Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Seeing It Differently

There are many key differences between British film producers and American film producers but the one that sticks is the argument that an American film producer will see everything whereas a British film producer will wait around for films to get sent to them at home.

For us regular punters, going to the cinema is a given. It's not just a place to pass time; it's a temple where we venerate great filmmaking ― though the notion of most new films being in any way venerable is a hard argument to sustain. Watching movies in a theatre with a collective audience is a fantastic experience. One can gage how people react to what they see and the types of films they respond to. If your job is making movies then it should be a pre-requisite to go to the movies as much as possible, but alas, that doesn't seem to be the case in Britain. Perhaps that's why the British film industry often fails to produce movies that connect with audiences, especially when it comes to the ostensibly commercial releases it produces.

Over the Christmas period, Peter Weir's brilliant historical survival movie The Way Back entered the UK box office at a very respectable 4th place, earning £1.3 million on the way. It's a finely crafted picture made by a legendary director who has previously won 2 BAFTA awards for directing Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Truman Show; gaining further BATA nominations for Dead Poets Society and Witness. Last week it was revealed that The Way Back had failed to make the BAFTA longlist as a result of its UK distributor E1 not wanting to send out screeners to academy members because they thought voters should make the effort to pop along to their local cinemas and watch the film. BAFTA members obviously thought themselves too superior to watch a sophisticated epic drama at theatres full of proletariat folk and demonstrated their chagrin towards The Way Back by failing to recognise it in the first round of voting.

But it is exactly at this time of year that movie studios press DVD copies of their myriad of awards worthy prestige pictures because they realise academy voters are a lazy bunch of bastards and if they do not spoon feed their good movies to them then voters will not bother recognising their films. For serious films to make money it's very important that they harvest positive word of mouth. At multiplexes around the country, where mature dramas are being squeezed out by expensive tentpole flicks and insipid family films, the fight to survive is becoming a losing battle. There is an audience for grownup dramas but that audience isn't always willing to go to the cinema to watch these films on opening night. By the time they do get around to watching them the exhibitors yank the films because of lacklustre response.

Perhaps the best way to get these films to key audiences is by adopting a similar technique distributors use to entice BAFTA voters: get the movies to audiences by letting them watch those flicks at home at the same time they're screening in cinemas. The merger of cinema and television has never been more intense than it currently is. American networks have challenged the cinematic template by creating large scale productions helmed by distinguished movie directors exclusively for the small screen. Just look at Frank Darabont's zombie epic The Walking Dead and Martin Scorsese directing key episodes of Boardwalk Empire as proof of lavish productions not being compromised by televisual aesthetics. Mad Men delivers cinematic production values to content that would largely go unrecognised if it was only released in theatres. (Anyone remember Revolutionary Road?) Established filmmakers are realising that their most personal work is better served by the small screen as can be seen by Jay Roach's TV movie Recount which dramatised the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent recounts in Florida; or Mike Nichols' TV mini-series Angels in America which examined the AIDS crisis during the mid-1980s. In Britain we had The Red Riding Trilogy which was a decade-spanning indictment of police corruption built around the Yorkshire Ripper case and comprised of a series of three, 90-minute features directed by Becoming Jane's Julian Jarrold; Man on Wire's James Marsh; and Hilary and Jackie's (ahem, Leap Year's) Anand Tucker, respectively. The latter two episodes of The Red Riding Trilogy were filmed in 2.35:1, clearly showing its cinematic aspirations even though it was made for television. If anything, television is now the new cinema, affording filmmakers greater scope to take chances and rewards them with reliable audiences.

The argument isn't even so much about whether a movie should be made for cinema or television, but rather a question about distribution. My argument is that a film like The Way Back should be released almost simultaneously in cinemas and through video-on-demand/ Pay-per-view. Although the home can never compete with a grand cinema experience, the proliferation of HD big screen televisions and robust digital home amplifiers do a better job than ever at replicating a cinematically big experience. Furthermore, when we look at films like The Kids are Alright earning a so-so £1.5 million at the UK box office, and future releases like The Fighter; Blue Valentine; Rabbit Hole and True Grit potentially having a more rocky chance of replicating their U.S. successes here in Britain because their stories may seem too parochial; it makes sense to concurrently rush them on to accessible mediums like premium television. Heck, even hyped up British films like Made in Dagenham and Tamara Drewe couldn't muster more than a couple of million at the UK box office, thus suggesting either picture may have fared better with a contemporaneous cinema/ home release.

Though the way we watch movies is changing with portable multimedia devices playing a more integral role in how we consume our movies, there is nothing like releasing a good film in the cinema at the right time and then reaping the rewards. This week the top UK movie is The King's Speech, which grossed £3,510,000 in its opening weekend, boasting a solid screen average of £8,885. It's a pretty spectacular result and in no way needed the support of premium priced television to boost its profits. In second place at the UK box office was 127 Hours, made by a British director, writer and producer; earning an impressive £2,168, 570 from a weekend's play. It was a totally solid result for the British film industry, thoroughly exceeding all expectations.

At the end of the day, either you'll get lucky or you won't. Making films is a very expensive business and the film industry is always looking for a safer playing field. Maybe we should all take a leaf out of the BAFTA members' handbook and stubbornly refuse to watch new movies unless distributors provide us with easier options.

If Mohammed won't come to movies then the movies can come to Mohammed.


  1. White middle class audiences, like it or not, are the ones who buy the tickets my friend. It's easy for someone like you, outside the industry, to pass comment and critisism. But for me, it's my livelihood!

    Never mind, you had fun while it lasted! ;)

  2. Totally don’t get what you’re saying. “Your livelihood”? Do you work at Blockbusters or something?