A Future for the Cinema
By I A 14 CAMERON FILM people tend to see the answers to their prayers in a few magic words: co-production, di- versification, Pay TV, film schools, road shows, blan- ket release, advertising. Indeed, it was only quite recently that the industry discovered advertising— after doing it for years. The average film poster was, and still is, ill-designed and ill-conceived, frequently inspired by posters of past successes. Publicity is treated so inflexibly that the same advertising design will be used in ,a specialist film magazine, the Sunday Times and the Evening Standard without any thought that a campaign aimed at one will probably miss the mark dismally with the other two. Money is spent on advertising with little idea of where it could do good: the Rank Organisation's biggest campaign last year was for Hitchcock's The Birds. The word-of-mouth publicity (which everyone agrees is crucial in the movies) on Hitchcock's first picture since Psycho was likely to be so great that the posters everywhere seemed superfluous. As for local publicity, most of the tricks reported in the 'showmanship' columns of the trade papers leave one thinking that the average cinema manager would stand naked in the foyer if he thought it would attract some customers.
A few years ago advertising came to the cinema and its prophet was Joe Levine. He dis- covered a new technique: spend .a little on the film and a lot on the advertising. He bought a two-bit Italian spectacular, then with the name 'Hercules' in hewn-out-of-rock lettering and adjectives like 'mighty,' contrived to rake in What Variety would call big coin. Apart from turning him overnight into the Midas of the film business, his fortune had two consequences. One was a rash of equally mighty little spec- taculars. The other was an advertising binge by the industry. The trick here lay in the deduction Of publicity costs from the producer's, not the distributor's, share of the profits: a good in- centive for distributors to advertise.
Columbia are the leading British exponents of the new technique. Films with doubtful appeal are no longer forgotten; they are launched on the market usually in packaged double bills, attended by an enormous advertising campaign. In this way, Losey's desperately pessimistic The DamVted was packed up with Maniac and sold as a sex and horror number. When, as usually happens, the product being marketed is ni3t so good, the result is likely to be mass dis- appointment. The Levine technique is a very short-term policy, which its originator has mainly abandoned by buying better films.
I believe that the disappointed audience is one of the greatest menaces to the future of the cinema. In advertising, one can only expect to Persuade edstomers to buy an inferior product Once. The enema does not fit this rule, as films
are mainly seen only once by each person. How- Tier, have a series of disappointments with dif- ferent films and the cinema itself becomes the dmappointment.
An astonishing aspect of film advertising is Ine total lack of market research behind it.. No one seems to have an idea of marketing as an operation : for American films, the original
advertising scheme is. nine times out of ten used without modification here. There is little evi- dence of market research undertaken by the companies themselves. The only recent surveys appear to be those made by the Screen Advert- ising Association (1960) and the Federation of British Film Makers. The SAA report is of little use to anyone except the potential screen advert- isers for whom it was planned. The FBFM's findings were due last summer, and though long since completed are being kept quiet until a committee has decided what to do with them.
Yet market research could do much more for the cinema than convince manufacturers to use it as an advertising medium. It could be an in- valuable source of information about cinema- going habits,. preferences both in types of film and types of programme, aspects of the cinema which people find annoying, even reasons for not going to the cinema. Advertising based on market research is more likely to succeed than advertising based on previous advertising. Market research could even provide an indication of -the sort of films to make: if producers would like the cinema to remain an industry, they should adopt industry's rrrost useful techniques.
Recall what typically happens in films. Most pictures are made because previous works like them have done well. I bet the Rank Organisa- tion wouldn't have put twopence halfpenny towards This Sporting Life if Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other Woodfall films hadn't succeeded financially. Genres become established when one hit movie is followed by others attempting to cash in on the pattern of its success. A few years ago the Hollywood cheapie merchants were grinding out high school corruption movies like High School Confidential. Now they're vying with each other in the realm of surfing movies, which started with a brace of Gidgets and blossomed into Beach Party, Malibu Beach Party and so forth. Each genre goes on until a few financial turkeys lay eggs at the box-office and it is abandoned for some- thing fresher. If films are going to be made on this financial feed-back system, and there's no reason to expect it will stop, why not make the feed-back quicker and more efficient by using research rather than waiting to do post-mortems
'That's today'Cs morality for you!'
on box-office returns'? The many directors who work well and creatively within the current framework of industrial film production, will be no less restricted, and would possibly benefit if research revealed that audiences were less con- servative than producers.
Audiences require consideration in other re- spects, too. If the attraction of the cinema as mass entertainment is that it 'offers warmth, comfort and illusion at a low inclusive rate,' the industry is really in trouble unless something is done. It's probably not economic to lower cinema prices, but particularly at the bottom of the income scale some weight must be given to the fact that you can hire a telly for the price of taking a family of three once a week to the cheapest seats Ma circuit cinema.
