Independents’ Day: the Alternative to the Multiplex Cinema

Richard Warburton asks how our independent cinemas are faring in the battle to stay afloat, and Chris Martin gives a potted history of Portsmouth Film Society, a local champion of independent cinema.

Another predictable Oscars saw the Hollywood establishment acknowledging superior independent films in Birdman and Whiplash. This self-congratulatory bout of hat tipping is however at odds with the reality at your local multiplex.  Here the superhero movie dominates the screens while the best films are forced to seek exhibition elsewhere. Independent cinemas, clubs and societies provide a home for smaller films as well as an alternative to the homogenous multiplex experience. But how are these bastions of nonconformity faring and what are they doing to keep their tills ringing?

Audiences across the UK were down in 2014 for the second year running. The World Cup takes some of the blame but apathy towards Hollywood’s crop of blockbusters along with 3D fatigue and rising prices have made a family trip to the cinema an unenticing and expensive evening out. The multiplexes tend to bleat that they make little money from tickets and rely on refreshments for profits. Tell that to the Picturedrome in Bognor Regis that charges £2.50 for any ticket Monday to Friday and a whopping £3.50 at the weekend. The popcorn is very reasonable too.

Nevertheless the Chichester Cinema at New Park saw more people than ever through its doors in 2014. Its manager, the flamboyantly named Walter Francisco, understands that his audiences are looking for something different in the form of British independent and foreign language films with a few of the big hitters thrown in. Walter elaborates, ‘We screened Avatar for five screenings and we were getting 30/40 people which was quite good. During the same week we were showing a French film called A Prophet and that sold out every screening over five days…Our audience is not interested in Marvel and those big blockbuster films. We’re in a different market.’ However it is not as simple as that. Walter explains, ‘A single screen cinema really struggles in today’s cinema society. The reason that is that we rarely show films on the first day is because the distributors insist that we show that film for at least a week in one screen non-stop.’

Down the road at the Cineworld, Fifty Shades of Grey has been showing non-stop for two weeks. Other larger cinemas can devote two screens to a single film. Chichester Cinema is a charity yet it has ambitious plans for a second screen that would enable them to compete with the multiplex without compromising their core offering.

Independent films tend to have much lower production costs and promotional budgets to match. They will never be advertised on the side of a bus and therefore will never see the inside of a multiplex. To understand why, one needs to have a grasp of how the film industry is configured. A film passes through three sets of hands before you settle into your seat with your popcorn. The production company arranges finance and keeps a film on schedule; they are the project manager. They sell to distributors who buy the film’s rights and get it into theatres – things can get a bit rough here as distributors are essentially betting on the film’s success. Negotiations can be fraught. Finally, the exhibitor is the bricks and mortar of the scheme, the actual building you are sitting in to watch the film.

A cinema chain can demand from distributors a kind of minimum spend on advertising. Spend £1 million pounds on promotion and we will put on your film. This is equivalent to buying eye-level space at a supermarket. However exhibitors conduct hold-over meetings every Monday in order to decide which films they continue to show. If by some miracle your small indie film had raised the funds, you could still be dropped after one quiet weekend when the sun came out and no-one fancied the movies. Harvey and Bob Weinstein initially championed the indie film with their distribution company Miramax. They broke the mould by opening art-house films concurrently at hundreds if not thousands of theatres – unheard of in the early 90s (see below, The Weinsteins at Miramax).

One chain of cinemas is, in some instances, able to bypass the whole complex system. Part of Curzon’s business model is that it is part producer and part distributor while simultaneously owning a clutch of cinemas. Through their brand, Artificial Eye, they are the biggest distributor of independent film in the UK. This vertically integrated structure is a throwback to Hollywood’s golden age when the big studios owned their own theatres which gave them guaranteed exhibition of their films. They were forced to sell when the US government deemed the process anti-competitive.

Curzon cinemas have been a feature of London’s cinematic landscape for decades and pioneered screening The Met from New York. At the Mayfair branch on a Saturday night you can witness opera fiends arriving in black tie. Recently they have begun to look beyond the capital for venues. Mel Alcock, Curzon’s Chief Operating Officer, is driving the expansion and recently observed the importance of independent cinemas to their customers. While visiting the new Ripon cinema he was thanked by a customer for screening The Selfish Giant, a film set in Yorkshire that, before Curzon, would not have been shown in Yorkshire at all. They also franchise their cinemas as far afield as Banchory, Aberdeenshire.

