Category Archives: Cinema Industry

How I learned to stop worrying and create my own DCPs

Ever since digital projection became the norm, I’ve been trying to crack the problem of finding some decent intros, preferably reasonably priced and personalised to my cinema.  (Here’s one that I used to see every week at the local during my youth.) This used to be pretty easy in the 35mm days – you would order a few reels stating ‘Coming Soon’ or ‘Starts Friday’ or ‘Our Feature Presentation’, use them ’til they got scratched to buggery, then buy replacements.  They were readily available from the likes of Jack Roe or Sound Associates. But with digital – because you only needed to buy them once – the usual suppliers dropped them.

Some online searching led me to a company called Cinitize, who supplied some decent off-the-peg options at not-objectionable prices. (They will also created personalised versions, though these will, unsurprisingly, set you back a lot more.)  This is their pop bulb coming attractions trailer:

One disappointment is that some of their material is a bit American. Not that I blame them, but most of their trails about phones refer to ‘cell phones’ which looks odd to UK audiences, and most just ask you to silence them rather than turn them off, as though those little glowing screens don’t distract anyone. Still, I’ve been using several of their trailers for about a year. But I’ve still been hankering for something that’s a bit more specific to us.

When I discovered that there were free programmes available to create DCP files, I started to wonder – are these easy for the fairly non-technically adept to use? Can I combine these with my 8 year old version of Photoshop and create something that won’t embarrass me if I put it on screen?

I started out by looking for a programme that would let me create a simple animation. I downloaded Blender, but after a quick look it became clear that I was biting off more than I could chew.  So I started simple: trying to create a static slide asking customers to turn off their phones, that I could add to the programme just before the film started.  Jpeg artwork ready, I turned to Open DCP to see if I could convert it.

I couldn’t. However, some more online research led me to DCP Builder, which I’ve found to be rather more user friendly, largely thanks to its simple wizard which leads you through the process. Again, standard Photoshop formats weren’t what was needed – and a single slide, I discovered, leads to something that appears on screen for less than a second.

Finally, I turned to Windows MovieMaker.  It turns out that a single image can be turned into an 8 second unmoving film.  (Who knew?)  This can then be freely converted online into the necessary format for DCP Builder to use.

This was encouraging, but the real breakthrough came when I discovered that you can download lots of royalty-free animated clips ideal for cinema intros, for free – and some music to go with them. Here’s one example which seemed ideal:

OK, I know we don’t use reels or film anymore, but they still say ‘cinema’ better than any of the little zeroes and ones that might represent digital projection.

Sadly, though the backgrounds work fine in moviemaker, the programme didn’t allow me to overlay my venue’s logo.  That can be done, but it looks like I’d have to actually spend some money on a more sophisticated programme, which I was trying to avoid.  So I had to fade into a still image at the end:

I added music to the film, but I discovered that DCP builder doesn’t recognise that – you need to load the music file separately. Unless you want the track to start right at the beginning (I didn’t), this means editing.  Turns out there’s some free stuff that will let you do that too.

With a combination of a free countdown background, free music and a slide of my logo, I ended up with this:

It’s getting there, and with a little more tweaking I have no doubt that I’ll be running my own trails and intros on screen within the next week or so. Whether any members of the audience will notice the difference, I have no idea – but I’ll know.  A more elaborate programme could enhance it – maybe I’ll invest at some point.

And if any cinema operators reading this feel like getting their own versions… well, the stuff I used is all freely available.  Alternatively, I would be delighted to create something for you at a very reasonable price.

Finally, if anyone is still wondering why I bothered with all this, here’s a collection of classics from the past that inspired me.

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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. 

Some thoughts on the BBFC ban of Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence

So the BBFC have banned Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence.  It’s very rare for them to refuse a certificate outright – it’s usually a matter of a few cuts, often to achieve a lower certificate.  But this time it’s a flat no.  Nobody in the UK will be able to watch the film legally.  And my first thought was: Oh, thank fuck for that.
This disturbed me a bit, because I think of myself as being someone opposed to censorship of this nature.  Certification, sure, making it clear that some material isn’t suitable for children – don’t have a problem with that.  But telling adults that they aren’t grown up enough to watch a film, one that consists of a made up story performed by actors in the process of which nobody was hurt?  That’s just not on. 