If cinemas can't lower their seat prices, they have to be comfortable. Among the indepen- dents, simply to sit in one of their seats can cause acute physical discomfort, aggravated by an atmosphere that is cold and dank or hot and ketid according to climatic conditions outside. If you want to see the picture on the screen, the pain may eventually become unbearable. The circuit houses are less ghastly. Even if watch- ing the screen may involve some contortions, at least Odeons are better for necking: more room for manceuvre. Exceptions are one major circuit which specialises in buying poor cinemas and letting them decay and Granada whose halls are impeccable.
The financial might of the circuits could be employed to effect on their own cinemas. Apart from a few in large towns. cinemas are too vast. Houses that are filled for a few weeks by big successes spend the rest of the year as echoing mausoleums. The boom between the wars led to wasteful building. These monstrous picture palaces cover perhaps the biggest single source of usable town-centre land in the country. Now that property values are unprecedentedly high, large scale redevelcipment would surely pay. Instead of dickering around with outdated structures, more could be done about building smaller, better-equipped cinemas, in basements or on the first floor, and exploiting the rest of the property to commercial advantage. Longer runs for successful films could help balance any film shortage, and on ordinary films, 200 patrons will feel less desolate in a 600-seat cinema than they would in one twice or three times the size.
Smaller cinemas would encourage adventur- ousness in programming, as the attempt to fill a huge movie house is a strong inducement to play safe. There is, however, a pressing need for a good number of cinemas which could play minority films---`art houses,' for want of a better word. One part of the cinema's future lies in an increase of less 'popular' movies, but at present, and especially in Britain, this development is stunted because on the rare occasions that we pro- duce a film like, say, The Caretaker, there is ,nowhere for it to go. Ideas of turning the Third Circuit into art houses can have no future, for these are often poor cinemas in poor situations.
'rhe cinemas need not be large--one specialist dis- tributor believes that art houses could work with
as few as 175 seats, and at that size many large towns could support them. Tucked away in side streets, as passing trade counts for nought in the art house business, and intelligently run, they could be lucrative and useful.
Unfortunately, the cinema is still thinking along industrial lines to the exclusion of other possibilities. The film unions are not exceptional
in aiming to keep the big studios open, staffing regulations maintained and to squeeze the maximum of employment out of production as it stands. This may have worked once and may
always work in television, but now that things are going to get a lot worse before becoming even a little better in the cinema, union policy is self-destructive. Sooner or later, and sooner would be healthier, special dispensations about closed shops, pay and staffing will have to be made so that minority films can be produced on rock-bottom budgets.
The matter of subsidies will also need re- vision. At present we have the Film Production Fund (Eady money), a levy on box office takings distributed among British films in proportion to the amount they earn here. While it may,. be economically desirable to encourage Ameri- can production to operate here, it is hardly con- ducive to the growth of a lively native film production when films as totally American as Suddritly Lag Summer or Swan Never Sleeps qualify for Eady money on the same basis as a genuinely British picture. While there is no case fol subsidising failure, nor is there a case for giving the largest subsidies to films like Summer Holiday, which would be doing fine without. This could easily be cured by giving Eady money on a sliding scale, at a rate which decreases as the film's box-office take increases. The money saved could be valuably used in a different sort of subsidy; -something like the French system of prizes for quality. Here the snag would be choosing a jury and terms of reference for it, so that it would be useful and not just encourage extra-cinematic 'cultural' qualities: injudicious choice could lead to a rash of ballet and art films. The problem of choosing a jury runs parallel to the one insuperable dis- advantage in another of the cinema's panaceas, the film school. (Incidentally, the film school is.a less useful idea than everyone thinks: Polish movies are not so hot, Russian are terrible, and how many decent French directors went right the way through IDHEC?) Any system of awards, were it possible, should only apply to the very lowest budget levels, at which new directors might get a chance.
In the field of short films, which we all know cculd provide a training ground for young film- makers, it was a good idea to give Eady money at two and a half times the normal rate. But this goes also to sponsored films, and to Pathd Pictorial and Look at Life, which couldn't use- fully train anyone. Newsreels, always among the cinema's greatest disasters and now a living demonstration of the topical power of television, get a double dose of Eady money. With such easily available cash in the supporting pro- gramme, no circuit is going to waste time on other people's shorts. Again a revision of subsidy arrangements is indicated: cutting it back to normal rate on newsreels and magazine shorts and cutting it out entirely on sponsored films. Then perhaps young film-makers will be more likely to be given the chance of making shorts.
If I've talked largely in the latter part of this article about stimulating production of minority films, it is because I believe this is one direction in which the cinema has a future. The other, even more certain, is the realm of the huge inter- national road-show movies, Exodus or Lawrence or Ef Cid. The area in between the extremes is more doubtful. The production of middle budget films inay well continue. How they are shown is a different matter, for this area of filming is the one most likely to be involved with Pay TV. If successful, this.could mean the end of the cinema exhibition industry except in the city centres. If it failed, it could give a new lease of life to the cinemas and even help in the gradual re-establishment of habitual film-going. As an optimist, I prefer to believe in the latte: alternative.