a n.a.
Portugal n.a. 68.4 n.a.
Spain 9.2 75.8 15.0
UK 3.7 92.5 3.8

Source: Screen Digest (see BFI Screen and Television Handbook, London, BFI, 1994)

Breakdown of 1992 UK box-office by distributor

of tiltes
% of total
no. of titles

Box office (£)
% of total
Warner Bros. 33 13.7 90,094,791 30.9
UIP 23 9.5 65,168,906 22.3
Columbia TriStar 19 7.9 45,899,753 15.7
20th Century Fox 15 6.2 23,735,186 8.1
Buena Vista 2 0.8 6,983,409 2.4
Total, majors 92 38.2 231,882,045 79.5
Guild 12
Rank  18  7.5  6,975472  2.4
Entertainment  12  5.0  4,836,420  1.7
First Independent  6  2.5  5,670,044  2.0
Mayfair  14  5.8  4,271,735  1.5
Electric  11  4.6  3,223,652  1.1
Goldwyn/Winstone  6  2.5  1,311,271  0.4
Artificial Eye  10  4.1  684,262  0.2
Metro  10  4.1  290,500  0.1
Mainline  3  1.3  257,439  0.1
Blue Dolphin  5  2.2  139,388  0.05
Gala  5  2.2  115,723  0.04
BFI  6  2.5  114,181  0.04
Arrow  3  1.3  85,776  0.03
Feature Film Company  9  3.7  70,384  0.02
ICA Projects  7  3  60,332  0.02
Squirrel  2  0.9  13,700  0.001
Central TV  1  0.4  10,882  0.001
Out on a Limb  2  0.9  9,419  0.001
Contemporary  4  1.6  8,250  0.001
Theatrical Experience  1  0.4  3,000  0.001
Oasis  1  0.4  2,432  0.001
Amber  1  0.4  2,000  0.001
Total, Others  149  61.8  59,091898  20.5
Grand Total  241  100  290,973,394  100
of which Integrated Distrib.*  136 56
Non-Integrated Distributors  105  44  119,829,720  41

*Distributors who own cinemas, i.e. Warners, UIP, Rank, BFI, ICA, Artificial Eye, Mainline, Mayfair, Oasis, Electric and Metro.
Source: EDI/BFI (see BFI Screen and Television Handbook, London, BFI, 1994)

The biggest problem facing independent distributors is the blanket distribution of US mainstream films (no less than 84% of the films shown in this country in 1991). The market is then fixed by the operating practices of the major US companies – Warners, Rank, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Tri-Star and UIP – who ensure that the exploitation of profit-making films stays within the family by such means as: barring films from independent circulation, delaying contracts for the release of a film, limiting print availability, and restricting the length of a run. Without access to commercially viable films, it is impossible for the independent to underwrite the cost of showing more varied, adventurous programmes. According to Geoff Henshaw, chairman of the Independents’ Subcommittee of the Cinema Exhibitors Association, ‘If and when the films do arrive, they are virtually dead on arrival. The sell-by date of films in the regions is shorter than bread in the supermarket.’

So far, attempts to curtail these practices, principally through the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1983, have had no impact. If one practice is outlawed there is always another way to achieve the same end.

Even were there enough prints to go round, the limited number of screens and slots available make it extremely difficult to situate a first-run ‘independent’ film in the regions, let alone make it financially worthwhile. Ben Friedman, managing director of Robbins Cinemas, which runs seven regional cinemas, claims that to run a varied programme you have to be within at least 15-20 miles of a multiplex, with a population base of around 80,000. Beyond this, given the conservative tendency of the British public, you have to have very deep pockets if you want to change your audience.

The independent distributor is constantly trying to hedge expenses – print costs, subtitling, publicity, etc. – against potential loss. One of the best ways is through the sale of TV and video rights. In the era of convergence, cinema is becoming simply the showcase for other markets: home video, pay-TV and, finally, TV. In 1992 in the US, the home video market raised over $6,000m and was responsible for the biggest increase in film revenue. In France, Europe’s front-line telecommunications state, pay-TV is now the biggest single source of revenue. In this country, a foreign-language film is very unlikely to be distributed without a TV sale for the film. Yet broadcasters make very few film acquisitions from independent distributors.