My feeling was always that you’re either against censorship or you’re not.  It’s no good being against it until you run into something you personally find offensive; that’s easy.  It’s arguing for the right of people to watch (or read, or hear) material that turns your stomach that’s the challenge.  And I used to be able to do that; I’ve no desire to see I Spit On Your Grave, for example (either the original or the recent-ish remake) but I’m happy to accept the makers’ assurances that its not intended as porn for rape fantasists and allow it to be seen by consenting grown ups.  Years ago, I went to see Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer partly because of the trouble it had getting a UK certificate.   More recently, I went to a screening of Last House on the Left at the ICA, aware that it might be my only chance to see it (it’s since been released uncut on DVD).  It was horrible, but given the subject matter it should be.
This was partly because my interest in film started forming at around the time when a fair few of the films I would have liked to see were banned.  I hadn’t really noticed the Video Nasties furore, which led to the passing of the 1984 Video Recordings Act; I was just a couple of years too young to take an interest.  I only really found out about it a few years later, when I picked up a copy of Martin Barker’s book The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media.  This was how I discovered the reasons why I wasn’t allowed to see (among others) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Exorcist. 

I was particularly suspicious because of the sort of people who were making these decisions for me; they seemed to be ghastly Bible-bashers of the James Anderton variety, or hysterical ‘think of the children’ types.  None of them seemed to speak for me, or have any grasp of the kind of films I was interested in.
But Human Centipede 2 is something else.  It’s partly because I’m getting older; unrelenting misery and nihilism just doesn’t seem as clever to me as it did when I was a sixth former.  Call me a big old softy, but I like a happy ending, or at least a glimmer of hope (which is why I still enjoy the Saw films: Jigsaw’s trying to help those people, not kill them!).   I found Human Centipede 1 to be a thoroughly repugnant film, one that depressed me just by existing.  Yet it’s apparently a picnic compared to the follow up, which the BBFC press release tells us “Unlike the first film, the sequel presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation, and the viewer is invited to witness events from the perspective of the protagonist. Whereas in the first film the ‘centipede’ idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the ‘centipede’ idea as the object of the protagonist’s depraved sexual fantasy.
I certainly won’t lose any sleep from being denied the opportunity to see that.  But looking at the extended plot description, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something more going on here than the desire to shock.  The BBFC release tells us the story is about “a man who becomes sexually obsessed with a DVD recording of the first film and who imagines putting the ‘centipede’ idea into practice… [there is] a scene early in the film in which he masturbates whilst he watches a DVD of the original Human Centipede film, with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, and a sequence later in the film in which he becomes aroused at the sight of the members of the ‘centipede’ being forced to defecate into one another’s mouths, culminating in sight of the man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the ‘centipede’…”
What’s interesting is that the first film is here presented as a fictional work, and the villain is one of its viewers.  It’s worth asking what director Tom Six is up to.  Is he simply looking for a way to outdo the first film, or is he deliberately asking viewers to identify with his lead character?  If so – if he has switched to making his torturer into the viewer’s point of identification, something you couldn’t say of the first film – is he implicating the people who watched and enjoyed his previous work? 

From this perspective, Human Centipede 2 sounds closer to something like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games than anything else.  Maybe he’s telling us that anyone who enjoyed the first film must be sick in the head.   In that case, perhaps he’d agree with the BBFC’s ban. 

The public mood changes over the years; many of the formerly banned video nasties have re-emerged uncut on DVD.  Some can still shock, but in many cases you would wonder what all the fuss was about.  Maybe the same thing will happen to Human Centipede 2; it’s hard to say, as I’m not allowed to see it.  Perhaps I’d better keep an eye out for downloadable versions.  That, or just shrug it off and accept that I’ve started to turn into a Tory.

