The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) here in the UK organised a fascinating Zoom presentation by one of the UK’s leading cinema architects Stefanie Fischer on Saturday 6th November. It was a privilege to listen to Stefanie and to learn about her recent work and her ideas about a mini-revolution which could eventually transform the cinema experience for some previously neglected audiences as well as helping to re-generate high streets.
What is a ‘neighbourhood cinema’? It’s actually quite difficult to be definitive but these are generally small cinemas located in small towns or districts of larger cities. They are cinemas attempting to offer film screenings to the widest possible demographic, i.e. across age groups, gender, ethnicity etc. They are also attempting to be cultural hubs and social centres so they try to offer meeting spaces, food and drink and sometimes film education and other forms of social activity. As Fischer pointed out there has been a long history of cinemas serving as a form of ‘civic presence’ on the high street. The term isn’t meant to cover commercial multiplexes or the latest round of new ‘bijou’ or ’boutique’ cinemas such as those of the Everyman and Curzon chains and their smaller competitors. Such cinemas may fulfil some of the criteria but they are likely to target wealthier middle-class patrons and to charge more for admission and for up-market food and drink. There are also various forms of specialised cinemas, often accessing public funding, which might meet all the criteria but which are mostly located in the centre of large cities. ‘Community cinemas’ are similar in some respects but also different in significant ways.
Fischer began her talk with a case study which exemplified several of the features she wanted to emphasise. Newlyn Filmhouse is a new cinema in Cornwall opened in 2016. Newlyn is a small seaside town and important fishing port with a population of 4-5,000. It is only 2 miles from the larger town of Penzance (21,000 pop) which still has a traditional cinema with 4 screens as part of the Merlin chain. The Newlyn Filmhouse has been designed to ‘re-purpose’ an existing building, a fish warehouse which had several features as a light industrial building that could be utilised as part of a cinema design. Stefanie pointed out that Newlyn had an original cinema, the Gaiety which opened in 1905 and closed in the 1964 but has been re-purposed as a restaurant and is visible from the Filmhouse, further down the road. The Filmhouse has only two screens with a total of 135 seats. It shows a variety of commercial films, specialised films, live theatre transmissions and special events and has a food and drink offer in a café-bar, but food is not allowed in the auditorium. The small number of seats means that the cinema must aim for greater occupancy targets and returning audiences. The flexible programme and lower running costs have only been possible because of digital distribution and projection.
The history of the Gaiety led Stefanie to argue that in the early 1900s many re-purposed buildings were being used for cinema screenings before the main period of purpose-built cinemas began around 1911-12. Many such cinemas later closed for a range of reasons, including competition from bigger, more modern screens in the 1920s/30s and the general decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s/60s. But the re-purposed buildings are often in good positions and some early cinemas have survived. Fischer offered us a comparison with an inner city area, utilising Jeremy Buck’s work on Haringey cinemas in North London. She also referred to a second neighbourhood cinema, also in Cornwall, The Regal in Wadebridge. This cinema first opened in 1931 but by 1967 was in danger of closure when it was acquired by a local construction business, W. T. Williams which already had two other Cornwall cinemas in St Austell and Padstow. The ‘WTW’ chain invested in renovating the Regal and in 1986 converting to a two screen cinema. Since then WTW have continued to upgrade the screens in terms of seating and also switched to digital projection and new audio systems as ‘early adopters’. Fischer argued convincingly that this cinema demonstrates two key factors in the survival of neighbourhood cinemas over the past 100 years or more – local ownership and constant attention to the need to upgrade facilities. The current Regal has 204 seats in Screen 1 and 98 in Screen 2. Photos of the auditoria can be found on the cinema’s website. Wadebridge has a population of around 8,000 and offers a range of films comparable to those at the Newlyn Filmhouse.