Video distribution is another option, but the encroachment of BSkyB’s three movie channels is beginning to affect these returns, and as more people pay for movies through subscription TV, the video market is expected to shrink further.

If it is hard for British producers to find an independent distributor in this country, it is just as difficult to find distributors willing to take the risk in Europe. The same is true for other European productions. A study carried out for the MEDIA 92 scheme revealed that 65% of the 500 or so films made annually within the EC never get seen outside their country of origin. This study has now given rise to the European Film Distribution Office (EFDO), which gives limited assistance for distributing low-budget films made by EC producers. But without restricting the role of the majors in this country, and without any form of even limited subsidy (towards the cost of prints, for example), it will continue to be remarkable that subtitled, first-run films get shown at all, and especially in the regions.

The Camden Parkway

By Margaret Dickinson

The Parkway, Camden Town, one of London’s most enterprising independent cinemas, has been closed since August 1993. The reason is not a lack of patrons. Its problem is that it occupies a prime site in the heart of Camden Town which the owner, Sunley Tarriff, a subsidiary of Lonrho, would like to redevelop. Plans were contested by the cinema’s manager, Peter Walker, and local residents. Now, although the threat has been lifted, the cinema’s future is still unclear.

The Parkway was purpose-built on a grand scale as a cine/variety theatre and it still offers an Art Deco interior with a 900-seat auditorium, lavish foyer and bar. It was nonetheless closed pending development in 1983 when Peter Walker obtained his first short-term lease. Ejected in 1986, he returned with a new temporary lease in 1989. Under his management the interior was restored, a small auditorium added and high-quality projection equipment installed. Pro­grammes, including new releases, revivals of Hollywood epics and silent films with full orchestra, drew good audiences, and even a Sunday-morning showing of short films by new directors attracted a queue.

When Sunley Tarriff eventually presented a plan to replace existing buildings with offices and shops, supporters of the cinema launched a campaign to save this cinema. They collected over 20,000 signatures and funds to pay the cost of a public inquiry. However, the landlords had terminated the lease in June 1992 without waiting for planning permission so that, from then on, Peter Walker was technically squatting. In July 1993, Sunley’s plans were rejected but instead of negotiating a new lease or sale as expected, the response was to serve an eviction order on Peter Walker. That was when the cinema was finally forced to close – just as it was about to première Derek Jarman’s Blue. Since then there have been protracted negotiations between the landlords, Peter Walker, and possible alternative operators. As we go to press it is uncertain whether the cinema will reopen and if it does, will it be as an independent?

The Prince Charles

The Prince Charles off Leicester Square is an independent cinema run by Robbins Cinemas, who are staking its survival on a strategy borrowed from the ‘dollar’ cinemas in the US – if you are prepared to wait about six weeks from a film’s first release date, you can see it for half the price. The cinema also shows an enormous number of films, between 22-24 a week, with a different programme for each day’s three screenings. The films are various, including some recycled blockbusters, British independent productions, subtitled foreign films and a constant, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the first two programmes, tickets are as low as £1.50. In its second year the cinema was breaking even, with audiences ranging around 150 to 400 per day.

Changing the current at the Electric?

By Holly Aylett

Last September, the ill-fated Electric Cinema in Notting Hill was given yet another lease on life by a new consortium – Electric Triangle Partners – making it London’s first black-owned cinema. The cinema is based in one of the oldest black communities in Britain, but it’s a long walk from the nearest tube and the films must still compete for audiences with the commercial multiplex at Whiteley’s and the arts programme at the Gate cinema nearby. So what is the strategy for survival this time?

When Spike Lee was first pedalling She’s Gotta Have It, the major US-owned distributors in this country rejected it. It was Metro Pictures, an independent, which gave it a first run. But how many people got to see it in London, let alone the regions? Even if it had been launched by one of the major distributors, would it ever have reached its potential audience? According to Kwesi Owusu, ‘They don’t know how to market films properly – they use large billboards, put an ad in Time Out, the Guardian, perhaps in Cosmopolitan. Radio is never mentioned, or leafleting rave clubs. There are audiences out there who don’t have to read Derek Malcolm to go to the cinema.’

