One wedding and a deal: The art-house cinema scene faces a radical shake-up

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The Independent Online
You may never have heard of Mayfair or Artificial Eye but between them they pretty much determine what art-house films you see in London, where you see them and how long they will run. Both companies are distributor/exhibitors which means they buy films and show them in their own cinemas, as well as leasing them to other companies. Now these two have merged to form a powerful force (some would say a monopoly) on the London art-house scene. This will mean more European films, more Japanese high culture-schlock such as Beat, more American independents such as Hal Hartley and better quality pictures which would have been too expensive or too risky to show before. It might also mean that they will no longer bother with the quirky and eccentric (some might say unwatchable) films that make the art-house cinema so vibrant. There is a danger that if they start paying more they will want a guaranteed return, which is understandable - cinema is commerce as well as culture. But if we lose the chance to see experimental or 'difficult' films such as Accion Mutante just because they are 'bad' and don't make money, we will miss out on the gems that become cult classics and just be fed pseudo-mainstream middle-brow fare tailor-made for the urban middle-class cineaste.

Just a few years ago you were as likely to see a foreign-language 'art-house' film in the annual UK top 50 as get carrot cake and real coffee in a multiplex. That all changed in 1990, thanks to Palace Pictures. When Cinema Paradiso was released in February of that year it set a precedent for foreign films crossing over into the mainstream. It also made big bucks. The following year saw Cyrano De Bergerac being played in multiplexes across the country. This was unheard of; most people go to the movies to watch a film, not to read subtitles. Today construction is well advanced on London's first specialist art house six-screen multiplex which will soon open on the site of the old Brixton Ritzy.

When the Warner West End opened last October, the owners expressed the aim of programming more art-house fare. The Warner screened Les Visiteurs, the first foreign-language film to premiere on Leicester Square (if you don't count The Wedding Banquet which had a good proportion of subtitles but was pretty much English language) and the city's art-house profile notched up another point.

Yet even during a boom, specialist film distributors operate on a knife's edge, so in the middle of a recession they become vulnerable. The problems of maintaining cashflow, fighting for screens and keeping product on them all intensify, especially without the cushion of an occasional blockbuster. Obviously, having your own cinemas in which to show the films reduces the risk.

There are fewer European films shown in the UK than in any other comparably sized European country and for more than a decade the market share for non-UK European films has been the lowest in Europe. Part of the reason is that television stations such as Channel 4 and BBC2 have reduced their purchases of foreign-language films, and that has hurt distributors who need the cushion of a UK television deal. On the other hand the growth of the art-house video market has filled some gaps. With revenues from sell-through videos rising and few specialist films being released nationwide, cinema releases may be used as a 'trailer' to promote the videos, which in turn finance the more expensive theatrical acquisitions.

But back to Artificial Eye and Mayfair. The deal is effectively a marriage of Mayfair's money (much from real estate) and the expertise of Pam and Andi Engel, long-term players in art-house films. The deal links most of London's flagship art cinemas into one powerful operation (Curzon West End/Curzon Mayfair/Curzon Phoenix/ Minema Knightsbridge/Richmond Filmhouse/ Chelsea Cinema/Camden Plaza/Lumiere/Renoir 1&2) which will dominate the market for virtually all specialist releases in the capital.

It will mean more films such as Short Cuts, Like Water For Chocolate and Belle Epoque, and while the public's taste for more 'thoughtful' films - The Crying Game, The Piano and Peter's Friends - has increased, the larger, richer, more powerful distributors have stepped in at ever earlier stages to snap up the best product. Strictly Ballroom was a good example of a perfect art-house film, but because of the general lack of product around at the time, Rank Film Distributors paid more than pounds 1m for the rights to handle it, a sum no specialist independent could match. The merger will combine the resources of the two companies to create deep pockets from which to buy films and finance their marketing. The other main advantage is that they have secured a substantial exhibition 'bloc' in the capital. Not only does that reduce the risk because the distributor can participate in the first box-office pound, it also means a film can be 'indulged' for a longer period.

The strength of the merged companies, however, has not been able to avert the imminent closure of The Camden Plaza, owned by Artificial Eye. The landlords have raised the rent to pounds 100,000 - a sum no art-house cinema could afford. This will mean punters in Camden Town will have to go to Islington, Hampstead or Swiss Cottage to see any films at all.

What though of the competition? The Metro cinema is also owned by a distributor/exhibitor Metro/Tartan, which also has a successful video arm so there's little threat there. The Prince Charles does very well out of waiting for films to come off the West End and giving them another run. The ICA has its own product line and cinemas such as The Gate Notting Hill, The Screen On The Hill or the Electric survive by programming some blockbuster films to make up the shortfall from niche films. What it might mean is that other art-house distributors such as Electric or Blue Dolphin will find it harder to get the best screens and release dates for their films.

How many times have you decided to see an arty film, perhaps Short Cuts, and found that only two weeks into its run it has been removed to make way for US-produced bubblegum? Also with multiplexing, the number of London screens available to specialist films outweighs the supply of films, leading distributors to book films into a large number of cinemas in an attempt to exploit 'cross-over' potential before the film has had a chance to show if it has any. That is now less likely to happen with the films the new joint venture has acquired in Cannes, Hal Hartley's Amateur for example. The future releases you might like to see are likely to get to play out their natural lives. While the films may not have the 'legs' of a centipede, the carrot cake and coffee brigade can be sure that they will remain at a cinema nearby for more than a minimum run.

(Photograph omitted)