cinemas


cinemas
   British cinemas evolved from unsophisticated palaces for fantasy in the 1920s and 1930s, to more streamlined plush-carpeted and chromed viewing places in the postwar period, to multiplex sites designed for a new range of audience experiences in the 1980s and 1990s. They have seen concentration of buildings associated with proliferation of culture industries. Yet, while focusing on films with a widening range of consumer practices, cinemas have been conveying them to a narrowing band of the consuming public. British cinemas seem to be in the centre of a whirlpool of culture industries.
   This is not only a matter of Americanization of the British cinema audience, although that is important: major US film distributors still determine the vast majority of decisions about what films will appear, when, and on how many screens in the UK. But there are also significant interactions between films and British culture industries, which mean that most successful films are those which express the logics of these industries, and cinema audiences are more likely to conform to the consumer mentalities implied by them. Since the 1960s British films have responded to television, music, heritage, fashion, advertising and an array of culture industries that helped launch the styles of Carnaby Street, mods and Sloane Rangers, followed by youth/music fashions and Britpop. These trends were previewed in Help (1965), Darling (1965), Alfie (1965) and Blow Up (1966), as a new generation of British cinema-goers were disengaged from the cinematic style and tempo of Hollywood narrative films. British television also helped change the viewing of mainstream audiences, giving birth to a new crossover viewer in the 1970s, with the attempted transfer to the big screen of successful television series such as Steptoe and Son, On the Buses, George and Mildred, The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. By the 1980s television was modifying film-making genres, with series like Jewel in the Crown (1983) and Brideshead Revisited (1981), and with television backing for films such as Maurice (1987), A Handful of Dust (1987), Chariots of Fire (1981) and the Merchant-Ivory Productions’ Room With a View (1985) and Howards End (1991). Television enlivened film music, particularly through hit programmes such as Top of the Pops (the longest running British popular music show based on hits from the current week’s top twenty or thirty, with studio guest artists miming their songs). Pop and rock films portrayed leading groups, as in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can (1985). Meanwhile the music industry entered cinema in a major way with EMI’s takeover of Associated British Picture Corporation in 1969 (later Thorn- EMI Screen Entertainment).
   By the time Roeg and Cammell’s Performance (1970), starring Mick Jagger, was released it was clear that musical styles were destined to have a vital impact even in the most unlikely film genres (in this case, an underground film about a London protection racket). Avant-garde film-makers (see avant-garde cinema) influenced this pattern with Derek Jarman making a music video for the Pet Shop Boys, and Sophie Muller making a film promotion for the Eurythmics, called Savage (1987). mods and punk music (see punk rock) appeared with The Who in Quadrophenia (1979 re-released in 1997), and Hazel O’Connor in Breaking Glass (1980). The Sex Pistols played in The Great Rock ’n’ roll Swindle (1980), while Sid Vicious was the subject of Alex Cox’s punk love story Sid and Nancy (1986). Alan Parker put Pink Floyd’s entire album The Wall into a rock video in Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). British music arrived inexorably with Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), Michael Apted’s Stardust (1974), Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991) and Iain Softley’s Backbeat (1993), inciting a spate of films and film music extending from rock concerts to rave music (see rave).
   The impact of such films has been made on a new audience generation. Over half come from the 15–35 age group (26 percent of the whole population), containing various multicultural groups interested in music consumption. But there are also signs of social class consumption, most clearly visible in the so-called heritage film. Film critics focus on heritage film because it highlights images of Britishness as commodities for consumption in the international market, and because it now accounts for up to 20 percent of current British film making. It sprang up with Chariots of Fire (1981), A Room with a View (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1993), and in 1995 five of the top ten British films in the USA were historic or literary adaptations. That year’s output included Sense and Sensibility, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Wind in the Willows, The Woodlanders, Emma, Othello, The Portrait of a Lady, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Heritage films assist industries such as fashion, theatre and tourism. Tourist guides to film locations in Britain and Ireland recommend visitors to the sites of films by Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Hudson, Mike Newell and Merchant-Ivory. Even book marketing is boosted: at the height of the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) shops sold out of copies of the poems of W.H.Auden because ‘Funeral Blues’ was read at Simon Callow’s funeral. The tourist perspective and encouragement of cultural artefacts hallmark British heritage films as culture industry vehicles. Their presumptions of historical reality and themes of romantic, non-exploitative relationships imply passive culture-confirming roles for film, cultural consumption for cinema audiences and commercial environments for film viewing.
   These trends towards culture industry milieus are supported by other audience trends. The movie cathedrals that once showed spectacular epics and romances have given way to modern cinema outings which offer only the choice of more immediate consuming interactions over other film viewing sites. Two main consumer channels siphon film viewers into cinemas. One is Hollywoodization of the British cinema environment, con-densing audiences into urban service class spending environments. The other is the specific origin, content and process of film viewing, providing British cinemas with mainly Hollywood blockbus-ter movies, eating away at artistic and foreign language films and restricting British films, particularly specialist ones, to a paltry cinema existence.
