Instead of Dreaming of New Ideas

By Gill Henderson


The independent cinema sector is currently facing a crisis despite the supposed ‘renaissance’ of the British Film Industry: ‘Industry’ has become the operative word and Hollywood the model to follow. From their respective professional positions, Jane Giles of BFI Films, Helen De Witt of the Lux Cinema Centre and Gill Henderson, the new Chief Executive of the London Film and Video Development Agency, reflect on the difficulties of maintaining a life for those films that do not fit immediately into the new government sanctioned commercial paradigm. The issues raised by these three writers are of crucial importance for anyone involved in cinema in understanding what is ahead in the interminable battle of culture versus commerce. As you will see in the interview with Tom Clarke elsewhere in this issue, these are the voices that weren’t, but should have been, heard in creating ‘The Bigger Picture’, also known as the Stewart till report.  

In the last edition of Vertigo, Steve McIntyre, the then Chief Executive of the London Film and Video Development Agency, put forward the idea that National Lottery monies could be given to commercial art house exhibitors on a franchise basis to encourage the building of more screens around the country for cultural exhibition. The article pretty much dismissed the regional film theatre model (not-for-profit, autonomous cinemas in receipt of public subsidy) as outmoded and not cost effective. In the same issue Chris Chandler from the BFI portrayed regional film theatres as a poor relation and pale imitation of London cinemas. Sally Hibbin, who commented on the state of current UK exhibition, has now suggested in an article for the New Statesman that all British films need is a regular slot in a multiplex and audiences will flock to see them. 

Why are those in the British film industry, who on any other issue would fight for independence and autonomy, so keen to see cultural product screened only in a commercial environment? It’s sad and rather insulting to other exhibitors to find the producer of Ken Loach’s films desperate to have them shown at US-run multiplexes where all the profit goes to the States and not even the colour of the ushers’ uniform can be decided in this country.

But there is another model and the time is ripe to develop and expand the role of the regional film theatres, where there are rather more signs of life than Vertigo’s contributors gave credit for.  

In the relatively brief period of time since Vertigo 7 appeared the Film Policy Review has been published; John Woodward has instituted a radical review of the British Film Institute, and Gerry Robinson is restructuring the Arts Council so no one knows what the shape and scope of the National Lottery film panels will be in the Autumn. The Film Policy Review report is entitled The Bigger Picture; maybe what they should have been looking at is a wider picture. It’s not just the features from the big guns of film franchises but the short films and artists’ film and video supported by the Lottery, the British Film Institute and the regional arts boards that are going to suffer if we don’t find effective ways of strengthening the distribution and exhibition of non-Hollywood product.  

Exhibition with a strong cultural remit is rarely a commercial proposition in the UK due to the vice-like grip of Hollywood studio movies on the spending power of the cinema-going public. As Sally Hibbin states, the common language is no help at all when marketing British against US studio product, and UK distribution is dominated by US majors, five of whom share 78% of the box office.  

The analysis and solutions presented by the Review fail to differentiate between kinds of cinema-going, kinds of film and kinds of audience. Cinema-goers are not an amorphous mass of popcorn-devouring teens. There are people in the country who will go to see British films, who actively enjoy watching subtitled films and who want to be challenged and to find out more about cinema outside Hollywood. The challenge is to see that this is the target audience for most of the new British cinema and set in place initiatives to develop and expand this audience.  

The ‘big idea’ for exhibition seems to be to replace US films on multiplex screens with UK ones. The experiences of putting ‘specialised’ films of any description (i.e. not Hollywood) into multiplexes is not a happy one (TwentyFour Seven, Nil by Mouth, Wilde, Face). British films may share a common language with US titles but they don’t share the same culture. As Sally Hibbin pointed out, the spend on prints and advertising for major US titles is at least four times that of a British feature film. Multiplex-goers march past the independent film showing on Screen 12 and head straight for the blockbuster on Screen 1. There is no evidence to suggest that there is real cross-over of audiences for foreign language, independent or UK titles. Many cinema-goers actively dislike the ethos of the multiplex and they will make a conscious decision not to see a film screened in these conditions. When Shine played in Nottingham the majority of the audience for the film voted with their feet to see it at the regional film theatre rather than at two other cinemas on offer.  

