The past week has seen seismic disruptions to UK film distribution with news that Disney is moving its epic blockbuster Mulan to its streaming service. With other summer blockbuster release dates now in a constant state of flux, we spoke to Joan Parsons of Queen’s Film Theatre and Kenji Lloyd of Altitude Films to find out how these changes are affecting exhibitors and indie distributors alike.
Joan Parsons, Head of QFT, Queen’s Film Theatre:
The Tent Poles have gone for now, and, as any good camper knows: this is bad news. The use of the term ‘Tent Poles’ illustrates how well known and long established the understanding is that a few titles each year single-handedly support the cinema industry.
The constant updates about date changes, films moving to day and date premium VOD and even moving to 2021 or 2022 is far from cheerful reading. Operating budgets in all cinemas are built predominantly around box office expectations. The admissions dictate the expectations for income from all standard revenue streams: concessions sales, ticket sales, advertising and so on. Without any reliability in the release calendar the current situation, is certainly unnerving, and the best cinema operators can do is try to work with short term programmes, react to the changes and seek opportunities to ensure their businesses remain viable in the long term.
QFT is far from a regular cinema, as a two screen cinema in a truly unique building and the only cultural cinema in Northern Ireland. We are lucky, and it has been so clear throughout the closure period that now, more than ever, cinemas like QFT must play to their core strengths. For QFT this will mean finding ways to continue to provide the same quality programme as before closure, meeting our audience’s expectations for exciting, boundary-pushing cinema, and hopefully restoring the successful position we enjoyed prior to lockdown.
One of the best-performing elements of QFT’s programme has always been Irish film, and we will certainly be looking to bring some more great examples to our screens. This tendency of domestic product to perform well is hardly a surprise, but it does hint at a potential alternative to what will be a limited mainstream release schedule in the coming months. Certainly domestic productions have traditionally performed well in many countries and have often been the main competition for American films, however the UK is a more complicated picture entirely.
The shared languages of both UK and USA is often a challenge to UK independent films to differentiate and there are also occasional concerns about a regionally specific film’s ability to connect to audiences across the UK. However, when a film works it can really travel well, and we need only look at last year’s BAIT for an example of this. It performed exceptionally well in the South West. but also won over audiences much further afield. Will we see, in a landscape less dominated by US blockbusters, room for more brilliant UK and Irish stories to reach our screens? I certainly hope so.
What would be nice to see is a change to the film landscape that this ‘reset’ provides. Despite my generally pessimistic outlook, I can see how this may be possible. Potentially, more mainstream cinemas may find space in their programmes for the slightly less mainstream films, some of the domestic successes from elsewhere could certainly work with UK audiences, and people will be more keen than ever to see stories from around the world and satisfy some of their cultural wanderlust.
Kenji Lloyd, Marketing Manager, Altitude Film Distribution:
The rest of the year is understandably looked upon with uncertainty by many. The calendar looks quieter than it has in a long time. The autumn festival circuit won’t be the launchpad for studio awards contenders it usually is and the longer it takes virus cases in the US to fall, the longer it may be before studios are willing to release their blockbuster titles around the world.
At Altitude, we released three films in July: crocodile horror BLACK WATER: ABYSS, indie comedy drama STAGE MOTHER, and Russell Crowe action/thriller UNHINGED, which opened at #1 at the box office. We navigated US holdbacks to release them all before the US, and we’ve seen encouraging results showing audiences are eager to watch new films.
Fellow distributors and distributor-exhibitors have been doing the same with films like SAINT FRANCES (Vertigo), SUMMERLAND (Lionsgate), PROXIMA (Picturehouse), and the black and white edition of PARASITE (Curzon), and we should expect to see more of this throughout the rest of the year. With the potential for further tentpole delays, we all need to remain reactive, acting on existing opportunities and others that may present themselves. Inevitably these films won’t have the P&As of studio blockbusters, so exhibitors and distributors will need to work together more than ever on titles like ANOTHER ROUND, LES MISÉRABLES, and SOUND OF METAL to ensure they have the full support given to studio titles.
Odeon parent company AMC’s deal with Universal in the US, significantly reducing Universal’s theatrical window to just 17 days on some titles; likely the ones not indexing highly at the box office – may have knock-on effects abroad. But while we wait to see what impact, if any, that has in the UK, I think we will separately see more indie cinemas and independently-owned chains becoming window-agnostic. With relatively few studio titles to play, many exhibitors may now be willing to programme short-window releases from independent distributors and SVOD platforms alike. Those who turned down the opportunity to play THE IRISHMAN last year, for example, may well make a different decision when faced with similar choices this year.
Internationally, a number of territories like France, South Korea, and Australia have had success with local titles upon cinemas re-opening, and we hope to see that replicated here too. Our own British film ROCKS had to be postponed when cinemas shuttered, and we’ve worked with exhibitors to find a new date once more have been able to re-open this autumn. The UK has a long track record of homegrown box office success stories, and we have continued to punch above our weight in recent years with films like PADDINGTON, BLUE STORY, FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS, LADY MACBETH, and countless others. Across the industry, we need to look at ways in which we can further support these kinds of films in the months and years ahead; to reduce our reliance on US-centric blockbusters, which in turn will lead to an ever-greater audience demand for independent cinema.