Presenting independent films in a competitive marketplace presents challenges to cinemas and their funders. Kathleen Bondar suggests that funding bodies could do more to support exhibitors.
Across the UK, several cities boast a Regional Film Theatre (RFT), an independent cinema or a film festival. Perhaps the boast is more vociferous in some places than others, but it is generally where we are used to seeing art-house films and sometimes meeting film-makers. This is what is, perhaps uncommonly, known as the cultural film exhibition sector. It can be contrasted with the commercial sector of multiplexes and multi-screen high street cinemas which, despite the occasional non-mainstream screening, is subject to US distribution and exhibition monopolies and remains the bastion of Hollywood film releases. The monopolisation is far reaching. The commercial sector benefits not only from venue and distribution investment but also from aggressive advertising, press and publicity campaigns targeted at a youth market acclimatised almost exclusively to Hollywood movies.
The perennial question for the cultural sector is how to bring independent films to audiences, not only in the face of commercial monopolisation but also within the framework of limited public subsidy and its impact on venue and programme management. Until recently, the cultural sector could seek financial and programming support from the British Film Institute (BFI). Since the launch of the Film Council in April 2000, the cultural sector can generate indirect support from the Film Council via the Regional Screen Agencies (RSAs). Additionally, the Film Council itself has developed its own exhibition initiatives.
In the past, the BFI acted as a broker between independent film distributors and RFTs, acting to negotiate release schedules collectively. However, following the establishment of the Film Council, the BFI has reduced its exhibition services and now acts as an institute in the formal sense with the focus on education, archives and library provision. In its place a newly formed organisation called the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) was established in July 2003 to support cultural film exhibition. However, not all RFTs have taken up the service, preferring to approach distributors directly.
Under the Regional Investment Fund for England, the Film Council invests £7.5m a year into regional film activities via the RSAs. Although funds are available for exhibition development, education projects and audience development, the RSAs mirror the Film Council in prioritising production activities. Some flagship RFTs, which traditionally benefited from priority support from the BFI, continue to receive RSA treasury funding but smaller organisations rely on ticket income, other funding sources (such as local authority funding) and applications for Regional Investment Fund project support.
Turning attention to the Film Council, it is pertinent to note that the Board is ?drawn from the commercial film industry?. Unsurprisingly, Film Council initiatives are shaped by producers who are concerned with making films and box office returns, not supporting a handful of RFTs with seemingly fringe appeal. As a result, the Film Council?s exhibition strategy has embraced the commercial sector. The strategy involves assisting film distributors and exhibitors in promoting and screening independent films in the hope of increasing audiences.
The costs of prints, transportation and advertising have been barriers to the successful distribution and exhibition of non-mainstream films. Film Council initiatives aim to assist distributors in bringing a few, select films to wider audiences. The Distribution and Exhibition Fund supports six specialised films under two initiatives: Print and Advertising, and UK Film Distribution Programme. Recently, the distributors for the German comedy Goodbye Lenin, and Stephen Fry?s Bright Young Things were given significant financial support.
Whilst this support for the commercial sector addresses the thorny issue of cultural sector elitism and could be seen to bring (some) independent films to the masses, it also raises questions about the investment of public funds in thriving commercial companies. John Gore, Film Programmer at Warwick Arts Centre, comments that ?The commercial sector has no interest in what the Film Council wants to be screened. The Film Council is desperately trying to force films into multiplexes which are ill-equipped to market specialist films. The environment is antithetical to the audience.?
Enthused by developments in digital cinema technology, the Film Council is also developing a Digital Screen Network (DSN). Digital cinema screens may offer a more affordable solution to distribution enabling fast release. The DSN would award capital funds to commercial and cultural cinemas to establish digital screens in order to programme specialised films. Angela Reed, Cinema Programmer at the Forum Northampton, welcomes this initiative, although, as a practitioner, she doesn?t hold her breath for the realisation of potentially bureaucratic initiatives. Her concerns are with persuading distributors to offer first run releases for popular children?s films and US crossovers which are usually monopolised by the multiplexes. Like John Gore, she doesn?t believe multiplexes are the environment for cultural films. ?The multiplexes may cherry pick some independent films, but our audiences like the atmosphere of The Forum and even wait a couple of months for a second run to see a crossover film here.?
It seems on balance that the prioritising of production by the RSAs has led to the erosion of support from public sector film bodies for cultural film exhibition.
Kathleen Bondar is a Lecturer in Arts and Media Management at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also an arts and media consultant in the cultural sector.