   Among major film-going countries, Britain has a uniquely high concentration of cinema ownership. Whereas in the USA no company owns more than 10 percent of the cinemas (with firms like Warner and Paramount owning less than 5 percent of all US cinemas), in Britain four of the five largest cinema owners are US-owned, and all major film distributors are closely related to them. Even so, the UK has fewer screens than any other major country, despite doubling its screens in the last decade. In 1995 the number of screens per million of population in Europe and the US was Sweden 138, US 100, France 77, Italy 65, Canada 64, Germany 61, Ireland 50 and the UK 33. The doubling of British screens is almost entirely due to multiplex development, accounting for more than 40 percent of all admissions. In 1994, there were 75 multiplex sites having 650 screens, 90 percent of which were owned by the five major distributors (United Cinemas International, MGM, National Amusements, Warner and Odeon). By 1997, 800 screens out of a total of 2,000 were multiplex, built mostly in large cities. Warner and Virgin Cinemas plan megaplexes (5,000 seat, twenty-screen sites) in Sheffield, Glasgow, Bristol and Leeds, while American Multi Cinemas plans a twenty-six-screen site in Manchester.
   A result of these developments has been the intensive organization of the international film system in Britain. The drive to monopolize cinema screens increases competition by conglomerate producers and distributors so that British film advertising and printing are exceptionally expensive. Advertising alone is an important source of consumer siphoning, sometimes being the sole attraction to cinemas, as opposed to personal or other forms of recommendation. More significant is the scope allowed for devolving property rights upon how films can be displayed, and where profits can be maximized. While British consumer spending on feature films rose steadily in the 1990s from £500 million to around £2,500 million, this breaks down into approximately one-third video retail, one-quarter movie channel subscription, one-fifth video rental, and only one-sixth cinema box office admissions.
   An important indicator of this changing structure is the decline in foreign language films at the UK box office. Foreign language films take under 2 percent of total earnings, and UK audiences for foreign films dropped heavily from 1.94 million in 1993 to 0.25 million in 1995. In London, where borderline and subtitled films found the biggest audiences, most of the art house venues have gone. Since 1970 the Academyscreens, Berkeley, Cameo- Poly, Cinecenta, Continentale, Gala Royal, Paris Pullman, Venus, Times and various Classics have all closed. Not surprisingly, even the most spectacular European co-productions, such as Malle’s Damage (1992), Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), Annaud’s The Lover (1992) and Scott’s 1492, with their formulas of European high culture, have been coolly received (or coolly distributed) in Britain.
   Several new award-winning European films are unlikely to get any screening at all in the UK. Earnings of foreign language films at the UK box office compare dismally to English language films. Screen International’s top ranking (1990–6) films in the English language are Jurassic Park (1993, US) £47.1 million; Independence Day (1996, US) £37.0 million; Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, UK) £27.8 million; Ghost (1990, US) £23.3 million; and The Lion King (1994, US) £23.1 million. In foreign language the top films are Cyrano de Bergerac (1990, Fr) £2.4 million; Il Postino (1995, It/Fr) £1.3 million; Delicatessen (1990, Fr) £1.3 million; Farewell My Concubine (1993, Hong Kong/China) £1.0 million; and Cinema Paradiso (1988, It/Fr) £1.0 million. British films are in a dangerously comparable position to non-English language films. Their earnings of between only 4 and 10 percent of the UK box office in the 1990s are by no means due to any lack of production. Far more British films are being produced than can be presently absorbed. Approximately half of all films made here never get released. Of those that do, many get a better showing elsewhere: Secrets and Lies (1996 Palme D’Or winner) made more in seven days in France than it did in nineteen weeks in the UK. Both British and foreign films appear to be unsustainable in the British cinematic complex.
   The contrast with Hollywood blockbusters is arresting. Taking 1995 as a typical year, the top ten films shown in the UK took £125 million from a total box office of £380 million. In descending order the films were Batman Forever (US), Casper (US), Goldeneye (US/UK), Apollo 13 (US), Braveheart (US/UK), Interview with the Vampire (US/UK), Pocohontas (US), Die Hard with a Vengeance (US), Stargate (US) and Dumb and Dumber (US). By comparison, the top twenty films made in the UK took under £10 million altogether, the first three being Shallow Grave (£5 million), The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (£2 million), and Priest (£1 million). This leaves about £2 million for the other main productions. (The Madness of King George (US/UK) took £5 million). Any growth in screens has therefore only served to concentrate both the variety of films being seen and the range of audiences attending in Britain. It might have been expected that relationships with expanding cultural networks would extend cinema audiences, but this has patently not been the case. The majority of all cinema-going in the UK is now done by under 5 percent of the total population. The cinema audience in Britain seems to be converging in urban, multiplex, culture industry environments, into an increasingly coherent and exclusive social group.
   See also: British film industry
   Further reading
    British Film Institute (1997) BFI Film and Television Handbook 1997, London: British Film Institute.
    Friedman, L. (ed.) (1993) British Cinema and Thatcherism: Fires Were Started, London: UCL Press.
    Higson, A. (1995) Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
   ARTHUR McCULLOUGH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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