Cinema exhibition and the Picturehouse deal

I was more than a little surprised by this morning’s news that Cineworld have bought the Picturehouses cinema chain and  I’ve spent (slightly too much) time following the reactions on Twitter.  It’s been noticeable how many people have been worried that the deal will negatively affect the ambience and programming of their beloved Picturehouse, changing it into another soulless, grotty, uncared for multiplex – the sort of venue they wouldn’t be seen dead in. What they don’t seem to realise is that this is what made the chain so attractive to Cineworld in the first place.
A quote from Cineworld Chief Executive Stephen Wiener, makes this crystal clear: “This acquisition gives us an opportunity to accelerate our growth by reaching new audiences in a high value and growing part of the market.” The high value part of the market he refers to is not arthouse film buffs as such – that particular market segment is miserably small in the UK – but older cinemagoers. Because though Picturehouses have been described in the press today as an arthouse or independent chain (though I’m unclear how large a chain has to be before it ceases to be independent) they’re really about serving a segment of the audience that doesn’t like multiplexes. That audience may flatter themselves, as they read the reviews in their Friday Guardian or Telegraph, that they are interested in arthouse films, but what did they see last time they went to the pictures? Skyfall, most likely, which is why so many ‘independent’ Picturehouse cinemas have been screening it lately (four of their six London cinemas are still showing it today, and it’s in another five across the country).

So the fear that Picturehouses will suddenly be full of mainstream Hollywood releases (or more full than they are already, in some cases) is probably misplaced – though one wonders what will happen if the chain has a bad year and can’t deliver the returns to the new owners.  But it does mean further consolidation in UK cinema exhibition, around 70% of which is now controlled by Vue, Odeon/UCI, and Cineworld.  So where does that leave arthouse releases that aren’t Great Expectations or The Artist?
Coincidentally, I attended a meeting recently which discussed the BFI’s four year strategy, Film Forever, developed following the axing of the UK Film Council, when the BFI found themselves with responsibility for distributing Lottery funding. One was a meeting of smaller commercial cinema operators; one was a BFI ‘meet the funders’ roadshow.
The BFI are in an interesting, and perhaps slightly uncomfortable position; while the UKFC was always aiming to build a sustainable film industry with an eye on the commercial, the BFI has historically been the home of arthouse filmmakers – the Loachs and Leighs rather than the Ritchies and Loves.  Film Forever contains a lot that I’m in sympathy with.  But it does return to the question of how to grow audiences for specialised film, something that the arthouse exhibition sector (and various funding bodies) have been grappling with for decades.
The UKFC had a crack at stimulating increased specialised exhibition with the Digital Screen Network, but – not to put too fine a point on it – fucked it up (I’ve written in detail about this previously on this blog).  Their central idea – that a good way to increase audiences for arthouse releases is to make them more available, and get them shown in more cinemas – is one that is echoed in Film Forever.  It makes sense in principle – reading about a film that sounds great, only to discover it’s only showing 50+ miles away or won’t reach your town for months, is frustrating.  But the whole if-you-screen-it-they-will-come concept is flawed.  The fact is, while some apparently arthouse releases can and do cross over to a mass audience, plenty more won’t, and shouldn’t be expected to – releasing them on more prints isn’t going to change that.  (The January 2013 issue of Sight & Sound has a good piece by David Locke on this subject.) 
One reason why small releases don’t work in multiplexes is because those venues are profit driven. If a film isn’t pulling the numbers in over the weekend, it comes off.  This works against anything that may need word of mouth to build.  In turn, the customers who do like films of this nature come to regard the multiplexes as places that don’t cater for their tastes, and look elsewhere.  (Like a Picturehouse.) 
But if there’s no business reason for cinemas to book specialised films, one has to wonder if cinemas are even the best place for such release.  There has already been experimentation with release windows on some of these titles (avoiding the usual four month of so gap between a film’s cinema and DVD/VOD release).  The pros and cons of this matter are too wide ranging to go into here, but it’s notable that Curzon/Artificial Eye (who, usefully for them, are a distributor which owns or programmes a number of cinemas) also have an on-demand service that shows their own releases (among others) from the date they hit cinemas.
Much of the commercial sector looks with deep suspicion on anything that looks like public money being used to interfere in the market; I know that some smaller cinema operators view Film Forever as an unwelcome, and indeed uncompetitive, interference in their business.  A number of people at the BFI roadshow, on the other hand, were despairing at the paltry amounts of funding on offer.
I had some sympathy for both positions, believing as I do that artistic and commercial sensibilities can work hand in hand.  Though I was slightly catty about Picturehouse programming above, I understand why they operate the way they do.  But there are reasons why specialised films tend not to work in mainstream cinemas, and why they can work in smaller, more individual venues. Part of it lies in the atmosphere – the design of the foyer, the bar, the attitude of the staff, the choice of snacks on offer can all help a visitor decide whether or not this place is designed for people like them.  But ultimately, the secret is in the programming – one size does not fit all, and the best venues know and understand their audiences.  It’s also why a national film strategy developed and controlled from London may be no use whatsoever to large portions of the country.  That’s why consolidation in the exhibition sector is, in the long term, a bad thing – distributors and audiences alike need truly independent venues, both in the commercial and subsidised sectors. 

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