Why indie cinemas need to drop blockbusters

A modest proposal

I’m currently running a survey of UK cinema front of house workers. Before you read the article below, completing the survey or sharing the survey is very appreciated!

This is the second in a (long delayed) series of articles about UK cinemas. See the previous piece on why cinemas should stop screen advertising here.

If we are going to keep living under capitalism after the pandemic, we might as well try to abide by one of its key principles in how we approach running cinemas: market differentiation. 

An unexpected consequence of the arrival of digital cinema more than a decade ago has been the slow homogenisation of cinema programming where there is much less differentiation between different types of cinema. Multiplexes used to be in the business of delivering whatever studios had on offer plus anything else that held the vague promise of turning some coin; mid-level (often family owned) local cinemas were more of a mixed programming bag and then the small number of arthouses (both in London and the regions) were more strict, holding their nose against Hollywood. That picture has slowly but vastly altered in the last fifteen years, and it has serious consequences for anyone who cares about seeing the cinema industry survive.

The reason why digital has shifted that landscape is a convergence of technological opportunity and financial necessity. In the past, distributors had a limited number of prints and striking a new one was an expensive process. There was therefore more of a premium on being one of the selected few who got their hands on them, so cinemas were obliged to commit as much as possible to The Empire Strikes Back, Tango & Cash or Jean de Florette. While today distributors still want to maximise their first weekend take and screen average, the basically infinite replication offered by the DCP (digital cinema package, which modern films screen from), cinemas don’t need to be one of the select few to be in with a chance of playing these films. Digital cinema has caused an uptick in number of screens – an 18% rise in the last ten years – as well as an explosion in the number of films released annually – at the dawn of the digital cinema in 2010 there were 573 films released compared with 896 in 2019. There are now more things to show, in more places, more easily than ever before. 

In the best of all possible worlds, this would have delivered a new diversity of what screened in cinemas. Films slowly making their way around the country on a single print could now open across dozens of screens, maximising the impact of festival-level films, and offering independent cinemas the chance to specialise all the more. You’ve got an audience for Indian diaspora filmmaking? Now you can show the newest releases in Tamil, Telugu or Hindi, add audio description or different subtitles, all from the same DCP and you don’t have to wait until the Boleyn Cinema is finished with the print. There’s a universe where cinemas responded to the audiences they had been cultivating for decades, where local enthusiasm for political documentaries, Polish gangster films or American indies could be worked all the harder.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story of digital cinema in the UK. The reality is that fewer films are playing more unanimously and attracting a greater share of box office. Despite a much wider availability of titles for cinemas to chose from, the last ten years has seen a slimmer number of titles garnering the majority of the box office. In 2019, 54.5% of box office was taken by the top twenty titles, following a slow upward trend from 2010 where they commanded 43.7%. Expanding that out, the top 50 titles in 2019 commanded 76% of box office, leaving 846 titles to fight for just 24% of box office. A lot of that increase is accounted for by increased homogenisation. In 2011, the average number of screens the top ten titles played on was 534; in 2019 it was 687. That’s a 28% rise in how wide big films are released against only 18% more screens to open them on. Gaining more screens is especially significant when we’re looking at the independent sector, which is much more likely to be made up of one, two or three screen sites. Taking those out of the picture has a very significant on local diversity of what’s shown. Inevitably, these cinemas – reflecting expected demand – put blockbuster films in their largest screens, therefore commanding the greatest marketing focus. Year after year these decisions begin to have an effect on the type of audience who cinemas are able to attract.

However, the picture would be simpler if it were the case that independent cinemas had simply stopped book indie and foreign language films and switched them for blockbusters. The picture’s more complex than that. In 2010, the average foreign language release opened on 19 screens; by 2019 that trend had moved to 30 screens. So, more places to watch foreign language films, good thing, no? Well, not according to the great British public. In 2010, foreign language films grossed £30.10 million; in 2019 that figure was £29 million. This trend is especially bad when we consider the wider backdrop: between 2000 and 2010 foreign language cinema grew by 152%. We also need to account for inflation (especially as ticket prices have outstripped ‘natural’ inflation), population growth and the opening up of new markets such as Polish cinema, which had zero releases in 2010 and now is the second largest foreign language market behind Hindi. So, the truth is that cinemas are playing foreign language titles more but to much less effect. 