Most of the examples of neighbourhood cinemas and detailed case studies that Stefanie Fischer worked through with us were projects on which she had worked either with her original partnership of Burrell Foley Fischer or more recently as a Cinema Consultant. Apart from the very wonderful Campbeltown Picture Palace in Argyll and Bute, these cinemas are all in Southern/South West England, East Anglia or the East Midlands. I don’t think that the points she makes are inapplicable in the North of England, the region I know best, or in the other Home Nations, but I suspect that there might be some economic differences and possibly other factors. Nevertheless I found the whole presentation very useful. The other discourse was about regeneration of high streets and town centres and, looking into the very near future, the need for ‘eco cinemas’ with a net zero carbon footprint. No longer is the small neighbourhood cinema at a disadvantage with the large cinema chain which initially invested in out of town multiplexes in the peak building period of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In stark contrast, Fischer referred to new research that suggests that in many small towns, cinema patrons would prefer not to use a car and instead walk or cycle (strangely no mention of buses or trains) to get to their local screen. This is related to the concept of the ’15 minute city’ in which all the necessary facilities for a healthy lifestyle are within the same accessible locality. Re-purposing buildings in the town centre is more ecologically friendly than an out of town facility requiring a car for most audiences. Re-purposing saves on building costs and often has the support of older townspeople, reviving memories. Fischer gave an example of the benefits of digital technologies when she made the point that a new generation of smaller digital projectors can be ceiling-mounted without the need for separate projection rooms. But also important is the transformation of some existing cinemas with their lack of enough space in foyer areas. She showed how this had been solved at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.
There was much more in the presentation that I haven’t been able to cover but Stefanie Fischer ended with a rallying cry, saying “There is a hunger – people have to be able to see films” – and neighbourhood cinemas can satisfy that hunger at minimal cost to the environment and maximum benefits to communities. There was plenty of time for questions and comments. The one I recognised immediately was about the upmarket ’boutique’ cinemas. Some of these from the Everyman and Curzon chains do meet some of Fischer’s criteria, including the repurposing of ex-traditional circuit cinemas like the Muswell Hill Odeon, the Curzon Sheffield in a bank building or the Curzon Ripon in shops. There is nothing new in this. The major specialised cinema in Sheffield, The Showroom, was housed in an ex-car showroom and Cornerhouse in Manchester was partly in a furniture store. More worrying is the high seat price and the focus on food. One audience member referred to “restaurants with cinemas attached”. That is certainly the reputation of the Leeds Everyman. I have no intention of visiting a cinema in which somebody is eating pizza while I am watching a film. The other downside to these cinemas is the very high seat prices and the equally highly-priced food and drink. Boutique cinemas in London are charging £15 or more and I have come across prices of £20 for weekend screenings (see the new Tivoli Cinema in Cheltenham). The neighbourhood cinemas discussed by Stephanie Fischer are generally sticking to £8 to £8.50, which I think is fairly standard for most of England.
Fischer did use the Broadway in Nottingham as one of her examples and I would class that as an important specialised cinema, one of a few around the country likely to play most foreign language film releases as well as re-releases and archive films, travelling festival seasons etc. ‘Community cinemas’ are usually run by volunteers, often in ‘non-traditional venues’ and screenings on a part-time basis. They have always been an important part of film distribution in the UK, in the form of film societies and public cinemas, especially in rural areas. It would be good if the CTA paid more attention to the sector, even if they do not often use recognisable cinema buildings. After all, “What is Cinema?” as André Bazin asked? It doesn’t mean only the building.
This was a well attended Zoom Event. At one point I counted 78 ‘participants’, including at least one person from North America and I think one from elsewhere in Europe. I’m pleased to see these CTA Events as a member and I look forward to similar events. There have been others that I have not attended because they seemed too specialised for me, but this one was too important to miss. Thank you Stefanie Fischer and the CTA organisers for a valuable insight into the wave of new and ‘returning’ cinemas in our high streets.
The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV companies and particularly from independents. In addition, this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.
Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.
It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.
The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?
There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.
Amazon has agreed to pay up to US$9 billion for MGM. The story was picked up by most of the press very quickly at the end of May with the main focus being the ‘James Bond 007’ franchise. The purchase followed the earlier merger by AT&T, owners of Warner Bros, with the assets associated with the Discovery channel. Consolidation of the major streamers is in full spate with Disney leading the way after its acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox. Apart from the realisation that what was a cartel of major studios running Hollywood has now changed dramatically with the emergence of Amazon, Apple and Netflix, what else is there to say?