Diversity and choice are crucial for audience development but that diversity is currently seriously under threat. Less and less foreign language film is being bought for the UK market. The London repertory cinemas have declined dramatically in number over the last ten years. Although the independent exhibitors City Screen, Mainline and Oasis are developing new sites there is a worrying homogeneity between their programmes and that of the major chains. At the time of writing London screens are wall to wall with Deconstructing Harry and Kundun; nothing wrong with that except for the frightening dearth of foreign language titles. During the week of April 22-29 across all the first run screens in London there were four foreign language titles. Surely with all those new screens there should be more?  

Increasing the number of screens, hiring out a screen in the local multiplex and subsidies to commercial exhibitors for a franchise operation have all been put forward as solutions. But there is a perfectly good model out there being marginalised and ignored by those who should know better; it’s traditionally been called a regional film theatre (although some are sited in London!), and Lottery funding could be used to develop it as a much more proactive network for promoting cinema. Starved of cash for years, and with many of the venues enduring the less than perfect conditions described by Chris Chandler in Vertigo 7, the picture is now changing as regional film theatres take advantage of lottery capital grants to refurbish and expand. There have been major refurbishment and new screens built in Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh and Nottingham, with developments in progress in Newcastle, Bristol, Norwich amongst others. In January 1998 many regional film theatres reported their best ever box office months.  

Outside London, the regional film theatre network in major towns and cities provides the bulk of income for non-Hollywood film in this country. The loyal audience at these venues is the perfect place to start in building up the potential audience for new British films. The cultural remit around which regional film theatre activity revolves ensures that a film is screened on the basis of criteria other than pure commercial consideration. If small scale British films are to get an audience (and the majority of Lottery funded films are still low budget) then this is vital. Under a commercial model, even an enlightened one, playing a film in preference to a title that might perform better at the box office is not feasible. Crucially, the regional film theatres book their films for guaranteed lengths of run. This means that a film isn’t taken off if it doesn’t perform well over the first weekend. Films that do well under this system are usually picked up by commercial cinemas for a further run; those that don’t have at least had a chance to reach an audience, a chance that would otherwise have been denied to them. 

Regional film theatres operate in a completely different way from other cinema models. The programmer, marketing person and often an education officer as well, are all based at the venue. They know how to target market to specific audiences within their town, city or region. In addition, a relationship is built up with audiences based on trust. The audience might not enjoy or approve of all the films screened but they are confident that they are there for a reason aside from profit. The skill of the regional film theatres in ‘breaking’ new directors to the British audience has been criminally undervalued; the regional film theatres were the only venues interested in a first film by a certain Q. Tarantino when Reservoir Dogs was first released.  

Regional film theatres operate within a broadly educational context. The audience are encouraged to appreciate and enjoy other cinema aside from Hollywood. This kind of development work is slow and gradual but over the years creates the core of an enlightened and adventurous audience.  

Filmmakers of all kinds love to promote their work and make personal appearances where audiences want to talk about the film rather than rush for the car park whilst the credits roll. The team of Andrew MacDonald, Danny Boyle and John Hodge specifically stipulated that the publicity tours for all three of their films were arranged around the regional film theatre network. They understood the value of reaching an opinion-forming audience.  

So instead of dreaming up new ideas, why don’t we try to strengthen what we’ve got and expand it further? Maybe the network could become the peoples’ film theatres...

Gill Henderson has just been appointed Director of the London and Film Video Agency. She was previously Director of Broadway in Nottingham and Chair of COMEX, the network of regional film theatres. Thanks to Jim Hamilton for collaborating on this article.