Tag Archives: Digital Screen Network

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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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.