Edinburgh 2011

So with about a month to go before it starts, the Edinburgh Film Festival programme has been released.  And it’s… interesting.
This year’s EIFF has been hit by funding cuts – a deal with the UK Film Council to support the move to June ended last year – and it’s noticeably smaller than before.  Big premieres are noticeable by their absence (there’s no closing night film, for example, and no Best of the Fest on the final Sunday… maybe they’re not anticipating many sellouts).  More puzzlingly, there’s no Michael Powell Award for Best British Film, which was something that made Edinburgh stand out from the rash of festivals, and can’t have encouraged the submission of potentially major films.  
One film widely expected to be in the programme was We Need to Talk about Kevin, starring as it does EIFF Patron Tilda Swinton.  Unfortunately, it’s late 2011 UK release date means Artificial Eye are holding it back – a perfectly sensible decision from their point of view (a UK premiere at the London Film Festival will make more sense), and there’s nothing new about big Cannes titles failing to show up in Edinburgh. 
The Festival has retreated entirely from the Cineworld to the Cameo and Filmhouse (plus a few others).  No doubt some will see this as a good thing – there is grumbling from the some sections of the press every year about having to see films in a multiplex usually patronised by – shudder – ordinary cinemagoers.  To this I say, bollocks.  Quite apart from the fact that a Festival of this nature ought to be reaching out to the non-Sight and Sound reading contingent, the Cineworld is a perfectly acceptable venue.  Certainly, after a few screenings on the trot in the cramped and often stifling Filmhouse 1, I invariably find myself thinking wistfully of its generous leg room and air conditioning.
Given that last years EIFF was widely reported to have seen a drop in audiences (though by how much, and how it compared to the Festival’s last year in August, I don’t know; can anyone point me to the info?) it will be interesting to see how the organisers spin the eventual ticket sales for 2011.  I’m not suggesting that ticket sales are the only indicator of a Festival’s success, but if last year’s event is being tagged by some as a disappointment, how will they react to an inevitable drop in a Festival almost half the size of its predecessor? 
So, what have we got?  The theme is ‘All That Heaven Allows’, which means… um… well, I’m not sure, really.  It does involve a screening of the Douglas Sirk film of the same name, though.  And it has involved films being picked by a number of guest curators.  Some of these are very interesting choices; Bela Tarr, for example. He’s programmed Passion, a 1955 Hungarian version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  I can’t imagine getting too many other chances to see that. But there are quite a lot of guest curators, and they only seem to have picked one or two titles each.  I would have preferred to have seen a more substantial selection from one or two curators. 
But that’s enough grumbling; what am I actually looking forward to seeing?  Well, The Guard looks like a promising pick for the opening night.  I rarely get a must-see feeling about big screen documentaries, but a sensible link up with Sheffield’s documentary festival has created a strong non-fiction strand; my top picks are Bobby Fischer Against the World, Sound it Out (about an independent record shop) and Project Nim, from James Man on Wire Marsh.  Studio Ghibli bring us the Mary Norton adaptation The Borrower Arietty (though the purist in me is vaguely resentful we seem to be getting the dubbed version). There’s The Last Circus, the new Alex de la Iglesia, and a number of horror/fantasy titles; I’m most anticipating Norwegian mockumentary Troll Hunter, but there’s also the Argentine end of the world tale Phase 7, and something called Rabies, about which the brochure seems oddly sheepish (“Horror fans will love this”, we’re assured, though it’s “silly”).
But brochure copy only tells you so much; the jury will remain out (even though Edinburgh doesn’t have a jury this year) until we’ve been able to see the films.  It’s a big year for the EIFF, one the organisers readily describe as being transitional, and I’m hoping it will work.  Either way, it will be interesting to see the choices the Festival makes for its future.

The UKFC: What comes next?

Like many others, I was taken by surprise by the coalition government’s announcement about the demise of the UK Film Council. While the UKFC’s funding would certainly have been a likely target for the cost-cutting coalition, the idea that it would be swept away entirely was more of a shock – even to the UKFC themselves.