Digital not only makes it easier for independents to buy into more commercially assured propositions, but also to be less committed to titles that fail to perform. With more films in circulation and a greater ease of switching titles week by week, the chance to build word of mouth is decreasing, with titles that underperform in their opening weekend quickly yanked from the schedules. Foreign language and indie titles are played in one off slots, made all the easier by the advent of DCPs. One off slots give films with little profile space even less space to find their audience, especially if they are increasingly played against much more recognisable commercial fare. With increased competition for screen space and a diminished argument for commitment, distributors are more inclined to take what they can get rather than risk the meagre slice of the pie they’re offered. The best you could say for this approach is that it brings variety to a schedule potentially controlled by a programmers’ very narrow taste. Arguably this could be a situation of diminished gatekeeping, where multiple audiences vote with their feet. The reality is more often than not titles aren’t given the breathing space to succeed, serving the interests of no titles. It’s a committed soul who puts specific time aside to make it to the one screening of a foreign language title, documentary or British indie rather than the 20+ screenings of something they’re more familiar with (or more pertinently, the options to fulfil the indie title of their whim at home). For cinemas looking at balance sheets, the argument makes itself: we are playing both titles, but foreign language isn’t performing. Doubling down from there seems like the only natural option.  

Alongside this, a new business model of cinemas has sharpened the divisions between indie titles and blockbusters. Cinemas have fallen in line with the business rationale of the studios, backing fewer titles with a fewer number of films hoovering up production budgets and advertising spend. At the absolute peak of admissions in the UK in 1946, cinema was a workaday treat, something done on a weekly basis by millions of Britons. Cinemas weren’t the dream palaces of the 1930s, but they weren’t quite flea pits yet either. It would take the 1950s and the arrival of television for the dilapidations satirised in The Smallest Show on Earth to come to pass. To survive in the last twenty years – fighting against much improved home viewing provision – cinemas have either gone through a massive upgrade of established sites (such as Odeon) or have come to dominance in a period where expectations of experience have shifted. Visiting one of The Light’s sites – one of the UK’s newest multiplex chains – is an insight into increased audience expectation with comfortable seating throughout, perfect sightlines and alcohol served as standard. 

But all of that improved experience comes at a cost and it’s one that’s passed onto consumers. Cinemas are now for unforgettable experiences (as Vue counterproductively go out of their way to repeatedly remind you in their pre-show reel), an ‘everyday luxury’ (rather than the daily bread it was before the 2000s), set aside for those films that make the most impact. Despite what the UK Cinema Association will tell you (with stats drawing on massively discounted tickets pulling down the average), anyone who regularly visits the cinema knows it is no longer the inexpensive night out it used to be. In a time of stagnant wage increase and excellent offerings at home, only the strong and the saturation marketed titles survive. I once heard an Everyman exec describe the ‘tsunami of prosecco’ that cascaded out of their screens on the back of the Absolutely Fabulous film in 2016. It’s films like this – ephemeral, not dependent on execution, with a very durable connection to the audience – that has defined that upper echelon of titles that gobble up the majority of box office, and they fit a very specific experience of cinema-going. 

So, cinema is more expensive than ever and relies on bigger titles (which can be shown anywhere by anyone) to draw crowds. That leaves independent cinemas, whose stock in trade has been films outside these categories, at something of a crossroads. In the last ten years, what has become their bread and butter has changed, away from the middlebrow foreign language films that used to draw the middle-classes in numbers. Now independent cinemas, arguably from Casino Royale onwards, have started sipping from the mainstream cup. 

The biggest ‘independent’ cinema success story over the last ten years has been the venture capital backed rapid expansion of Everyman. They have single-mindedly followed an approach others have merely experimented with. Everyman have changed the ‘independent’ feel so it is less to do with what’s on screen and more about class. As a brand, it sits alongside other ‘a cut above’ consumer choices like craft beer, locally-sourced meat and vinyl records. Everyman’s sites – packed with sofa seating, part of the high street, and with bars that could succeed on their own terms – represent the antithesis of the 1980s boom in out-of-town retail park multiplexes. Its agnostic programming is symptomatic of the audience they are targeting: anyone with enough disposable income to spend in their bar. 