It may come as a surprise that cinemas are opening at all given the doldrums the industry finds itself in. Piracy remains an obvious threat although cinema has survived similar troubles in the form of moral panics, the birth of television and VHS. ‘Day and Date’ releasing is an effective counter-measure to piracy. This involves releasing a film simultaneously at the theatres, via streaming and on DVD. There are even instances of ultra-video on demand where the film is streamed before theatrical exhibition. The distributors don’t like it as they lose exclusivity; traditionally a ninety day window before the film can be shown anywhere but a cinema. ‘Day and Date’ is also a clever marketing tool that sparks word of mouth discussion – invaluable free marketing for an independent movie. When a film like Joe starring Nicholas Cage or Frank with Michael Fassbender earns more money digitally than at the Curzon box-office, streaming has to be taken seriously.

A notable characteristic of the independents’ audiences is their patience. Walter Francisco acknowledges that his clientele may have to wait to see one of the blockbusters but wait they will. He knows that he will get good numbers for the new Star Wars movie even if they are two weeks behind everyone else. An independent film can often find its audience through that all important word of mouth. Independent cinemas are happy to bring a film back. Mel Alcock revealed that Curzon kept the Italian film, The Great Beauty, on its screens for forty-six weeks.

Another way the independents stand their ground is the experience on offer. A multiplex presents a vast, gloomy foyer whose chief function is to peddle sugar. These foyers are vital to cinemas as they are the only part of the business where they receive 100 percent of the margin. However a discerning ageing population is looking for something to enhance their experience, not detract from it.

Mel’s attitude is typical of the independent spirit, ‘We tend to encourage UK producers and regional producers. For example in Canterbury they have a local beer, a local cheese, local meat – a completely different experience.’ You are more likely to find a decent wine to drink in a nice bar at an independent which is what the over thirty-fives are demanding. We all have friends who eschew the cinema in favour of a domestic box-set. However the more sophisticated offering, as well as the films are luring back the exiles. Think of The King’s Speech, Philomena or A Late Quartet. These films are attracting a silver-haired mass back to the silver screen. The good news is that the growing over-45-year-old demographic, according to the British Film Institute (BFI), shows a marked preference for UK independent films.

While the multiplex is the UK’s pre-eminent conduit to see new films, its influence only stretches so far. Communities without a local theatre set up film societies which often conform to the sensibilities of the independent cinema. Ellen Cheshire is an audience development producer for Film Hub South East (FHSE). She works with a grant from the BFI to develop audiences across the south east and expand their access to specialised and British independent film. She assists and advises exhibitors, from rural societies who put a film on once a month, to festival organisers putting on a week or more of programming. She described how the BFI’s massive archive of specialised film including newsreel, documentaries and short films can be utilised by exhibitors, perhaps as ‘shorts’ before the main feature. These ‘shorts’ could be from local archival footage and provide little known historical and cultural insight.

Film festivals are a useful tool for independent cinemas to stimulate interest during the quieter summer months. The Chichester International Film Festival in August features an eclectic itinerary with talks and Q&A’s spread over eighteen days. A popular feature are the open-air screenings in the nearby park. Walter confirms that ‘The festival is really important for us. It puts us on the map in the community.’ He explained how footfall can increase three fold over the festival’s run. Ellen highlighted the Making Waves film festival in Portsmouth where certain films were screened in apt locations. Imagine watching Das Boot inside a submersible at the Submarine Museum. She points out that, ‘People will go and see Jaws on the beach who would never go and see it in the cinema.’

Innovation is at the heart of nurturing our independent cinemas. Cinephiles are seeking a special experience at the cinema, in fact they always have done. Small independents have to up the ante and rip out those old seats and fuzzy sound systems. Mel Alcock fears the worst for single screen cinemas unless they convert themselves into big ticket, event-style cinemas. Meanwhile the polarisation between multiplex and indie will continue which may even benefit the independents. Marvel studios have recently mapped out a succession of superhero movies and sequels to 2028. Independent cinemas will be there to scoop up the disillusioned. Unique and quirky, art-deco or village hall, the indies will supply the best of what cinema has to give but it’s up to you to keep the magic lantern flickering in the dark.




