Cinema puts its faith in the British villain

Multiplex summer hopes are pinned on blockbusters, many starring baddies from Blighty, after losing out to sport last year

Click to follow
The Independent Online

British villains are everywhere in cinema trailers right now: a sure sign that Hollywood is about to kick-off the summer blockbuster season.

Ben Kingsley hams it up with a marvellously exaggerated drawl – "you'llllllll neverrrrrr seeeeee meeeeee comiiiiiing" – as part of his take on Iron Man's arch enemy, The Mandarin and Benedict Cumberbatch ditches Sherlock to menace Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, and the rest of the Star Trek crew, warning that he will walk over their "cold corpses".

Hollywood executives are salivating over their roster of superhero franchises, like X-Men spin-off The Wolverine; sci-fi fantasies, notably big robots vs very big aliens mash-up Pacific Rim; and huge money reboots of television shows, such as the $250m (£163.5m) budget The Lone Ranger. They spy a bumper summer, which is great news for a British cinema industry – particularly Odeon, Cineworld, and Vue, the three leading UK multiplex chains – that had so few major, mass audience flicks in the key summer months of 2012.

"For the apparent big guys of the industry, there was a big gap between Avengers Assemble and Skyfall," says an industry source, referring to the comic book movie and the latest James Bond adventure. "The reality was that in June you had the Euro 2012 football championships and, in August, the Olympics. With events like that, with live content on television like that, you don't necessarily get the big releases."

The prominent exception of The Dark Knight Rises aside, there were few mega-budget films released in the UK between May and October. Indeed, most cinema executives were thankful to Skyfall for salvaging 2012, as Daniel Craig's Bond became the first motion picture to take £100m at the British box office. In fact, such was the success of the 23rd entry of 007's celluloid exploits that UK cinemas took £1.1bn in 2012, defying most expectations.

Phil Clapp, the chief executive of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, says: "Admissions were 19-20 per cent down in the key summer months last year; it wasn't a very great summer. But most people are expecting this to be a good year, dominated by many films rather than just one or two."

That popcorn lovers were desperate for a special effects-laden spectacle after months of watching England get knocked out on penalties, Andy Murray reaching the Wimbledon final, and Jessica Ennis cruising to gold, was probably a factor in Skyfall's success.

It also meant that there were what Clapp refers to as "breakthrough films", middling budget movies making great money as they sold tickets to those who were fed-up with the great summer of sport. The Mark Wahlberg comedy vehicle Ted, for instance, essentially made back its budget in Britain alone, taking a little more than £30m on UK shores.

It seems likely that "sleeper" hits will be thin on the ground this summer, squeezed out in a blaze of CGI. And this could prove to be a long time of struggle for those less dependent on special effects and green screens.

Iron Man 3 kicks-off blockbuster season early in the UK this year, as Robert Downey Jr snarks his way through more than two hours of explosions and terrorist attacks from next week.

The net result should be that cinemas make up the shortfall from last summer and are at least flat on 2011, which peaked at 21.4 million admissions in August. A little ticket price inflation could well mean picture houses make more money this year.

What some smaller cinema groups have done, in what is a fragmented market beyond the very biggest multiplexes, is specialise in arguably more high-brow films in order to capture a substantial niche of the market. The 10-strong chain of Everyman Cinemas, for example, picks what it thinks are the best films showing, regardless of budget.

From Leeds in the north to Winchester in the south, Everyman has had a good start to the year selling tickets for award winning movies like Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Lincoln and Argo on the back of their Oscar successes.

Everyman chief executive Andrew Myers says: "We're picking what we think are the best offerings. Multiplexes that have so many films are more like shopping with a basket."

And that basket is going to be overly full this summer, meaning there could also be some very high budget failures that simply don't capture the audience's imagination. Indeed, ratings agency Fitch has even warned that the craze for 3D films could start to slide, as the higher prices for these versions of a film negate one of cinema's big advantages during turbulent economic times.

Fitch said last week: "Going to the movies remains one of the lower-cost forms of entertainment. However, increased pricing, particularly on 3D films, may erode this perception over time.

"Consumers are focused again on the overall quality of the film and are weighing the cost of a premium ticket versus a base 2D ticket."

So, there are some warnings for cinema bosses anticipating queues forming around the block for tickets – as well as for hot dogs, sweets and soft drinks – but at least they won't be reliant on a heavy drinking, ageing superspy to save their year this time around.

Iron Man 3

The latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that also includes comic book superheroes Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. They all came together in last year's huge blockbuster Avengers Assemble.

Star Trek into Darkness

This first film in this reboot of the original series won over non-Trekkies in 2009. Hard-core fans fume that the Star Trek "canon" has been cast aside. Villainous Benedict Cumberbatch could win them over this time.

Man of Steel

Superman is back in the muscular form of British actor Henry Cavill. This is a far grimmer take on the Krypton native than anything seen in the Seventies and Eighties films, when the late Christopher Reeve donned the red cape.

The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann, who directed the bombastic Moulin Rouge and the comically dreadful Australia, turns his hand to adapting F Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel. Leonardo DiCaprio will draw in the punters as Jay Gatsby.

Before Midnight

The opposite of epic, this is the third instalment of the walking and talking movies starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. With no CGI and so few actors, this romance remains low-budget but has a built-in, returning audience