Getting it on

By Ben Slater


Examining film exhibition in the UK

"Our cinemas, like so much in this country, are dirty, decaying, uncomfortable places", wrote then-governor of the British Film Institute, John Boorman, in 1984, taking time out to bemoan the UK film industry. Later on (in Money Into Light, his excellent journal of time spent making The Emerald Forest) he admired the clean, state-of-the-art multiplexes he encountered at test screenings in American desert towns. Today, our mainstream cinemas, like so much in this country, have taken their lead from the edges of San Diego, and the “decaying” one-screen auditoriums that used to nestle in city centres are mourned with moist-eyed nostalgia. What hasn't changed, however, is the underwhelming state of the film industry.

When it comes to analysing that constant but subtly shifting malaise, film exhibition tends to get short shrift. Producer Ben Woolford (Vertigo Vol 2, no. 3, Summer 2002) describes disappointment with the impact of distributor’s efforts to push quality British films. Woolford wants big tube posters for his films, but suggests that a closer, tactical partnership between production and distribution might really move things forward. He's right of course, but he's forgetting the crucial role that actual cinemas play (or don’t play) in delivering films to audiences, and not just in London.

There is a line of thinking that if you can shove a film onto as many screens as possible then the audience will come. What those particular cinemas do the rest of the year (i.e. showing films from America) is not seen as relevant. However, there are many different kinds of cinema across the UK and they have different types of audience.

At the extreme end you have Boorman's delight: the out-of-town multiplex, with popcorn on tap, ten screens and two prints of the latest special FX frenzy. Drive further down the motorway, turn left at the station and if it's a major city you might hit the main alternative. Crudely dubbed the ‘Art-House’ cinema, or worse the ‘Regional Film Theatre’, this will have a licensed bar-café and be screening a ragbag of foreign language, independent and off-beat US releases.

The contrast is stark. These two kinds of spaces can be crudely delineated by class and age, but there are cross-overs (people will go anywhere to see the films they want to see). ‘Independent’ cinemas in the UK are a diverse and often unclassifiable bunch, attracting an eclectic range of customers and possessing varying degrees of independence.

For years, the UK’s two most established movie maestros, Leigh and Loach, have wanted to get their films out of the ‘Art-House ghetto’ and into the ’plexes, where they might hit the masses. Well-intentioned ambitions, but they ignore the fact that independent cinemas have spent years developing audiences for non-mainstream film. Responsive to the community around them, with education and press staff working to spread the word, these are buildings run by people who are passionate about cinema, from front-of-house right through to the marketing desk.

pornographer-bertrand-bornello.jpgThe Pornographer, Bertrand Bonello, 2001

Difficult films need nurturing, they don't just attract audiences because they are deemed to be ‘good’ by broadsheet critics. Independent cinemas understand this problem and will struggle on limited resources to make films work, even when support from the distributor is minimal.

However, in a post-Crouching Tiger…, Amélie world, the competition for hits is much fiercer. French-owned chain UGC have aggressively snapped up a wide roster of films that would once have been the bread and butter of the subsidised sector – from Larry Clark's Bully to Bertrand Bonello's The Pornographer, which must have died a (little) death in screen six. Smaller distributors love this; a commercial chain can promise so many more screens and therefore potentially larger audiences, no matter that a talk-heavy French film will be treated exactly the same as The Scorpion King, excepting the TV ads, PR might and cardboard standees. This represents a sea change, an attempt to abandon the notion of a specialist cinema: just lump it all in together and let the audience figure it out.

The gradually mutating British Film Institute (its fiscal power vampirised by the Film Council) has been onto this for a while. There have been forays into programming supposedly non-mainstream fare for Odeons before, but in the light of the Film Council’s report on film exhibition earlier this year a more concerted effort to ‘buy’ (and then programme from London) ‘plex screens in towns with no art house provision is afoot. Essentially, they will be paying the American majors a lot of public money not to show some teen comedy in its fourth week. The perversity of that aside, it’s unlikely to be a robust and long-term solution to the paucity of alternatives in vast swathes of the UK. Are there really no small independent venues/art centres/theatres in these areas which could be modestly made-over with the lucre that is apparently destined for multinational coffers?

