Bubbling In The Doldrums of British Cinema Exhibition 2009

This is an edited version of a talk I gave recently at the ‘A Century Of Cinema Exhibition: From Silent Screen To Digital Screen’  conference held at Phoenix Square Leicester 10-11 July 2010 and organised by De Montfort University.

At the end of 2008 I began this blog project to document what I called ‘an out and about adventure in the British cinemscape’. I chose to write a topic-driven blog about my attempt to go to local cinemas in and around Leicester to watch every British feature fiction film that went on theatrical release during 2009 , or in effect, as many of them that would be available and I could manage to see. I didn’t know exactly how many films that might be, but as a fortysomething who had stopped going to the cinema beyond once every few months and someone who rented about 40 films a year on DVD, I knew this was going to be a significant lifestyle tweak. I wondered if ‘going out’ would be the new ‘staying in’?
The reaction from most people to whom I mentioned what I was doing was that I was in for a year of masochistic suffering given the reputation of British film. My planned viewing was not a normal way of cinema-going, but that was its appeal. Yearly UK cinema admissions have plateaued around 170 million, so that if an average cinema-goer exists, they go to the cinema 3 or 4 times a year. I hoped that I would learn something about film exhibition in the UK and the qualities of British film, and I did. I wondered if the cinema experience was something to be valued? It was, in a way. I enjoyed it, but I seem to have gravitated back to the sofa and the self-programming of ‘home film culture’ via online DVD rental.
Philip French concluded that in 2009 ‘British cinema generally bubbled in the doldrums’, so I will reflect on my own bubblings as a temporary avid UK film-follower, a ‘Year in Provenance’ if you like.
This blog consists of two main types of posts – ‘Cinema Shows’ – write-ups of screenings attended, which became more infrequent and lapsed by the end of the year, and weekly ‘New Releases Day’ entries that recorded all the 52 Friday weekly scheduled theatrical releases and tracked the release of UK productions. I counted 90 British fiction feature films as being theatrically released in 2009, which is about 20% of total releases of 454. Given the lack of widespread general release for many British films it is very unlikely that you would sense that one in five films are official British fiction feature films. But they are. Whether they deserve to be more widely seen is obviously debatable – but surely there must be several UK films of more interest than many of the less popular American films that get routine distribution.
It is fairly straightforward to find out which films are released each week from the Film Distributors’ Association website or the weekend newspapers, but harder to be definitive about whether certain films are certified UK productions, particularly those with American studio input. I was faced by contradictory evidence on the British Council Britfilms and UK Film Council websites and so I saw some films that I thought were official British films at the time, but consequently were not certified, and others that I did not attempt to see because I thought they didn’t qualify as official US co-productions. In the end I removed 5 from the list and added 5 to the list, so the total remained unaffected overall. The most interesting adjustment from my point of view was the removal of Katalin Varga which was directed by the UK’s Peter Strickland but filmed in Romania and was widely reviewed as one of the better British films of 2009, but which turns out to be a Romanian-Hungarian co-production, but it wasn’t shown in the Leicester area in 2009. Adjustments are made to the advertised and reviewed co-production details at a later date in relation to their certification as British films.
A British film is one which is given a certificate to that effect with reference to the Films Act 1985 in three different ways – the cultural test of significant UK content, contribution, hubs and practioners, or made under a bilateral co-production treaty or finally under the terms of European cinematic co-production. Official UK films become eligible to qualify for Film Tax Relief. According to research by Oxford Economics on the economic impact of the UK film industry, film audiences place a premium on indigenous films. Using econometric analysis, they estimate that a film can expect to recieve up to 30% higher box office revenue if it is indigenous. This extra premium is seen as one way of measuring the cultural value that audiences place on seeking UK film. For example, for a film like The Boat That Rocked, the 6th highest grossing UK film in the UK of 2009, £1.4 millon of its receipts can be attributed to its indigenous nature. If this is the case, why isn’t more done to promote and exhibit British films in UK cinemas?
Like Philip French, I thought that The Boat That Rocked was the turkey of the year, but it was notable for one of the few times that I shared the cinema with a sizable and inter-generational audience, ie quite grown up kids or young adults and their parents.
British films might have an indigenous cultural premium, but of course appeal doesn’t often correlate with satisfaction. One of the most memorable examples of instant feedback that I experienced was at the end of a screening of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus when a young man stood up and declared quite loudly to his companion and I think to the rest of us leaving the theatre, ‘What a load of fucking crap!’.
It is not difficult to see the most popular British films in places such as Leicester. All the top 20 UK films of 2009 were shown in Leicester and I saw all those that I thought were UK films at the time. This included my first and I suspect only theatrical Harry Potter experience. I can’t seem to last to the first advertisement break of any Harry Potter film shown on television, though now the children at a lot older it does seem more interesting to me and I remember being surprised at how many young children were at the screening with adults and wondered how little of the film must have appealed to them.
The theatrical market share of UK films has averaged 23% in the last decade. This is roughly in line with the number of films released, but the annual figure of market share is skewed by a small number of high-grossing films and films with US studio-backing. US-backed UK films accounted for 18% of the market share on average in the last decade, and independent UK films only 5%. Interestingly in 2009 the market share of UK films was down on average to 16.5%, but much more evenly distributed between UK/USA films and UK independents.

