7 FEBRUARY 1964, Page 18

Saving the Cinema


EVERYTHING there is to say about the British Lion dispute and the film production crisis has now been said, apart from a few relevant but inherently libe 110 u s truths. But the imme- diate problems of the film industry reflect only a part of a generally crazy situation. A large mea- sure of the trouble doesn't concern film produc- tion, although, heaven knows, British movies are pretty bad. By far the weakest and most backward part of the industry is its exhibition side : the cinemas themselves. Where contraction may be necessary, decay is evident. A high degree of self- delusion is prevalent, encouraged by cheery opti- mistic gossip in trade papers like The Daily Cinema (published three times a week).

The exhibition/distribution side of the industry at present hardly deserves to survive. The heap cf money being made by From Russia with Love may seem like an optimistic sign, but isn't, as the contraction in market applies to the average films, not the exceptions. This latest box-office sockeroo also provides a modest example of the industry's throat-cutting activities. Supporting (as they say in the trade) From Russia with Love on all its Rank circuit showings was an 'interest' short called This Is Jordan, a production of such crass- ness that all levels of audience found it intoler- able, and often showed their feelings. Now I can- not believe that the Rank booker was sufficiently incompetent to have chosen this opus for himself. So the distributor must have helped him, presum- ably by suggesting he had to book Jordan in order to get Russia. The same thing is happening with this week's Rank release, an obvious winner called The Pink Panther, which has the same dis- tributor (United Artists) and is 'supported' by another ghastly short (The Money Makers) from the same producer (Harold Bairn).

I have mentioned this example at length be- cause it seems to me to typify the industry's ten- dency to use its moments of power destructively. I'm not, of course, suggesting that anyone who has been bored stiff by a Bairn product becomes a lost customer. However, annoyances tend to act cumulatively to discourage the consumer. Even West End presentation of films is still often surrounded by fleapit tattiness. Nothing could be more dashing to the anticipation of an audience which has parted with over ten shillings a head to see The Cardinal in its Super Panavision splen- dour at the Astoria, Charing Cross Road, than the moment when the curtains part to reveal a small screen and cigarette commercials.

It's very difficult to prove the way things happen in the film industry. To begin with, every- one is scared of everyone else, and in particular the independents, who are the usual victims (apart from the public), are scared of the combines, fear- ing reprisals for any accusations they may want to make. Films if they're exhibitors, and markets if they're producers, may well be withdrawn over- night. Personal contacts are all-important and power is exerted through pressures which rarely become public. Statistics are hard to come by and rarely reliable. As a result, it's difficult to pre- scribe for the industry's ills, perhaps impossible to enforce the prescription.

For most of the time, the power is wielded by the two main circuits, Rank and ABC, who use it wherever possible to prevent their rivals from competing on equal terms with them. It may seem odd that a shortage of films should result in a buyer's market, but the explanation is simple. A circuit release provides the only reasonable guar- antee a film can have of earning a significant amount in Britain. The average film might earn for its distributors £85,000-£95,000 from a Rank release, 05,000-£85,000 from an ABC release but only £35,000-£40,000 from the best alternative, a National release to the fag-end of Rank's cinemas plus a few others. When a British film is likely to obtain two-thirds of its earnings in Britain, a Rank or ABC release is absolutely essential. Before a film has any chance of finding backers, it needs a distributor, and before most distributors will agree to handle a film, they are liable to con- sult the circuits to see if there will be a market for it. So the two men who are the circuit bookers come to have a profound influence on the whole of British film production.