This association of ‘small’ and ‘local’ is enough to make the link with independence, even if 90% of what people see on screen there has has no link to either concept. These are not trivial or puritanical distinctions: companies that formerly had a strong connection with independent films and ethical working now merely trade on past glories or associative links. People thankfully unburdened with intimate knowledge of the exhibition landscape often mention Picturehouse as independents, despite half a decade of sustained coverage of Picturehouse parent Cineworld’s attacks on workers’ rights. When Picturehouse fell in line with Cineworld’s corporate policy and refused to show films without a full theatrical window (i.e. those which would be available online before 16 weeks had elapsed), it confirmed a major shift in UK exhibition. This presented a dilemma for those in independent distribution: try to make some money from the dwindling number of people who still see Picturehouse as the place for independent and world cinema programming, or stay modern and make their films available to everyone in cinemas and VOD (at the same time making a major saving on press and advertising costs). Curzon – while still flying the flag for its own world cinema titles – is split its indie stalwarts and its more recent acquisitions that focus on blockbusters and other mainstream titles. With these independent chains making up such a significant part of the ‘independent’ world, there’s a serious network effect for independent distributors. Even with a very good film, everything has to line up for an independent film to deliver: that’s why we cheer when a film like Bait broadens its horizons. Yet a smaller number of screens breeds a smaller marketing budget; the less spend with media outlets, the less interest in reviews, ultimately means the fewer number of independent films making significant money at the box office. With independent cinemas putting those films side by side with mass-marketed films as choices, it makes an argument of ever decreasing returns. 

Besides replicating multiplex programming and turning over titles with undue speed, cinemas have also priced out all but the most dedicated fans vying to see must watch releases. Independent cinema is never a sure thing. Even modern classics and films that have performed well as indie titles are not necessarily palatable to a wide range of people. Watching something like Uncle Boonmee... or Mulholland Drive or Saint Maud requires a certain amount of open-mindedness. The issue is that spending £18 (especially when that represents more than two hours of your labour) does not come with an open-mindedness about your experience. Although I’m writing this from London – undoubtedly the most expensive place in the UK to go to the cinema, with only the mighty Peckhamplex and Genesis truly flying the flag for programme agnostic, inexpensive cinema viewing – it’s easy to think elsewhere that cinema tickets cause people to hesitate over more uncertain pleasures. Anecdotally, from having witnessed the effect of limitless ticketing inside a cinema chain, audiences generally expand their tastes rather than watch a wider range of the type of films they always saw. The first two films people will see in a month are the ‘must sees’; from there, it’s much more open what people will pick if they keep going. Lowering the bar of entry is likely to expand people’s filmgoing frequency and therefore their palate. We only need to look to streamers to see where lowering this bar can lead. Audiences are finding material beyond the mainstream – some it even <whisper it> subtitledin a space where the opportunity to watch is always there and the barrier to entry feels as low as can be. Don’t like Midnight Diner, Kingdom or Money Heist or another title someone mentioned to you on Twitter years after its release? The cost is only to your evening hours. Cinemas have put a major bar to discovery – not to mention a major bar to their much vaunted goals of diversity and access – by putting their prices at the ‘everyday luxury’ end of the scale.

Everything I’ve said so far applies largely to commercial companies. Of course, commercial companies are welcome to pursue whatever path to profit they wish (within the very elastic bounds of the law). I can lament the fact that huge swathes of the country now lack a genuine independent cinema, but it’s not something I have a stake in. It wouldn’t be such a concern if resetting the baseline hadn’t had a considerable effect on genuine independents. One would hope that arthouses with public funding would provide greater resistance to commercial imperatives, focusing on community goals. Yet as Tory austerity has demanded ever greater cuts to cultural support and with blockbusters even easier to get on your screen, it’s understandable that these independent cinemas dilute their programmes year round. It was interesting to me to see Watershed’s Mark Cosgrove defend himself for not showing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, despite there being ample other outlets to watch Tarantino’s latest in Bristol. In the past, it would have felt natural that a film with this scale of release wouldn’t grace Watershed’s screens, leaving them to focus more on the titles that they are best and most uniquely equipped to serve. Yet today, there’s more of a sense that the experience – more comfortable seats, better food and beverage offers, more present staffing, more middle class white people – is what set independent cinemas apart rather than what they show. As Cosgrove writes, ‘His films now work in the commercial world and he no longer needs the support of Watershed. He did need that support when he was an unknown starting out and we were only too happy to help this obviously talented but unknown filmmaker to ensure that his debut film reached audiences.’ That philosophy is relatively rare in UK programming, even among cinemas offered public funding to make the same point. The result is that titles like Downton Abbey – perhaps 2019’s widest release with a whopping 728 locations – can be assured of both multiplex and independent coverage. What used to be a manufacturing impossibility – all those 35mm prints! – is now a common occurrence. 