In the event, the UKFC will be in existence until 2012, albeit gradually winding down, so existing projects and commitments will not be casually brushed aside (like some kind of school building programme). But what happens after that?

The DCMS has said that lottery funding for UK production will continue. However, it has given no indication of how large that funding will be, or how it would be administered (my guess is that it will return to the Lottery itself, who presided over the fund prior to the UKFC’s formation, and gave the green light to films including Billy Elliott and Bend it Like Beckham). Inevitably, this will stall productions that might otherwise have gone ahead, as filmmakers and production companies wait in limbo for some kind of announcement.

Plenty of people have been lining up to dance on the UKFC’s grave. No surprise there: any body which holds the strings of so significant a purse is going to have to turn down a lot of projects, some of which deserved better, and make a lot of enemies. And every time it makes a bad call (Sex Lives of the Potato Men is the one most people bring up) it gives its vocal enemies more ammunition. Even so, there is plenty that the UKFC can be criticised for – the reluctance to fund more personal projects, the failure to develop a new generation of arthouse directors, the generously paid executives, the initiatives allowed to peter out (I’ve had my rant about the Digital Screen Network previously on this blog). But the good work should not be forgotten: whatever one may feel about the creative accounting that allows the UKFC to claim Harry Potter and James Bond movies as British, they have helped to encourage overseas – predominantly Hollywood – productions to come to this country, spending their budget on British crews, cast and locations.

They’ve also made some good choices when it comes to investing in production; commercially oriented films from The Last King of Scotland to The Duchess. The Prints and Advertising Fund is also worthy of praise, a scheme which allowed distributors of arthouse films with wider than usual audience potential (Pan’s Labyrinth, Downfall etc) to apply for funding to increase the number of prints available, taking advantage of critical and/or audience buzz.

That last is significant, because one of the major bugbears I have with the UKFC is that its avowed aim of increasing audiences to what it terms specialised film has repeatedly failed to materialise. It’s fine that Lottery funding should go to things like St Trinian’s or StreetDance – I have no problem with people enjoying shite, at least it’s 100% British shite – but the likes of Fish Tank have been given minimal support.

But the question remains: who is going to administer financial support for film production, and how much will they have to spend? This is significant to me as an exhibitor: a hefty percentage of the films I rely on to bring people to my venue enjoyed UKFC support. Among their upcoming projects which I would anticipate being hits for my business are Tamara Drewe, Another Year, Made in Dagenham and The King’s Speech. Will the supply of films like this dry up after 2012? And what will happen to excellent schemes like First Light?

For the future, I hope that whatever replaces the UKFC looks not just at funding film production but at getting it into cinemas, and getting audiences to come and see it. This means taking on the mantle of distributor as well as producer; working to persuade cinemas to book their product. This body needs to look carefully at each of its films and make judgements about who the audience is, and how best to get the film to them. If you have a mixed slate of (say) Wilderness, The Duchess, and Fish Tank, then you’re looking at three different films with different marketing and distribution needs. A genre piece will work better in the multiplexes; something by Andrea Arnold or Lynn Ramsey will pass through Vue unnoticed, but will flourish in city centre independents like the Picturehouse chain; and The Duchess will have a shot in both markets.

For the more specialised arm of the market, the body needs to offer some excellent financial deals to distributors, some of whom have been severely pissed off by the UKFC’s mishandling of the DSN. They might care to look at the work being done by Soda Pictures and the New British Cinema Quarterly, who are currently touring Skeletons with the support of Q&As from the cast and crew.

Oh, and it would help if the films are good. Did I mention that?

What Went Wrong with the Digital Screen Network

Unless you live in a major city, it’s never been easy getting to see arthouse films in the UK. London may be well served, and the bulk of the foreign language films to reach these shores do get round the larger conurbations, if only briefly. But anywhere else? Not so lucky.

The Digital Screen Network (http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/dsn) was an attempt by the UK Film Council to tackle this. The idea was to kickstart the growth of digital projection in the UK, enabling smaller films to appear on more screens at once, and encouraging cinemas to play more specialised product, thereby encouraging more people to try them.