In spite of the difficulties that have closed almost half the cinemas in the country in ten years, the circuits are doing very nicely, thank you. In the last financial year, Rank Organisa- tion ordinary shareholders received dividends totalling 271 per cent. The corresponding figure for ABPC was 30 per cent. Ah, you may say, these corporations now operate everything from motels to coin-operated laundries and surely the .;e newly-acquired profitable ventures are the basis

of their good fortune. Not a bit of it. The Rank Organisation (much the more diversified of the two) derived 29.4 per cent of its sales and 37.5 per cent of its profits from exhibition in the British Isles. The manufacturing activities of Rank on 31.4 per cent of the sales only made 15.7 per cent of the profit. Exhibition, then, produced two and a half times the percentage profit earned by manufacturing (12 against 4.7 per cent).

The reasons for the success of the circuits are threefold. They are quicker off the mark than independents to close unprofitable cinemas. Their halls are in general newer, cleaner and better located than most. Above all, however, they have the bargaining power to secure the best films and prevent them reaching competitors until they've been shown in circuit houses. They are in the happy position of having access to more new films than they need. While, as John Davis, chair- man of the Rank Organisation, frequently insists, there is insufficient product for three circuits, there is too much to be accommodated by two.

It was with an eye to future profits that Rank killed the Gaumont release in 1958 and replaced it with the stillborn third circuit. In spite of Lord Rank's protestations that this was at least as good as the Gaumont release, no one in the industry believed that his words were more than a means of getting the Odeon-Gaumont amalgamation past the Government, which had the statutory power to veto it. Since 1958, Rank have, in fact if not always in appearance, managed to block all attempts to form a third circuit.

No real pressure is exerted on Rank or ABC to do anything in the interests of the cinema in general (claims that they have had a stabilising effect on the industry by their existence may be countered by the statement that they have stabi- lised it in a most unhealthy condition). Their general aim is, and commercially must be, that if only a certain percentage of existing cinemas can profitably survive, as many as possible should be- long to them. Rank even specify contractually that sites which they sell should never again be used for cinemas. The effects of the commercial logic governing circuit operations extend in an- other direction through Rank and ABPC involve- ment in production and distribution. It is obviously in their interests that their own films should receive priority treatment, because they stand to profit more from them. Sir Michael Balcon, whose Bryanston Films are released through British Lion, wrote last summer that 'the independent film-maker is getting by and large the poorest play dates and what is more, getting them too far ahead to be comfortable.' There are even suggestions going around that the two cir- cuits are in connivance. Certainly each deals mainly with a specific range of distributors, an arrangement which avoids any chance that com- petitive bidding for films will give producers and distributors a better deal.

Left out in the cold by all the manceuvrings of the circuits and the big distributors is the indepen- dent exhibitor. He deserves sympathy because his whole way of life is collapsing about him, and because he has frequently shown great tenacity in the face of dwindling audiences, lack of films and financial loss. However, exhibitors are in gcneral the most backward, bone-headed element in the industry. Hardly any of them have the' ability or the courage to pick their own pro- grammes. Instead they rely blindly on the advice of trade papers and demand only more films like their past successes. It is exactly this backward- looking policy (which extends in reduced degree to distributors and producers and stems from a lack of any real feeling for the cinema) that tends to sap any vitality that could help the cinema to survive. It is an industry of old men, and no- where is its age more apparent than among the exhibitors. Most of them are old men running old cinemas, which could often have been modernised in the palmy days when business showed a healthy profit. But then there was no need to do more than running repairs and the occasional paint job. Four-fifths of the country's cinemas fell in with the automatic booking pattern of the cir- cuits, and running a cinema was a pleasant way of making a living. It was no training at all for the rigours of running a cinema in the Sixties.

I don't think many people will dissent if I now assume that there is a strong social case for pre- serving the cinema as far as possible, with plan- ning and legislation if not with any actual subsidy. As John Spraos points out in his most valuable book, The Decline of the Cinema, the ability of a specific cinema to make a profit is not a test of its social value. 'The box office registers whether people are prepared to pay the stipulated price to see a particular film. It does not indicate what price they are prepared to pay for the privilege of having a cinema at all.' So much for John Davis's parallel between himself and Dr. Beech- ing ('the public have shown—by their not using the lines—that they do not need the services ...').

