For British independent films at the UK box office, even more than in previous years, 2016 has been an occasion of feast or famine. For every glorious breakout success – and let’s be thankful that there have been some of those – there have been several dispiriting results that remind us just how challenging it can be to connect smaller-profile films with UK audiences. Mark Cosgrove, cinema curator at one of the UK’s top independent venues Bristol Watershed, is right when he says that ‘it’s a really crowded, tough, unforgiving market’, but it’s encouraging to note that Watershed’s top three grossing films so far this year are all British indie films (see the cinema’s Top 10 chart below).
Scoring seven BIFA nominations this year, more than any other title, I, Daniel Blake currently leads the UK indie box office charge. And all credit to distributor eOne, because it was by no means obvious that the tough, polemical tale – achieved at a relatively intimate scale – would be a slam-dunk with cinemagoers.
One of eOne’s signature successes has been bouncing I, Daniel Blake from the culture pages on to the news agenda, amplifying Loach’s strong voice and turning the film into a rallying cry against the politics of cruelty. After 31 days, the film has grossed £2.84m, overtaking every one of Loach’s films at the UK and Ireland box office, except fellow Palme D’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
If the success of I, Daniel Blake has taken sections of the industry by surprise, then that’s even more the case with My Scientology Movie, from Louis Theroux, director John Dower and producer Simon Chinn. For quite a while, the deck looked stacked against the documentary. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2015, arriving in the wake of Alex Gibney’s seemingly definitive Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. And would Theroux, who is available for free on television, entice audiences into cinemas? These were clearly concerns for UK distributors, which didn’t exactly run at the film waving chequebooks. (Altitude eventually picked up the title in March this year, releasing in early October, 51 weeks after the London Film Festival premiere.)
‘Prior to release, I was thinking, is a film about austerity Britain going to be something that gets big audiences? eOne have done an absolutely sterling job in terms of communicating about the film and making it a must-see. They’ve made it an issue film. It’s been quite phenomenal and brilliant.’
UK box office for My Scientology Movie now stands at £1.08m, making it only the seventh British documentary (after One Direction: This Is Us, Amy, Senna, Touching the Void, TT3D: Closer to the Edge and The Imposter) to crack £1m at UK cinemas. Crucial to the film’s success was the satellite broadcast into 245 venues of the Adam Buxton-hosted Louis Theroux Q&A at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Not only did this deliver £419,000 on the night, but it also provided a rich piece of content for cinemas to offer as encore screenings.
Not every film is blessed with such a popular piece of talent as Louis Theroux, and a satellite broadcast event wouldn’t work for every British independent title. But even for films with smaller profiles, Q&As can be a vital tool for engaging audiences. Says Jason Wood, the former programmer at Picturehouse and Curzon and now artistic director for film at HOME Manchester, ‘Q&A events, whether as part of a film’s run or as a one-off, are always attractive to an audience.’ Cosgrove concurs, adding that they can be especially important when it comes to engaging audiences for emerging talent. ‘It’s like a rock’n’roll model of taking the talent out on the road,’ he says. ‘Taking them out to venues to meet audiences is a really good way of developing grass-roots support for first-time filmmakers. There are costs, but they should be included as part of the production. We’ve got to look at some way that will allow emerging British talent to get that platform.’
Both Watershed and HOME programmed the vast majority of this year’s BIFA-nominated titles – at least, the ones that have been released so far. For many, they’ve also done Q&A events with filmmakers. At Watershed, BIFA Best British Independent Film nominee Couple in a Hole played with director Tom Geens in attendance alongside local talent Geoff Barrow, the Portishead musician whose side project Beak scored the film. On that occasion, a successful preview event struggled to translate into sustained commercial success for a title dealing with a mother’s devastating grief for her dead child. ‘I loved the film,’ says Cosgrove. ‘But I realised at that point it’s a tough film for audiences. I kept it going for a second week, even though it wasn’t the audience size I was hoping for.’
For another of this year’s BIFA Best British Independent Film nominees, Cosgrove feels that the film’s actual title – Notes on Blindness – was ‘difficult’ when it came to enticing audiences. On the other hand, if you could get them past that hurdle and into the cinema, the response was fantastic. ‘Curzon brought the director down, and it was a brilliantly cinematic experience, with an amazing response from the audience.’ Watershed was able to keep playing the film long enough for positive word to percolate. ‘I try to be flexible, and keep films longer and thinner, in order for word of mouth to have its impact,’ says Cosgrove.
Accommodating a distributor’s demand for an all-showtimes booking in the first week or two of release can be a challenge for indie cinemas, especially ones with relatively few screens. In the case of American Honey, which runs 163 minutes, it was a particular challenge scheduling two evening shows per day, with the likely consequence that the early evening show would start too early for many working cinemagoers, and the late evening one would finish too late. Both Wood and Cosgrove believe the film’s length proved an obstacle for audiences, with the latter adding, ‘It was a scheduling challenge, there’s no doubt. We had a really positive response to it, but not overwhelming admissions.’ Adds Wood, ‘We kept it on strong shows for a second week, but by then the Loach arrived and blew everything out of the water. I think American Honey would have benefited from director support in the shape of Q&As.’ With £465,000 after 38 days, Andrea Arnold’s film looks unlikely to match the lifetime totals of either Fish Tank (£599,000) or Wuthering Heights (£612,000).
While both Wood and Cosgrove do face commercial challenges – they have annual admissions targets and budgets to take account of, just like any other cinema programmer – they are both in the very privileged position of working for cinemas that receive strategic investment from public bodies, with the stated goal of audience development. That’s one of the reasons that Watershed can, for example, offer tickets at £4.50 to anyone under 25, every day of the week – reaching out to new audiences that are comfortable watching content on devices of all shapes and sizes. Says Cosgrove, ‘We want to deliver culturally rich films, engage young people, and hit a budget – that’s my job.’
Top 20 British indie films at UK/Ireland box office, 2016
|1.||Eddie the Eagle||£8.67m||11.||Our Kind of Traitor||£1.25m|
|2.||The Danish Girl||£7.41m||12.||My Scientology Movie||£1.08m *|
|3.||Eye in the Sky,||£5.08m||13.||The Girl With All the Gifts||£1.07m|
|4.||Brotherhood||£3.70m *||14.||Anthropoid||£822,000 *|
|5.||David Brent: Life on the Road,||£3.65m||15.||Supersonic||£748,000 *|
|6.||A Street Cat Named Bob||£3.52m *||16.||American Honey||£465,000 *|
|7.||Florence Foster Jenkins||£3.21m||17.||War on Everyone||£416,000 *|
|8.||Swallows and Amazons||£3.08m *||18.||One More Time With Feeling||£343,000|
|9.||I, Daniel Blake||£2.84m *||19.||Bobby Sands: 66 Days||£228,000|
|10.||High-Rise||£1.97m||20.||Notes on Blindness||£80,000|
(Grosses to November 13; * still on release)
Top 10 films at Bristol Watershed, 2016
- I, Daniel Blake
- My Scientology Movie
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Captain Fantastic
- A Bigger Splash
- The Revenant
By Charles Gant, written for and originally published by British Independent Film Awards (BIFA).