Kwesi Owusu is one of the two representatives from Black Triangle in the newly formed Electric Triangle consortium. Along with Paul Buck, he is responsible for running the cinema. The other partners include representatives from two other branches of the black media – Val McAlla from Voice Communications Group and Neil Kenlock from Choice FM radio. Both newspaper and radio depend on the 16-35 age group, predominantly black, and between them they offer a potential access to around 250,000 people. According to Kwesi Owusu, ‘Our bid for the cinema wasn’t based on the idea of sending out a monthly programme and waiting to see if people came to see the films, but of interlocking into a media structure which already exists. The Electric ‘experiment’ is structured around a new black media synergy. We are introducing new audiences to the cinema using radio, through the pages of The Voice, leafleting and collaboration with community organisations.’

This strategy builds on the earlier success of Black Triangle, a group which formed three years ago to advance black film and media in this country. By making direct contacts with black American film-makers and the Black Film-makers Foundation, they were able to bring to a British audience a range of films which it would never otherwise have seen. In exchange, they offered some of the smaller US independents their only chance of distribution; film-makers, such as Topper Carew (Talking Dirty After Dark) and Michael Schultz (Livin’ Large). They could also guarantee the more established directors access to a much wider audience, one which would not necessarily seek out films on the independent cinema circuit unless they were attracted through a targeted network.

Black Triangle’s first film festival, ‘Nubian Tales Part One’, was held in October 1992 at the Electric Cinema, then owned by a property tycoon. It opened with the UK première of John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood. Six other films received their UK premières, and the festival closed with The Five Heartbeats directed by Robert Townsend. The second festival was held in 1993 at the MGM Cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue. In spite of late-night screenings, films including Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang and Damon Wayan’s Mo Money, Strictly Business showed to full houses. ‘It was a huge financial risk, and there were no subsidies, but we were determined to take black films away from art-house marginalisation and prove that they could attract mainstream audiences.’

‘Mainstream’ perhaps, but the number of these films is limited, let alone the number which will be popular amongst white as well as black audiences. In purely commercial terms, can a cinema, as opposed to a club, hope to survive on this basis alone?

According to Kwesi Owusu, the long-term agenda includes promoting cinema cultures from whichever continent they come. For the first time the Electric participated in last year’s London Film Festival, showing films from Mexico, Martinique and Spain. At the same time they ran their own special film season entitled ‘Black in Your Face’. The next project is to plan a major African film festival modelled on the one staged recently at the Lincoln Centre in New York. With regard to African films, Kwesi Owusu argues: ‘There is a narrow conception that mainstream audiences are not interested in this type of film, which is wrong. The black British audience is very curious about material for instance from Africa because of the ideological imperatives. But there’s no point picking up some esoteric film with subtitles for an audience which we know is not prepared for that. We have to be strategic and tactical. We have the agenda, but we have to wean over certain audiences bred on certain diets. It’s a mixture. As someone said, “revolution is not like instant coffee.”’

This dilemma is no different to that faced by other independent exhibitors. Will the new-found black audiences sustain the overheads of the Electric? Since the cinema ended its life as a repertory cinema in 1983 and began life as a first-run, independent art-house, it has struggled to find an audience large enough to sustain it. Local affection for the first purpose-built independent cinema (it opened in 1905) was strong enough to obstruct projects aimed at turning the building into a games hall, but not to keep it open as a cinema in spite of the involvement of companies with a strong record in successfully programming beyond the mainstream.

According to Romaine Hart of Mainline Pictures, who took over the cinema in 1983, ‘You name it, and we tried it. But you’re not near a tube, you’re not on a main road. It’s difficult to park your car, and there’s a programming problem with the other local cinemas. Unless you have a subsidy or backers with money to support you for five years, there’s not much hope.’

The new Electric’s first months in operation have been a success. There are now plans to link the cinema with a new distribution company, which would strengthen both. However, whether or not the cinema survives in the long term, fulfilling its ambition to be the ‘home of black cinema in Britain’, will depend on the strength of this particular conjuncture in black cinema history. In the meantime, people are queuing again outside the cinema on the same pavements where in 1911 eager Kensingtonians crowded in to watch Sir Herbert Tree mouth silently through a celluloid record of Henry VIII. In 1994 agendas and constituencies have changed and, hopefully, the audiences will follow a new lead.