Recommendations from the Exhibition and Distribution Committee

By Helen de Witt

long-day-closes-terence-davies.jpgThe Long Day Closes, 1992

This is a time of significant change for the exhibition and distribution of independent and specialised* films. Commercial exhibition of specialised titles has increased which has changed release patterns for some distributors and affected product availability for some independent exhibitors.

The UK Film Council is on the verge of initiating its financial support for specialised titles. In addition it will soon be unveiling its plans for exhibition, putting some 15 million pounds into improving the exhibition potential of specialised films. However, the British Film Institute has closed down its Programme Unit, effectively leaving twenty independent exhibitors without collective representation to distributors. With all these policy changes and with digital delivery on the horizon, it was an important moment to ask what kind of independent film sector we want in the country and how best exhibitors and distributors can work together to achieve this.

The following is a summary of the Committee’s key observations and recommendations.

1. UK Film Council’s digital exhibition initiative 

The Committee broadly welcomed the UK Film Council’s digital exhibition initiative. The new state-of-the-art digital delivery system would allow a greater range of films to be shown. The cheaper digital format would enable distributors to take a greater range of titles as P&A costs would be greatly reduced. The financial and screen allocation terms of the proposed agreement were accepted.

kes-ken-loach.jpgKes, 1969

The new technology would make access for hearing- and sight-impaired audiences much easier and would ensure cinemas complied with the Disability Discrimination Act, 2004.

It was stated that the system needed to be compliant with formats being handled by the major sales agents, and that this was not currently the case.

Release patterns needed seriously to be considered as saturation release could push smaller titles out of the market. Sometimes exclusivity was the best way initially to release a film, allowing word-of-mouth to build.

Despite enthusiasm for the digital initiative, the Committee regretted the UK Film Council’s decision not to allocate any Arts Council Lottery capital funding towards either the building of new screens or refurbishing of venues. Additional screens for single screen venues are in many cases vital for their survival and many parts of the country (for example, Cirencester) are without any cinema provision at all and planned building may not now be able to go ahead. The committee called on the Film Council to make capital funds available for this work.

2. UK Film Council’s distribution fund for P&A support

The UK Film Council’s Distribution Fund for P&A support was enthusiastically welcomed by the Committee. However, clear guidelines were called for as to which titles could qualify. The committee called for the eligibility of print releases of under ten to qualify, in addition to those of 40 or 50 currently being considered.

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3. Opening weekend

The Committee expressed concern over the cultural and financial implications for specialist exhibition trends if they follow the American mainstream practice focused on a film having to be successful on its opening weekend. Specialist titles often depend on word-of-mouth-to build and this opportunity could be denied them if exhibitors chose to take them off too early.

4. Commercial cinemas

The distributors were happy to report that unlike the historical situation described in Michal Chanan’s paper The Chronic Crisis of British Cinema (Wallflower Press 2003, see Editorial page), they were not being blocked out of commercial cinema chains in preference to American, mainstream films. On the contrary, all commercial exhibitors, and in particular UGC, were supportive of their work, often taking up new initiatives and breaking traditional release patterns in order to allow the films to perform well.

Although certain independent exhibitors had felt pressure at the box office due to the opening of local commercial cinema, the Glasgow Film Theatre expressed that being down the road from the UK’s most successful cinema, the UGC Glasgow (2m annual admissions), had actually increased audiences for them in the long term and enabled them to broaden the range of films they offered.

orlando-sally_potter.jpgOrlando, 1992

Nevertheless, it still fell to the independent cinemas to build audiences for the future through outreach and education programmes, that the commercial cinemas then benefited from. The Committee called on the Film Council to encourage commercial cinemas to engage in audience development programmes.

5. Festivals

The Committee called on the Film Council for greater support for film festivals and touring programmes. Often these are the only way for films that do not achieve commercial distribution to reach audiences. They need adequate support in order to be successful as box office income is not sufficient to cover the large costs involved in hiring and transporting prints internationally. The Committee called on the Film Council to re-establish the national film festival fund.

There was a call for more initiatives to support children’s films and particularly children’s film festivals. Currently there is no children’s film festival in the south of England and few opportunities to see any children’s films other than those from Disney and DreamWorks.

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The Committee called for greater co-operation between UK film festivals and European festivals through the European co-ordination of film festivals, in order to explore international partnerships/initiatives.

6. Lobbying and advocacy

The Committee realised that, as well as continued lobbying of the Film Council and the DCMS, exhibitors and distributors need to apply pressure to local and regional bodies, including local authorities and Regional Development Agencies, in order for them to take seriously their responsibility for the development of new cinemas in their areas.

* The term ‘specialised film’ is used to mean art house or cultural film and is in line with the Film Council definition of specialised film, which includes world cinema; archive films; shorts; documentaries; culturally diverse films and so on.

Helen de Witt is the BFI Festivals Producer.