Why we must be Patient for release of top films

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It Has drawn ecstatic audiences around the world, it has 12 Oscar nominations, including one each for director Anthony Minghella and stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes, but British audiences still can't see The English Patient, one of the most successful British films of all time.

Last week, the film's British distributors said they were sticking to a 14 March opening for the desert romance, based on Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel. So just why is it that British audiences get to see films so much later than American, or even other European movie fans?

The reasons, say distributors, are both to do with deliberate delaying tactics on their part and a shortage of cinema screens in this country.

Richard Napper, director of sales for Buena Vista, the distributor releasing The English Patient, said: "The US domestic release, and its success or failure, helps the studio to evaluate the extent of the international release. And screen congestion means that you can't always get access to the best cinemas when you want to."

The English Patient may seem like a British film over here thanks to its stars and director, but it was produced and distributed by American companies affiliated to Disney - and they call the shots.

Just how well films do in America can have a remarkable impact on their fortunes in Britain. When The Crying Game was first released in Britain on 30 October 1992, it was poorly received at the box office. Then a month later the film was released in the US where it took $62.5 million. Suddenly it was perceived as hot here too and a second wave of interest propelled the film to success.

Finding the space for a new film in Britain can also delay its opening. Although new multiplex cinemas seem to open almost daily, Britain remains severely lacking in screens compared with other countries. We have 2,200 screens; there are 4,000 in Germany, 4,700 in France and 3,700 in Italy.

Added to this shortage is a glut of big films all backed with expensive marketing campaigns looking for between 200 and 400 screens.

Multiplexes may have changed the face of local cinema going, but in the world of film launches the cinemas that still count most of all are those in London's West End.

For the ordinary cinema-goer, this too can lead to frustration as the distributors queue for a slot at a flagship Leicester Square screen.

Ralph Ludemann is the box office editor of 'Screen International'.

Minghella profile, page 21