It sounded good in theory. 35mm prints are very expensive, and for a lot of foreign language/arthouse films distributors can only afford to risk investing in a handful. This means the films take forever to make their way round the country’s arthouse and indie cinemas, whereas a major Hollywood release can play everywhere at once. And if an art release does start generating word of mouth and becomes unexpectedly popular, there aren’t enough copies to meet public demand. With digital, a hard drive can be sent round any number of cinemas, the film downloaded and played at each one. Popular films can be shown wherever there’s a demand, and the wider distribution encourages mainstream audiences to take a risk on something from beyond Hollywood.

A network of 240 screens was set up, with a new digital projector provided for each participating cinema. The deal was each venue would play an agreed percentage of specialised films in return for this very expensive bit of new kit – one which also allows a variety of other events (noticed any opera, theatre or comedy events showing at your nearest Picturehouse? All thanks to digital). Naturally, a lot of cinemas leaped at this. And that’s where things started to go wrong.

Far more cinemas applied than could be included in the network. And by making the application process competitive – cinemas needed to promise an increasing number of specialised screenings across the 5 year timescale of the scheme – the UKFC encouraged people to make major promises that they wouldn’t have to worry about for a few years. This included some of the UK’s major arthouse venues, as well as independently owned small town venues and multiplexes.

That’s right, multiplexes were included. Now, I’ve no issue with such venues being encouraged to show a wider range of films, but some might question the wisdom of a publically-funded body to subsidise digital conversion for the commercial sector. In addition, I would be very interested to know just how big an increase those venues promised; the UKFC’s definition of ‘specialised’, which you can see at http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/media/pdf/r/2/Defining_Specialsied_Film_Update_20_04_08_.pdf , is broad enough to include Bollywood (which is utterly mainstream for some venues), as well as the likes of Inglorious Basterds, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Slumdog Millionaire: all product that would have made it to the Odeons and Cineworlds without any encouragement.

But still, you can see the UKFC’s thinking on this. It’s not really where they went wrong. Their mistake – and it’s a massive one – is that having set up the DSN, they then proceeded to do exactly jackshit with it. For about two years.

I’ve spoken to or corresponded with a number of cinema managers about this, and they all tell much the same story. Initially, the UKFC asked for records of specialised films shown by spreadsheet, but that soon stopped, with the promise that all reporting would soon be done over the internet. Then they went quiet. No feedback was received on the programming to date (at least, not to any venue Uncle Frank contacted). No sign of the promised internet reporting. No contact at all over a year.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see that if you want over 200 cinemas to increase their specialised programming – which could potentially be a commercial risk for them – you don’t just leave them to get on with it. You keep an eye on them, you maybe flag up films they might like to consider, keep them up to date with any specialised titles that have proven to do well with audiences. If cinemas are failing to keep up their end of the bargain, you might like to ask them what the problem is, and see if you can come up with a solution. What you do, in other words, is nurture your creation.

But the UKFC didn’t do that. They just clammed up, and left most of the cinemas to assume they’d lost interest and had stopped taking notes.

Eventually, the long-promised online reporting system appeared, and venues were asked to check and confirm a couple of years of programming. Hardly a surprise that many had underperformed, mostly through no fault of their own. And someone at the UKFC must have woken up at around this time, because they started making very bullish noises; Peter Buckingham, the UKFC’s Head of Distribution, was telling industry conferences that “if you don’t meet your contractual commitments, you will lose your digital projector.”

This helpful attitude was carried on to a letter sent out to underperforming cinemas in summer 2009, threatening to find any cinemas failing to meet their required number of specialised screenings in breach of contract, meaning they could lose their digital projector. Having trouble? Need to run popular films to pay the bills? Discovered your audience prefers Mamma Mia and Sex and the City to non-stop arthouse? Tough.

With hindsight, one has to wonder how much of this hard-ass posturing (because nobody seriously believed the UKFC was going to have all these projectors removed from cinemas up and down the country – aside from being a very public admission of the DSN’s failure, it would be a massive pain in the arse) was down to the impending budget cuts at the UKFC, and the publically raised possibility of a merger with the British Film Institute. Were I of a cynical bent, I might wonder if people were suddenly feeling the need to justify their continued employment.

