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.
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.