So how did I fare in my quest? I saw 38 certified UK fiction feature films theatrically in the cinema 2009, which is about 42% of all UK film releases. I was not meticulous in recording  UK films that were shown in Leicester, but I reckon that about 50 of the 90 UK film releases were screened in Leicester (about 55% of all UK film releases). The ones I missed were those I didn’t think were British and films I just couldn’t fit in, usually limited screenings as the old Phoenix and here at Phoenix Square. In all I saw 45 films at the cinema, massively above the usual 4 or 5 films I usually see.

In addition to the 38 UK films I saw theatrically, I started to watch other UK films on DVD or online when it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to see them theatrically and managed to see 13 that way, making a total of 51 (or about 56% of the total UK releases in 2009). This left me with 39 more to see in 2010 and this year I have watched a further 16 mainly on DVD, leaving 23 more to see. For the purpose of completing the blog, I renewed my deadlines and have set myself the target of watching all the 90 UK fiction feature film releases of 2009 in 90 weeks, and so I have about 10 weeks left to watch the remaining 23.
The old Phoenix was closed for a few months while it relocated here and so that meant that some independent UK films that might have been shown were not available. But the vast majority, over 30 of the 40 films that were not shown in Leicester were on very limited release and opened on fewer than 10 screens nationwide and include many microbudget, low budget or ‘no budget’ films that might only have had a premiere showing and then made almost immediately available on DVD or shown as one-offs at the ICA. Thus, the effective availability of UK films in Leicester is virtually all those save one or two that are given wide distribution above an opening weekend of about 30 screens, and usually much higher than that. There were, then, between a third and half of all UK fiction feature films released in 2009 that were unlikely to reach the mainstream multiplex screens in cities such as Leicester, and that seems to me to be a lack of a diversity of provision and quite a limited opportunity to see a significant proportion of indigenous cinema if you don’t live in or near to London.
For many independent UK films, a conventional widespread nationwide release is not commercially viable and instead a limited theatrical release or one-off premiere is used to generate reviews and publicity for other means of revenue generation such as DVD, VOD and television sales. For example, City Rats was nominally but not actually on theatrical release on 24th April 2009, but available on DVD three days later, despite being hailed as ‘the British gangster movie of the year’.

The viability of distribution and exhibition is questioned by the way that the UK romcom Faintheart used a completely different strategy and evaded a conventional release for a UK Film Council spomsored set of one-off free screenings. See my previous post here.