It’s understandable, but ultimately unsustainable. For one, the material itself is evaporating at a rate of knots, with the likes of Disney (who produced an insane seven of the ten most popular films at the UK box office in 2019) using the pandemic to move ahead their proprietorial aspirations for their content, debuting titles previously destined for the cinema on Disney+. Along with HBO Max releasing all of Warner Bros slate direct to streaming this year in the US, it’s a question not if, but when that cinemas no longer have exclusivity over material for even a short window. To be sure, independent cinemas have less to lose when it comes to vying with films released day and date (since they regularly screen films simultaneously available on VOD). Pubs don’t evaporate as a result of beer and wine being cheaply available in supermarkets. Bad pubs disappear in that climate and good pubs need to justify themselves in new ways: a draughty and impersonal airport lounge isn’t going to look more appealing than sitting on your sofa when the product is the same. What are cinemas without a stranglehold on the films audiences are gasping to see? 

The days of this kind of release are likely numbered for all cinemas. Do these films have such an attraction when it’s only 31 days until you can enjoy it at home, supermarket bottle of wine to hand? I’d wager very few people are catching up with Absolutely Fabulous (2016) these days, just as the buzz cools on Netflix titles within a matter of weeks or less (I had to remind my partner of which film The Midnight Sky was, mere weeks after we’d sat through the majority of it). 

It’s worth remembering it’s not just the films, but the audience itself that has an expiry date. The mostly overstated predictions about cinema dying are likely to come to fruition if all the eggs are put into the basket of older middle-class audiences (the folks most keen to see Downton Abbey in a reassuringly white middle class space rather than a multiplex). Even courting people who are fifteen years younger than retirement would be a major step onwards. But most important of all is that cinemas are never going to thrive if they’re fighting over the same territory. Doubtless there are short term gains in offering the same content in a nicer environment. There’s a reason that independent cinemas do better with event cinema. But there’s only so long before multiplexes start to inch into this highly lucrative space. Experience and content is replicable. What is not replicable is a deep knowledge of what audiences want and an even deeper knowledge of what they don’t yet know they want. 

So what’s the solution? A cinema where you can get a ticket for the price of two drinks (in a universe where drinks are not expensive) or an hour’s work at the average local wage, consistently showing films that won’t be shown locally otherwise. Cinemas now have more opportunity than ever to specialise. There is more content than there has ever been and it makes most sense to mark yourself out (or ‘brand yourself’ if you want to get really debased) in an age of access to everything. The older middle class audience began seeking out independent cinemas in the 1960s and 1970s because they were the only places to see the mind-expanding works of Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Kurosawa and many more. TV was mostly dull and utterly provincial in those days. Today’s struggle is not the same: audiences are drowning in high-quality material. It’ll only be a few years until the Criterion Channel (or an equivalent) launches in the UK, offering all these films and more. But what about advocating as passionately for films that audiences can’t necessarily hone in on in the digital noise? Eric Allen Hatch lays out a manifesto for just this kind of programming here, but a commitment to ‘niche’ programming over time yields results. Independent cinemas currently spend a huge amount of the energy focusing on courting people pick them against other local options for a mass-market title. That energy would be better spent convincing them to pick the film(s) they can only see with you and earning the trust of audiences. Over time, cinemas can fight back against reduced marketing budgets, attracting the curiosity and interest on even the smallest offerings. The alternative is putting ever more effort into fighting with multiplexes, cheaper prices and watching the same material on the sofa. 

If we want to find an analogy for which cinemas will thrive in the coming years, look to an industry even more nibbled out by digital newcomers. What died most quickly with the rise of the Amazon were the things that mostly closely aped it: chain bookstores that offered far broader selections than your average bookshop. Multiplexes are perhaps like the Borders of yesteryear: they’ve got everything you want, but so does the internet (and it likely has it cheaper). Cinemas need to move into market specialisation. Without playing to nostalgia, they can provide curation, intimacy and discovery in a way that the option to have everything never does. I walk into a good record shop or bookstore and find things and have conversations I would never have online. That experience of discovery should be for everyone, and that includes pricing and marketing. It’s also something that is harder for algorithms to copy. Where they tend towards repetition and homogenisation (centralising taste by process of ‘this is similar to this’), the independent cinema should be looking to expand outwards and push its audience further than it has gone before. The independent’s job is to take people on journeys they didn’t know they wanted to take, rather than visiting somewhere familiar but uninspiring. Sooner or later, that journey’s not worth taking anymore.