A short history of cinemas

Technically the first cinema was located at the Salon Indien du Grande Café. A basement room where the Lumiere brothers held and charged for their first public screenings in 1895. Cinemas operated in tents or barns – any conceivable structure that could house a screen and projector. The Nickelodeon (spaces dedicated to showing motion pictures) sprang up in the US and by 1910, 8000 of them were operating. They seated anywhere between 200 and 1000 people. Admission prices grew with the length of the films so longer films earned more for exhibitors. This in turn led to the need for more comfortable surroundings that saw the decline of the Nickelodeon and the rise of the picture palace.

Movie-going began to attract the middle classes as the industry gained respectability. Picture palaces were opulent, vast spaces that in turn lost out to television and falling admission prices after the Second World War. Curzon Chelsea was formerly known as The Gaumont and seated 2500 people. The existing cinema, a not insubstantial 750 seater is situated in what was The Gaumont’s circle. The stalls area is now a branch of Habitat.

Multiplexes didn’t arrive in the UK until 1985 and were a boost to a flagging film industry and apathetic audiences. Access to a variety of films was a cinephile’s dream and what they lacked in charm they made up for in choice. However their current predilection for Hollywood fare, soulless interiors and out of town locations has turned many people off cinema.

Multiplexes account for one third of UK cinemas but two thirds of all screens.



The Weinsteins at Miramax

Bob and Harvey’s company was named Miramax, a contraction of the Weinstein’s parents, Miriam and Max.

They had their big break with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989.

The brothers would purchase art-house films and often heavily cut them to achieve a shorter running time. ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ is regularly in disputes with directors most recently over the final cut of Grace of Monaco. Harvey lost and the film bombed.

The Weinsteins are firm believers in ‘the cards’. These are the feedback forms from test screenings that audiences fill in. Bernado Bertolucci faced up to the brothers, ‘Previews are a terrible weapon in the hands of people like Harvey.’

Miramax bought Reservoir Dogs then had a huge commercial and critical hit with Pulp Fiction. The company was referred to as ‘the house that Quentin built’ following the director’s success.



The Portsmouth Film Society Story

Chris Martin, Secretary of Portsmouth Film Society


The Portsmouth Film Society was started in 2010 by Ayse Epengin, and was originally based in the Omega Centre, where Ayse was teaching film-making. She and her students longed to see more independent films, so she decided to create an entity to satisfy that hunger. Once up and running, and with a regular audience, the Society began to screen films in partnership with other organisations, such as the New Theatre Royal and, with the help of funding for equipment, developed a format for ‘pop-up cinema’, taking films, be it family films like Wreck-It Ralph, archive films, or revivals such as Casablanca, to various community centres around Portsmouth. This outreach activity was extended to such public open-air venues such as Southsea Castle, Hilsea Lido, Victoria Park, and the Butterfly Garden. Another indoor venue has been the Square Tower.

In January 2014 the French film Populaire was the first film shown by the Society in the University of Portsmouth’s new screening rooms in the newly-expanded Eldon Building in Winston Churchill Avenue, marking the start of a new partnership with the University, with whom the Society has just completed the University’s first, and well-received, L.G.B.T. season.

Funding has been secured via various channels, such as the National Lottery through the B.F.I. and Creative England. Southeast Film Hub, Portsmouth City Council, Portsmouth Festivities, Greenpeace, Fairtrade, and the University of Portsmouth have also provided vital funding and support.T he Society looks for co-operation from the City Council which provides some venues, and publicity to make sure there is an audience, and also from the University, which funds special seasons of films. Guest speakers are invited to introduce particular films invariably adding a plus quality to a screening.

The Society is run by a committee of enthusiastic volunteers, supplemented by student volunteers, and interns adding to their work experience through the University. We run an annual Green Film Festival, showing documentaries on an environmental theme.

It is important for our survival that the Society networks with distributors, funding bodies and other societies, to attract funds, stay relevant with a balanced programme, and keep its devoted audience.

The Society has thus far been awarded the ‘Best Community Film Society Award’ and our founder, Ayse was awarded ‘Outstanding Contribution by an Individual’, both from the British Federation of Film Societies (Cinema For All).

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.