The most convenient way that I could fit the screenings into my habitual life was to go to the cinema in the late afternoon after work and on the way home, and this was split between 4 main venues – the multiplexes at Freemens Common and the Cinema De Lux at the Shires shopping centre, the Phoenix arts cinema and the independent multiscreen City Cinema. My overriding experience was having a sense that cinema-going is a dying experience, though clearly given the reaction to the latest 3D event movies, it isn’t, but that is how it felt to me because many times I watched films in big theatres with small audiences. To me this created a diminished experience because one of the values of cinema-going is being part of an audience. The screenings at the Phoenix did provide this experience with generally 50 or 80 people present, but more common were audiences of less than 10, and sometimes it was if I was in my own screening room. I didn’t experience ‘a singularity’, being the only person at the screening until I saw Shifty at the Odeon in April, but it was a fairly regular occurence thereafter. Although I was often watching films out of the mainstream audience, this wasn’t always the case. I was also watching some 3D films as a side project and remember seeing Monsters v Aliens in the afternoon with just one other person present. For a moment I thought about sitting next to my fellow cinema-goer in the otherwise large, empty auditorium, but of course I didn’t.

My venue of particular choice became the City Cinema which has 3 screens and a long history in the city. I had never been to this cinema before so this was a new experience, one that became a bit addictive and not because of the budget ticket prices – it just provided a memorable experience out of the empty comfort zone of the multiplexes. For some films it was the only place they could be seen. With Harry Brown I had a choice, but chose to see it there.

In all I saw 5 UK films there, mostly on my own. The City Cinema is like stepping back in time to the multiplex conversions of the early 1980s, though it doesn’t seem to be showing films at the moment. It provided standards of service that were much quirkier than the corporate norm, with sometimes evidence of abandoned attempts to clean up and you would notice bits of stuff stuck the screen like old friends. The ad hoc arrangements and standards of projection were the most fun. It could be out of focus for a while, missing sound, badly framed, or come to a sudden halt before the complete running of the end titles as clear sign that it was time to leave and for the projectionist to return to his newspaper in the foyer.

As well as suggesting that there is an indigenous cultural premium on UK films, the Oxford Economics report also posits that UK films contribute substantially to British cultural life, as key means of expression of UK identity and engagement with issues of national cultural importance. I don’t want to go too much into the cultural milieu of British films, I wasn’t consciously valuing UK films for these aspects, but I do think it is important that British creativity or engagement with indigenous culture is part of the regular cinema-going experience. It is for these reasons, for instance, that I particularly value the authorship and regionality of film-makers such as Shane Meadows. But cultural relevance can sometimes be detrimental. Tormented is a UK film that attempts to create an American high school slasher movie in the context of a UK secondary school, but it’s concerns about social responsibility and teenage welfare means that it is rather laughably peppered with safe sex messages about using condoms.
UK Film Council research about avid cinema-goers constructs attributes and values to help understand these particular passionate types of audiences and what they find rewarding about the experience.
For those of us who love film, at its best I guess cinema fulfils many of these attributes and values that we appreciate, but I think as ‘aficionados’ or film avids we should be allowed to bind ourselves more successfully into social networks and communities of interest around indigenous UK film culture, with cinema screenings as an important constituent.
There are many interesting UK films that aren’t given wide enough distribution and exhibition because they are seen to be beyond the mainstream audience, but it would be good if exhibition space could be found and the cinematic experience promoted for indigenous UK film culture, such as for the growing ‘no budget’ and microbudget films that are being facilitated by greater access to film production technologies, or appreciating how many UK films are made by one-off production companies and debut directors.
In effect you only have the choice of seeing about half of the total UK films that are released in a cinema near you.
The story is that you can’t see everything that you want to see at a place and time of your choosing. As Peter Buckingham observes, the gatekeeping of traditional cinema, where 75% of seats are unsold, seems to be about preventing people from seeing what they want to see. Should this be treasured and encouraged, or is it time for cinemas to be blown off course to create a more audience-responsive and vibrant UK film culture?
Purpose-built cinemas may no longer be fit for their purpose due to size of the theatres, restrictions of distribution and the weekly release pattern and distribution gatekeeping. Perhaps we could have a revival of pre-electric palace spaces like shops and fairgrounds, more informal spaces to encourage non-conventional screening culture so that there isn’t a complete drift to non-theatrical film-viewing of UK film on DVD and online and the cinema doesn’t get left to mainstream event films from the major studios.


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