The survival of an industry, whether it makes films or buttons, depends on the preservation of its consumer outlets. In particular for the cinema, the survival of independent production depends on the maintenance of a strong group of indepen- dent outlets. Some way has to be devised of pre- venting further decline in the number of cinemas.

A first step could well be some form of statu- tory discouragement to those who want to sell cinema sites, perhaps in the form of an obliga- tion to accept any reasonable offer that would allow the property to continue as a cinema. Pur- chase, compulsory or otherwise, by local authori- ties could become an important factor, especially in places with a single cinema, where closure would mean a considerable loss of amenity. Apparently at least twenty-five local authorities already run their own cinemas, and the practice should be encouraged. One encouragement suggested by Spraos is the reduction of film rentals, particu- larly for cinemas in solo (i.e., non-competitive) situations. Surely in the long run distributors have everything to gain by keeping cinemas alive.

The American answer to monopolistic tenden- cies in the cinema was the use of anti-trust laws to separate exhibition from distribution and production. This would be well worth trying here, but with the generally devious operation of the 'Not the Mona Lisa!' industry and its skill in circumventing most other statutory restrictions applied to it, one does not have too much confidence in the effectiveness of such a split in the British film industry.

If it were feasible, a split could contribute to- wards the central problem of breaking circuit domination to allow exhibitors free competition for films and producers free competition for out- lets. Any legislation against the circuits is likely to be attacked by them as a restriction of the in- dustry's trading freedom. But that in itself is illusory, as any freedom that is going belongs only to the circuits.

Two solutions have been proposed : the Spraos/ ACTT (film union) three-circuit method, and the Federation of British Film Makers' (the independents) fragmentation method. The first involves building up the third circuit by purchase of cinemas (ACTT) or encouragement in the form of a subsidy (Spraos) which would increase third-circuit returns to a level competitive with the others. A snag in this method is the shortage of films, although a third circuit would probably stimulate production. While it increases a film's chances of release, it still leaves the cinema in the hands of circuit bookers (three instead of two), with the independent cinemas out in the cold.

The other method, proposed by the 113FM, advocates a splitting of the circuits into region- ally organised and autonomous booking groups of not more than twenty-five cinemas. If, and this is one of the problems, the regional bookers could be kept out of the influence of circuit head offices, the system could equalise the market opportuni- ties for each film. The temporary chaos that might be caused in film financing with the dis- appearance of circuits could well be highly bene- ficial as a stimulus. But the independent exhibitor is at the same disadvantage with circuits of 350 cinemas or twenty-five if the twenty-five are all in his region.

A more rewarding solution could be an exten- sion of the fragmentation principle to allow all cinemas to compete on equal terms. Instead of chopping each circuit into regions, why not chop all circuits into regions, place all cinemas be- longing to chains of more than half a dozen under the control of one booker in each region? The in- dependents could be given the choice of joining or not, but if the system were organised so that the bookers were qualified people not connected with the major circuits and distributors, they would probably do so, as they would then get the chance of being treated on their merits. This system would take booking out of the hands of the exhibitors who have in general proved their inability to cope with it. This is not the place to deal in detail with the safeguards that would be needed, but if it still requires coercion of the in- dustry, it would be no more difficult to operate than the alternatives and possibly more effective.

The same result would almost certainly be achieved, and possibly faster, through nationali- sation. There is, as far as I can see, no justifica- tion at all for nationalising any sector of the industry except exhibition. For production and, distribution, the risks (particularly of interfer'l ence with content) would outweigh any advan-

tages. Nationalised production would also be less susceptible to individual initiative and comma' cial (i.e., popular) pressure, two factors which are essential to a lively and socially integrated cinema. All one asks at present is that populat

pressures be allowed to tell, rather than the in' adequate assessment of them by two individual employed by corporations with monopolist-IC aims. Until this happens there can only be limited freedom of expression in the British cinema.