In this particular case, quite a lot, I think. Most importantly, in terms of film history, MGM is not a ‘studio’ any more and hasn’t been a major distributor under that name for many years. Many of the reports in the press have been factually incorrect and quite misleading in terms of history. MGM was one of the first Hollywood majors, being created by Marcus Loew, owner of a major theatre chain who bought the film companies ‘Metro’, ‘Goldwyn’ and ‘Mayer’ to create a large integrated film studio founded in 1924. From then up to the 1950s MGM developed to become the biggest of all the studios with the proud boast of ‘more stars than in the heavens’. However, once Loew’s theatres were divorced from the film production and distribution as a result of the 1948 anti-trust ‘Paramount Decision’, MGM became prey to possible corporate raiders. Though the studio carried on through the 1960s, it was finally acquired by Kirk Kerkorian with a controlling share. Gradually it was asset-stripped but still carried on distribution as a major. Kerkorian was more interested in creating the MGM luxury hotel in Las Vegas. In 1981 in an attempt to save the company MGM took over United Artists which had itself folded after the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate. MGM-UA continued as a not very successful distributor and in 1985 the final blow fell with sale of the studio to Ted Turner. Turner’s main interest was MGM’s library of titles (including some pre-1950 Warner Bros titles and various rights to RKO titles). Once he had acquired the library, Turner sold the other parts of the business back to Kerkorian, but the studio assets were quickly bought by Lorimar. Turner was early into the market for ‘content’ and he used the MGM library as the basis for his TCM cable channel. Later, Turner’s library was in turn taken over by Warner Bros. when it brought Turner Communications into the conglomerate. Today Time Warner controls the pre-1986 MGM library.
In reality, the 4,000 titles that Amazon might acquire do not include the famous MGM titles that most of us would recognise. The post 1986 library does have some interesting titles, but not many and some of the 4,000 will be titles from other libraries that MGM has acquired both before the sale to Turner and subsequently. This includes the United Artist’s library and that’s where James Bond comes in. The Bond films were distributed by UA from 1962 up until 1983 when Octopussy was distributed by MGM-UA in the US but UIP in the UK. As far as I am aware, MGM co-owns the copyright for the James Bond film rights with Eon Productions, the company now run by Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, heirs to Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli who founded the original company with Harry Saltzman. MGM’s share in the rights comes from the purchase of Saltzman’s interest. If the Amazon deal goes through Amazon will have a share of the James Bond rights but not complete control. Much of the press coverage seems to be based on the idea that Amazon has acquired its own major film franchise and I’m not sure that is the big prize.
Intellectual Property is an increasingly complex field and I don’t claim any great expertise in it. I’m not sure what all the ramifications of Amazon’s deal might be, but I do think that most press reports about the news of the proposed acquisition were published with very little knowledge of what actually constitutes MGM in 2021. For most film scholars with an interest in classic MGM films, I don’t think the proposed takeover will mean very much but I’m prepared to be proved wrong. I do note that the acquisition would give Amazon access to a range of US TV titles (such as The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017-) which might be the most valuable content in the deal?
The COVID pandemic has increased everyone’s interest in streaming films and TV programmes. Netflix in particular saw a big leap in subscribers and it all looked good news for the streamer which had officially become a ‘Hollywood major’ with its entry into the MPA (the Motion Pictures Agency), the Hollywood trade association and the most powerful agency in filmed entertainment. However, Netflix has a single weakness in its position in that it has no other source of revenue apart from its subscriptions. The other MPA members each have other revenue streams or access to content libraries. Netflix must spend to create new ‘content’ and generate enough new revenue to from new subscribers to balance the books. Amazon is clearly in a different position and if this purchase goes ahead it will have boosted its own stock of library titles. I doubt the ‘consolidation’ in the streaming market has concluded yet. The question is whether Netflix can survive without buying a library or finding a new revenue source.
May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]
Friese-Greene was one of a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.
Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.
Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.
He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.
The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.
Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.
Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.
The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.
Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.
The documentary’s directors offer this statement:
To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.
Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.
Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli
Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.
Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.
Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.
In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.
Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.
Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).
Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.
It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)
The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.
There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.
On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.