Long Live the Cinema: Policy for Specialist Films – An Exhibitor’s Wish List

By Linda Pariser


One of the favourite topics of broadsheets and the specialist film press over the last 12-18 months has been the anticipation of the death throes of cinema. If it’s not Bubble and simultaneous multi-format release mayhem, then it’s digital projection, new DVD formats, HDTV or the Hollywood-sanctioned onset of (legal) online distribution of mainstream movies.


¡Viva! screening of rare Chilean silent film El Husar De La Muerte (1925) about the life of a Chilean revolutionary hero. Featuring live accompaniment by Katia Chornik and her ensemble. Photo: Frederico Medeiros.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated. There’s still a twinkle on the silver screen and there’s room for cinema to exist alongside other means of engaging with the moving image in all its forms- as it does now. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who work to bring films to audiences via the big screen should be complacent.

Underpinning the UK Film Council’s largest exhibition support scheme, the Digital Screen Network (DSN), is the laudable aim of “broadening the range of films available to audiences throughout the UK and especially improving access to specialised (non-mainstream) film”. UKFC will spend millions (temporarily) equipping over 200 screens across the UK with the latest, Hollywood-standard-compliant, digital projection systems. In exchange, “network cinemas will devote a set percentage of playing time to specialised programming”. It’s critical to the success of this initiative that ‘specialised’ must cover the whole spectrum of potential films, and not just lucrative, crossover titles.

audience-at-viva-cornerhouse.jpgAudience in Cinema 1, March 2006

In the last ten years the number of films being released each year has almost doubled from 261 to 461. Of these, almost half are deemed specialised by the UKFC. This amounts to an average of four specialised releases each week. The number of independent distributors has also grown. But achieving release for lesser known titles has become more difficult as the number London screens that can open these films effectively has dwindled rather than expanded. Outside London there are still significant metropolitan areas without a cinema dedicated to showing this type of work, and amongst the specialised indies and circuit, there are insufficient screens to give some of these titles the space they need to find an audience.

Revenue funding has enabled cinemas to support specialised film- be it through educational activities, filmmaker visits, locally targeted marketing (and market research) or just the simple but financially difficult job of showing a truly diverse range of films that is culturally priceless but costs more than it brings in. However, much of this funding is now under threat. Grants to cinemas have been reduced and some grants are under threat of total annihilation. All this when cinemas will be expected to pay more for showing films digitally.

As a Yorkshire colleague commented at the Independent Film Parliament, we need bricks not just clicks. It is next to impossible to find significant capital funding for new cinemas or for adding screens to existing sites. Additional screens allow cinemas to show higher-earning specialised films for longer whilst still guaranteeing space for less privileged titles. This serves like an internal subsidy, aiding sustainability whilst retaining the cultural remit.


When internal subsidy is difficult, then revenue funding becomes even more important. Major issues informing the current reduction of funding need to be addressed. In terms of cultural funding, cinema remains the poor relation, sitting uncomfortably between enterprise and art.

Exhibition (and distribution), moreover, have been disadvantaged in relation to production in terms of film support. Current discussions around the definition of public value in relation to film offer a real and urgent opportunity to address these disparities. It is essential that funding to cinema should be measured not only in quantity of tickets sold but also in quality of the experience and the varied contributions to peoples’ lives that cinema offers, and at relatively low cost. Perhaps then cinema can be funded at a level equal to the support offered to other art forms.

The onset of digital cinema will offer many opportunities, although there are teething problems regarding the flexibility that was promised and the level of costs in relation to delivery of high definition digital copies. But once the entire Digital Screen Network (and beyond) is up and running, there is real potential for change.

Much has been written about the democratisation of cinema that digital brings, especially in terms of emerging filmmakers and those without deep pockets. The DSN will need careful monitoring to ensure it helps to delivers these aims. Currently the cost of making a digital copy make it financially unviable to offer smaller releases digitally. The Film Council has attempted to address this through its P&A fund. However, although generous, the fund is limited. A lower rate for smaller releases (be they new, archive or experimental) might make it feasible, offering independent distributors a bigger release that can capitalise on their limited marketing spend.

Digital copies can carry numerous soundtracks and subtitles in various languages which can be turned on and off at the flick of a switch. This offers the chance to include on all digital masters:

1) Subtitles for many different languages
2) ‘Captioned’ subtitles for hearing-impaired audiences
3) Audio description tracks for visually-impaired audiences
4) Audio tracks in different languages

bob-le-flambeur-jean-pierre-melville.jpgBob Le Flambeur – showing at Cornerhouse on a 16m

This becomes even more significant when you realise that, unlike tape or current DVD formats, HD digital is not regionally specific and there is no PAL, NTSC or SECAM. Compared with the development of the new DVD formats, the development of digital has resulted in an agreed compression standard (albeit set by Hollywood): JPEG2000. In future, all equipment should be able to produce masters encoded as JPEG2000, from Australia to Zambia. There are still questions about the delivery media- discs vs. hard drives, etc.- but this compatibility offers a real ability for films to travel. Theoretically, the same digital copy can screen in France, Spain, Brazil, Germany, UK, etc with a flick of the switch in each cinema to enable the appropriate subtitles or language track. Equally, within nations, the many languages spoken can be shared amongst different communities. Producers should be encouraged to make digital masters with a wide range of languages and subtitles and perhaps a central archive can be established where films can be accessed (with right-holders’ permission).

The biggest obstacle to this no-borders international film distribution is one of rights. Already distributors in a number of European countries cooperate in the release of certain titles across their individual territories. Digital offers the opportunity to re-assess how territories are defined and how distributors in different countries (and perhaps pan-European distributors?) can work together even better in the future. Ironically, one of the biggest hurdles for democratisation via digital in the UK is the Cinematograph Act. It is unlawful for a cinema to screen films that lack a classification. This means that the majority of short films, experimental films, every specially imported title, and most festival films must be submitted for local classification, whether to the British Board of Film Classification or from the local authority licensing department, at least 21 days before screening. These busy licensing departments (also responsible for licensing bars, taxis, etc) have the right to ask to see any film submitted- not always easy to achieve- and interpretation of the Act varies wildly across the UK. Notwithstanding all the other issues around the Act (Sweet 16, anyone?), it’s time for reform. Otherwise some of the stated goals of the DSN (screenings or locally-produced films, shorts by schoolchildren, etc) will be very hard to achieve.

With vision and the political will, these issues can be resolved. I remain a believer in the future power of cinema as a shared experience, in its ability to inspire imagination, spark debate, explore distant places and bring understanding of different cultures. Cinema is dead? Long live cinema.

Linda Pariser is Cinema Director of the Cornerhouse, Manchester, and Director of its Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival.