Industry bullshit: the death of a small distributor

Sunday June 10th 2012

As a cinema programmer of sorts for Ultra Culture Cinema over the last couple of years, I’ve been granted a very tiny window (more of a porthole I guess) into an industry in a state of rapid flux. With countless independent cinemas changing hands or closing down, Britain’s cinematic landscape is becoming increasingly homogenised, as progressive (or, depending on your viewpoint, cowardly) distributors begin to debut their offerings online, avoiding the weighty costs of cinema distribution altogether.

Last week, Third Window Films became the latest distributor to cease their theatrical operations entirely. And — in a rare display of industry forthrightness — managing director Adam Torel explained his position at length to Twitch Film. The full letter is well worth reading if you’re at all interested in these sorts of things, but here are a few excerpts:

I don’t think people most people realize how hard it is for independent theatrical distribution in the UK. Even my friends who run distribution companies in other countries are amazed when I tell them. In my opinion it comes down to 3 things which hurt us more than most:

  1. In the UK we MUST certify all films with the BBFC. In the US you can release a film ‘unrated’, but obviously other countries make it mandatory. The main problem with the UK is that the BBFC require you to certify your film both theatrically and for home video separately, each at a MASSIVE cost. Even though they’re watching the exact same film and will give it exactly the same rating they still charge you twice! and the cost is astronomical! £8.40 per minute of film plus a handling fee of £120!! Imagine the costs for certifying Love Exposure [which runs 237 minutes] for both theatrical and DVD. More than £4,000!!! Why the need to review the film twice? it’s the same bloody film!! and get this: they actually watch DVD submissions AT HOME! I wish I got paid so much money to watch a film!
  2. For independents we get a lower percentage of a cinema screen take than any other country I know. In America it’s a 50/50 split between cinemas and distributors. Same in Japan. Most places in Europe it’s between 45-50% to distributors. What do I get for the majority of screens I play in?? 25%!!! At best sometimes 35%! When Himizu played this weekend at the Prince Charles I barely covered the cost of the 2 posters I gave them to hang up!
  3. In the UK, about 80% of all the independent/arthouse cinemas are either owned by or booked by 2 companies, and BOTH of them are distribution labels who tend to play their own films in their own cinemas (one of them [Picturehouses] just started, but it’s a worrying trend). In America I believe this is illegal, but here it’s commonplace and when they’re not playing their own releases they’re playing Prometheus, which actually played across the whole entire chain of both these ‘arthouse’ cinema bookers/owners. With a film like Prometheus I’m sure as an audience member it’s not like it’ll be hard to see it, so why does every single arthouse cinema need to play it when it’s also playing at every multiplex? Even The Barbican, London’s most well-known non-for-profit totally Arthouse cinema/theatre/art gallery was playing Prometheus!! 10 years ago and before the situation was much different, with many truly independent cinemas existing in London and the UK, but now there are barely none. Even the ICA Cinema, which was the last truly independent cinema which took real risks on many NON-EUROPEAN independent films has now been taken over by a massive cinema booking agency and are now playing Moonrise Kingdom (which is playing at nearly EVERY other cinema in the UK).
… Ironically the head programmer for the Curzon Cinemas (one of the big arthouse cinema owners and bookers – owned by Artificial Eye) was actually invited to chair a recent panel discussion on why Asian Cinema isn’t distributed in the UK. I wasn’t invited, but it struck me as rather odd that the Curzon Cinema, the UK’s most well-known ‘arthouse’ cinema is right now playing Prometheus & Moonrise Kingdom and the last Japanese film I remember them playing was Takeshis, and that was only because it was released by Artificial Eye!

There’s more rage where that came from in the full letter.

Jason Wood, the programmer mentioned indirectly in Torel’s letter, took to the comments to reply:

The piece has annoyed me for a number of reasons, not least of which is your narrow minded and short sighted view of what Curzon cinemas does. I think you have very little idea of how the specialised sector functions in the UK. Curzon has a long tradition of supporting independent films and independent companies and to cite the example of us playing Moonrise Kingdom and films only released by Artificial Eye is utter rubbish. We have played countless Asian films since Takeshis. Ask Verve, Soda, Arrow, Axiom, New Wave or any of the other companies about our level of support for films such as Alamar, Dogtooth, Carancho or Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. Yes, we play Moonrise Kingdom and there is no reason to defend this decision. It is a film by an auteur director and audiences are interested in seeing it. For every film such as Moonrise Kingdom there are countless other initiatives that we undertake for purely cultural and not commercial reasons. To blame Curzon, Picturehouse, the ICA etc for the failure of your company is perhaps a view taken in the heat of the moment and whilst I take no pleasure in seeing your company cease to exist in the theatrical marketplace I think you also need to consider your own part and the part of resistant audiences in your failure.

Whatever your viewpoint, why not bid Third Window Films a fond farewell at the ICA this week, where their final acquisition Himizu is screening twice daily.