Article: What are independent cinemas going to screen when they re-open?

With many multiplexes planning on re-opening on 10 July in order to screen the likes of Mulan and Tenet, film writer Neil Ramjee looks at the options available for independent exhibitors.

While many exhibitors are currently tussling with the rapidly changing parameters of UK government advice and how that may affect their cinematic space, the real burning question for FAN members is ‘What will my audiences want to see on the big screen?’. 

For months, the Escher-like release plans of distributors have been difficult to keep tabs on for programmers (let alone audiences), with theatricallyslated films suddenly popping up on Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) services, examples of which include Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth. During this vacuum of time; it is fair to assume that only the most dedicated of cinema-goers will have a handle on where most theatrical films have ended up and if they’ve already been released. 

The lockdown period has enabled indie distributors to find isolated audiences, and generate revenue from captive pockets of viewers for the films in their arsenals. An early example was Cornwall’s 606 Distribution’s nimble adaptation for their anticipated cinematic release for System Crasher. This saw them deliver the film to streaming services and also support independent cinemas by sharing part of their rental fee with a local venue of the renter’s choice. 

As cinemas are on the cusp of opening, this novel approach has been embraced by new outfit, Bohemia Media. Clemency is their first acquisition, which will launch into cinema screens and VOD platforms from 17th July to coincide with 2020’s International Day Of Justice.  

Starring Alfre Woodard as a hardened prison warden, Clemency traces the emotional toll of executing the death penalty upon an inmate. Featuring a nominally African-American cast (including the familiar faces of Wendell Pierce and Danielle Brooks), the success of this release appears to be partially reliant on the continuing widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In this spirit, Bohemia Media will also split a portion of the film’s revenues with racial campaign groups and local cinemas. 

But is this what audiences want to see?”, I hear you cry. 

To some, it may seem counterproductive to programme films which engage with the current social discourse; after all, isn’t cinema about escaping reality?  Truth be told, exhibitors are in the best position to decide what is right for them based on their previous engagements with local audiences. However, as any programmer will tell you, audiences continually surprise and often buck expectations. For example, did you know that during the first fortnight of lockdown, Netflix’s two most popular UK titles were Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and its own docu-series Pandemic? 

With an inevitable reduced screen occupancy for the foreseeable future (and many cinemas relying on extra financial support), some may opt for popular and familiar titles to get as many bums on seats as possible. 

Step forward the Film Distributors’ Association catchily-titled initiative: ‘Relaunching Cinema: Content For Recovery’.  

The scheme aims to bring together both recent and classic films, from a collective of UK distributors, available for immediate exhibition. Over 450 titles are grouped into handy classifications such as ‘’BAME Voices’ – featuring everything from the cult J-Horror Audition to British modern classic My Beautiful Laundrette – offering an easy pick ‘n mix option of compiling screenings that are tailored to suit. 

At the time of writing, there is only one new ‘indie’ title slated to coincide with the re-opening of cinemas: Anna Winocour’s Proxima on the 10th JulyHaving opened the Glasgow Film Festival earlier in the year, the well-received film follows Eva Green as an astronaut due to board the International Space Station, balancing motherhood and a gruelling regime to prep her for a year-long mission ahead. As a Picturehouse Entertainment release, this title will likely be confined to the chain’s own cinemas (including its parent company, Cineworld) and adhere to the 16week theatrical window before being available elsewhere. 

Where the other big indie films are hiding at the moment is anyone’s guess. 

In the absence of the usual marketing scrum for festival recognition, Cannes 2020 simply rubberstamped their approval on 56 titles, which were due to screen at their annual festival. Big-hitters like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Pixar’s Soul and Francis Lee’s sophomore feature, Ammonite, all received Cannes badge, but their respective studios are keeping tight-lipped as to when they will finally see the light of day.  

Cannes is also home to the largest film market – where deals are cut globally to secure the rights of the hottest films – though without the usual critical buzz, the currency of what is ‘hot’ for baying audiences feels somewhat redundant. 

During the summer months, the indie sector would usually take a backseat and let the large chains dominate the holiday playground; but this year, this isn’t really an option.  

With only two major films announcing their impending release dates (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Niki Caro’s live-action Mulan), the time is ripe for exhibitors to take stock of what works foaudiences. And if that means playing more commercial titles to get people through the door, then so be it 

If the last few months of social media has shown anything, it’s that communal cinema watching has thrived under duress – whether through film-watching parties or older generations sharing classics with first timers – and thirst for a shared experience has grown. It is now in the hands of exhibitors to make sure existing and new audiences understand why independent cinemas are unique and worth returning to, in lieu of the dominant tuckshop emporiums.  

UPDATE: Other indie titles that are now available to book:

Neil Ramjee is a community cinema diversity officer and has worked extensively in the commercial cinema sector. He is also a freelance print & radio film critic, disc jockey and podcaster for FilmSeekers.

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