It looks like a bleak future for British independent cinemas and distributors, but at least some filmmakers will find a future in cyberspace

In 2007, according to the Film Council’s statistics, American distributors took more than 92% of the UK box office, with some of that accounted for by their ‘British’ product.  Much of the rest was taken by a small handful of French companies; and 63 ‘other distributors’, i.e. overwhelmingly British, split a remaining 5.5% between them. The Film Council hailed this as a good year as this 5.5% was about double the average!


Of course this 5.5% might be accounted for by pretty insignificant British distributors, but in most cases they don’t distribute British films. Instead they collect EU subsidies for handling ‘non-British European films’ which get screened in the 35 major arthouses which are themselves part of the EU subsidised, and effectively centrally programmed, Europa Cinemas Network. Oh yes, and they also often pick up substantial additional awards from the Film Council’s ‘specialised prints and advertising fund’.


So, every year, all this adds up to millions of  pounds and euros spent on keeping most  truly independent British films out of distribution and off our screens.


For a brief period it looked as if some of this might change when, in 2005, the Film Council announced that it would using £11.5 million of government and lottery money to subsidise the creation of a supposed network of 240 digitally equipped screens, many multiplex-based, which would show British independent, ‘Classic’ and foreign language films. The UKFC also published some associated audience research which stressed that these films needed long runs in order to allow audiences to build through word of mouth.


All this had little distributors and indie filmmakers rubbing their hands with glee at the prospects which were going to materialise when, in 2007, the ‘network’ was to be completed. But it turned out they’d all been cruelly misled. You see the subsidies had been in return for ‘commitments’, individually negotiated with each cinema, which were all ‘confidential’.  No one new what they were, but no one thought that they’d be so small as to be meaningless. But they were.


It just so happened that recently the Film Council accidentally leaked some of the details to me in a response to another query. It turned out that some cinemas had committed to one screening per week, some to one a fortnight, and some to one a month! So much for the UKFC’s PR promises about how all this subsidy was going to transform the UK’s  Hollywood dominated cinema landscape!


But of course it gets worse. The subsidised digital light projectors only require minor modifications to screen 3D. This hasn’t been a subsidy for the benefit of independent, classic and foreign language films, it’s a subsidy to Hollywood.


Already concerned voices are being raised about how 3D will increase Hollywood’s dominance and result in many little independent non-multiplex cinemas being driven out of business. If I was the government or the National Lottery I’d be wanting my money back. Is it any wonder that more and more indie filmmakers are turning their backs on all of this and are heading off into cyberspace? Pretty soon it may be the only space left.

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