A tear-jerker at the movies

Melanie Clulow considers the tension between art and profit that confronts UK cinema houses

Melanie Clulow
Saturday 04 April 1998 23:02

THE film business is often held up as the most promising of Britain's creative industries. The thinking goes that if there was just the right amount of private investment and government tweaking, the British movie industry would be the envy of the world. Too often left out of the equation, however, is the unglamorous role of the cinemas, without which there would not be much of a film industry anywhere.

On 25 March, the Government's film policy review group released its long- awaited action plan for the industry. Proposals included funding for promotion, script development and distribution, but it did not address the question of the actual viewing of films.

"The exhibition side is perceived to be rolling along nicely," says Peter Buckingham, managing director of Oasis Films and Cinemas, which runs three small cinemas in London and Edinburgh and has a small distribution operation. "To a certain degree that's true, but it doesn't answer the issue of what venue works best for what films. The group has not explored the fact that certain films do better in different cinema-going environments. It's interesting that the review group grew out of producers who can't get their films into multiplex cinemas, or when they do get them in, they don't work. The exhibition side of the industry is the missing ingredient in government film policy."

It's easy to see why the cinema sector is perceived to be doing fine: Britain is in the middle of a cinema-building boom. Since the mid-1980s, the multiplex chains have adopted an "if you build it, they will come" approach that has proved successful. The emergence of the multiplex format in the mid-1980s is credited with the resurgence in cinema admissions from a low of 54 million in 1984 to around 140 million last year. According to Dodona Research, annual admissions are set to climb to 185 million by 2002.

Having freed the movie-going public from the scheduling whims of the pre-1985 single-screen fleapit, the chains are now racing to erect ever more lavish emporiums and "integrated leisure centres" to meet demand. "The country is still under- screened," says Ralf Ludemann, public relations manager at Warner Village. "More than 60 per cent of the population is still more than 20 minutes' drive away from a cinema." Even with prime sites being built up fast - according to Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper, Sheffield will have 70 screens within a one-mile radius by the end of this year - there is plenty of scope in secondary areas.

Warner Village alone plans to boost its number of UK sites from 19 to 40 by 2000, with each new site averaging 15 screens, while two newcomers, Hoyts of Australia and Ster-Kinekor of South Africa, are investing heavily on the grounds that with annual per capita admissions of 2.4 still less than half US levels, there is ample room for growth. Ster-Kinekor, which has 75 per cent market share in South Africa, is investing pounds 48m over five years in five sites in the UK and Ireland. Hoyts, which dominates its home market, is investing pounds 75m on 10-15 sites.

Inevitably, the multiplex boom has led to increased competition and triggered the desire for differentiation, with multiplexes now offering everything from retractable armrests to complimentary crudites in the race to foster customer loyalty. In a few years, analysts say, cinema-goers will be used to loyalty schemes, online ticketing and on-site bars and restaurants that do not look like afterthoughts.

But now that we're all sitting comfortably, it might be time to ask what the multiplex boom has done for British movies. The empirical evidence suggests the multiplex boom has so far not been helpful for small, non- Hollywood films. An art-film fan scanning the movies on offer would be hard-pressed to find anything not bearing Hollywood's stamp. According to one industry player on the distribution side, multiplex culture has made movie-going "as bland as bowling" and polarised audiences, leaving fans of independents out in the cold.

There are currently 2,350 screens in Britain, with the number set to rise to 3,150 by 2002, the vast majority of them in multiplexes. What is shown on those screens comes down to money. According to one estimate, of the 30-40 films on release in Britain at any one time, 90 per cent of revenues are taken by the top three, the next four take 9 per cent, and the remaining 25 scramble for the last 1 per cent.

"It's a commercial business proposition," says Christopher Bailey, head of theatrical distribution at Polygram Filmed Entertainment UK, which handled Trainspotting and Bean. "A film must have commercial merit as well as artistic merit. The prime concern is the bottom line. Independent producers say they don't get representation on screens, but I would say: 'you aren't making the right films'."

Mr Buckingham believes the issue is more complicated than that. "[The emergence of multiplexes] has brought a small increase in the variety of films on offer, but the American model shows that you get more of the same, literally, on more screens. The reason is we're all attempting to be customer-led and to respond to a market, and this is the closest you can get to cinema on demand."

However, Mr Buckingham argues that the special nature of British film culture requires an alternative model. "I think there's a complex relationship between British film production, which tends to be low-budget, and the British exhibition sector." He notes that the average cost of a UK film in 1996 was pounds 3.5m, a sum that would not cover even a relatively minor Hollywood star.

He believes that in the rush to satisfy the demands of the majority, the minority has been ignored. He estimates that art-house films account for about 4 per cent of cinema admissions, and argues that most of these people would rather not see their preferred films in the "shouting, yelling, laser-beam, video-monitors-in the-lobby" environment of the modern multiplex. "Should we therefore be designing cinemas which are expensive beasts, to give a better infrastructure for UK films that are basically defined by the fact of being created by a low budget? That's a complicated equation. I'm not anti-multiplex. They do a fantastic job, but it is a rather homogenous view of the cinema. They are not answering audience diversity."

The multiplexes, however, would beg to differ. They say that as the number of screens increases, more will be available for smaller films. "There's still plenty of room for cinemas, as you can see by the long wait that a lot of films have before they get a release," says Warner Village's Ludemann. "There are simply not enough screens here for the kind of release patterns required by distributors. Good quality films that may not be blockbusters are getting shunted off quickly - or not getting to the screen at all - to make way for the next release." He points out that Warner's new 30-screener in Birmingham, scheduled to open late next year, will have a separate art-house dedicated to European films.

At Virgin Cinemas, marketing director Dave Alder says: "There is always a demand for the blockbusters, but we tailor a range of products based on research into local tastes."

But despite such worthy efforts, small films are not usually where the money is. Crossover hits like The Full Monty are the exception, not the rule. Mike Ross, managing director of Ster-Kinekor Europe, says the company has no plans for an art-house. "If you mix that kind of product into a commercial cinema, you get confusion. If you look at your consumer, it's your popcorn-and-chips brigade that goes to the commercial cinema, the coffee and cake brigade that goes to the arthouse. They are different markets."

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