Eventually, the UKFC blinked. Having stated that they would not renegotiate any venues’ contracted specialised levels, they sent out a letter carefully worded so as not to sound like a complete reversal of that position. Instead, the agreements have now been extended by a year, and underperforming venues are being asked to keep to a noticeably lower average number of screenings per week. This will allow them to ‘catch up’, apparently.

It won’t, obviously, but it saves face all round. The UKFC may even withdraw a few projectors, just so that they can look tough. But really it just hides the fact that the aims of the DSN have been spectacularly missed. Just by how much is difficult to tell – the UKFC to date have not published the numbers. Their annual statistical yearbook is due out in a couple of months – can we perhaps hope for some hard info on how much specialised film provision has increased in the UK compared to the pre-DSN days, whether that increase is taking place across the commercial and independent sector equally, and who the biggest underperformers are.

I suspect they’ll keep that to themselves. It’s a shame; the objectives of the DSN were laudable and ambitious. Pity that the UKFC didn’t seem all that interested in following them through in practice.

Alice in Wonderland and the shrinking cinema window

No big surprise to see that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has become a major cinema success, helped by the current popularity of 3D. The widely publicised dispute between several multiplex chains and Disney over the early DVD release does not seem to have had any significant impact on the general public’s decision as to whether or not to see the film in the cinema.

But it was never likely to. Alice was always going to be OK, and the cinemas knew that. What they’re concerned about is not the odd blockbuster slipping out early, but the effect on cinemas of a general ongoing erosion of that period of exclusivity. There will always be a handful of films which absolutely demand to be seen at the cinema, be they of the Avatar school of spectacle or the Mamma Mia-style shared experience; but these are relatively rare.

At the other end of the scale to Alice, there have been some experiments with window breaking in the arthouse market; Artificial Eye have released several titles simultaneously in cinemas and through Sky Box Office, and titles from other distributors like The September Issue have had similar releases without the sky falling in on anyone’s heads. But these are films with a limited market, and that market likes to support its local arthouse venue. Given the choice between watching the film with an audience (or at least the right kind of audience, ie people like them) and watching it on telly, they will actively opt for the former.

A bigger question mark is over middle-ranking titles; the likes of Up in the Air, The Blind Side etc. Films which can do well in multiplexes, but need a bit of heat behind them in order to do well, whether it comes from award nominations, a popular star, or both. Will people bother making the effort to see these films, if they know the DVD/download is only a few weeks away? And once that happens, will the people who currently only visit the cinema a few times a year lose the habit altogether?

One possible effect is that we may see fewer films given a cinema release. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there are certainly too many being released right now. Anything up to ten titles come out on any given Friday; there just isn’t room for all of them to find an audience. Look at something like Everybody’s Fine – a perfectly watchable film, which lasted barely a fortnight on general release. Nobody went to see it, but there was no reason for them to. It’s a film that works just as well on TV; there is no impulse to go to the time and effort and making it to the cinema. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to go straight to DVD? The only benefit of a cinema release for a title like this is the potential publicity from the reviews, and perhaps avoiding the stigma of the direct to video stinker. (Whether distributors actually worry about this, I have no idea. Perhaps it’s more of a contractual obligation than anything else.)

Either way, once the theatrical window becomes a thing of the past – and it seems as though ultimately it will – are cinemas living on borrowed time? There’s bound to be a contraction in the market; one or two of the major chains may contract, or give up their theatres altogether. Or maybe they will diversify, presenting more alternative content – big sporting events, more live comedy, opera, theatre. Smaller, locally based cinemas and chains may also be able to weather any contraction in the market, if they can focus on their specific local audience.

But while I don’t see cinemas as being in any way doomed – however threatened their current business model may be – I still regret the loss of the special nature of the cinema experience. I still love seeing films in a big room, and sharing that with a large group of other people. And I wish the people running the studios felt the same way.