In this convoluted and tense environment, home-grown cinema has undoubtedly suffered. Those British films that try to be commercial mostly lack the production values and then the marketing clout to compete against Hollywood product. And the critics usually crucify them. Those that try to experiment stylistically or tell unusual stories, even with good reviews, need the right time and space to reach audiences, something which distributors are rarely able to give them.

Two years ago, while I was working at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, we received a livid fax from a tiny UK distributor representing a low-budget Brit-flick that had been released to the usual critical combo of apathy and scorn. In a well-intentioned bid to drum up interest he had taken the director and cast to visit one of Sheffield’s ten-screeners. To his outrage, the flyers he had posted ahead were still in the manager’s office and there was no audience. He wanted to know our opinion.

I believed his annoyance toward the local ’plex staff was misplaced. These are people who show films, full-stop. They have zero experience of running events, generating audiences for said events or placing articles about them in the regional press (all things that a good independent cinema does in its sleep). I was amazed at his naivety. The problem was, given the reputed quality of the film in question, if he had pushed for the Showroom to take it instead, I seriously doubt we would have accepted the gig.

amelie-jean-pierre-jeunet.jpgAmélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001

At the other end of the scale was This Filthy Earth (2001, produced by Ben Woolford), a British film that we genuinely wanted to get behind, partly because there was a local connection (it was shot and received a small amount of funding in Yorkshire), but mainly because of its extraordinary ambition and intensity. When FilmFour’s distribution arm announced it would be just one part of the FilmFour Lab tour, they sweetened the complexity of the three-film package by promising the presence of directors and actors. Selling one ‘difficult’ British film isn’t easy, but when you lump it in with another (My Brother Tom) you’re looking at a divided audience. Then, when you bundle a light US-shot comedy (Jump Tomorrow) onto what is being branded as a tour of ‘cutting-edge’ British cinema, it gets confusing. FilmFour produced flyers and trailers, but the ‘talent’ was never offered up. As the deadline loomed we approached director Andrew Kotting directly and he happily volunteered to come and introduce the film, something he’d been doing at a fair few places. Although it didn’t sell-out, the night was a success, and it served to create a certain buzz around the film for the rest of its run.

These anecdotes aren’t related simply to big up the UK art house scene, although it has knowledge, skills and local resources that the corporate chains can never match. Rather, they illustrate continuing skirmishes in a much larger battle that rages across the whole industry – the fight to sustain the last scraps of a decent film culture in Britain. Cinemas are on the frontline: they have physically to get the punters in and the films on; not just what’s out on Friday, but the entire history of cinema – the visions that might inspire new film-makers and new audiences. It’s barely been acknowledged how vital and inextricable the connection is between what is shown and what is made.

Meanwhile, the economic schisms between running a venue commercially and delivering on a cultural remit are desperately hard to reconcile. Many of the Film Council – (ex-BFI) funded cinemas are on Arts Council organised ‘recovery’ and ‘stability’ schemes which, with their emphasis on highly paid consultants (to go through the motions of discussing branding and infrastructure) seem outrageously wasteful. Then, however, there are the centrally-programmed ‘entrepreneurial’ independent chains such as City Screen and Oasis, which competitively pitch selective Hollywood fare alongside foreign-language titles in busy student towns and appear to be thriving on the mix. Further beneath the radar there's an emerging breed of ‘microplexes’ – small volunteer-run venues which break all the boundaries of conventional programming, including The Brighton Cinematheque, Side Cinema in Newcastle and Bristol's infamous Cube.

All these places are in the business of getting people excited about film as something more than pure entertainment, and it's a complicated and massively time-consuming task. Their variety is their strength. We certainly don't want some homogenous identikit ‘alternative’ programming throughout the UK. We need programmers to be bold and to take risks in venues that are vibrant, connected and relevant. These shouldn’t be exclusive and excluding, but are unquestionably unlike commercial cinemas in so many ways. If such places can survive and develop, then perhaps the ‘good stuff’ will get the audience it deserves.

Ben Slater worked in film exhibition in the UK for four years and is currently programming for the Singapore International Film Festival.