Why smaller films need seeing first

Feature Simon Brew 10 May 2013 - 06:19

As Star Trek Into Darkness joins five or six smaller films in UK cinemas this week, here's how to give the underdog a fighting chance...

Earlier this week, Film4 announced that it was trying something a bit different for the release of Ben Wheatley's upcoming movie, A Field In England. It's a modestly budgeted movie, shot over two weeks, and quite experimental in its approach. That presented Film4 with something of a quandary: how could it get the film out to the widest possible audience?

Back when Wheatley's last film, the terrific Sightseers, was released, our Twitter feed was deluged with people keen to see the film, only to find their local cinema wasn't showing it. It's, sadly, becoming a regular issue with smaller movies, that simply getting a decent number of screens is becoming trickier.

Dan Turner directed the impressive drama The Man Inside, which was released in cinemas last year. It was released on the opening day of the Olympics, with the likes of The Amazing Spider-Man, Magic Mike and Ice Age 4 dominating multiplex screens. As such, The Man Inside appeared on a small number of screens, and quickly dropped out of distribution. As he told us, "Cinema is fracturing into blockbuster or art house with not much room in between. You sometimes get a crossover but its getting harder".

Then there's Jon Wright and Kevin LeHane's wonderful Grabbers. That snagged just six screens a few days ahead of its DVD release at the end of last year. As if there was an acceptance on the part of its distributor that it wasn't really looking at a blockbuster, and so it was barely going to try.

For A Field In England, Film4 is basically challenging people to put their money where their mouths are. On the day of release, it'll not just be in cinemas, it'll also be out on DVD, screened on Film4, and available via video on demand services. From July 5th, basically, if you want to watch A Field In England, a new film from a major British talent, you can. No excuses. Inevitably, that potentially limits the returns Film4 can get from the project. But by taking such a risk, it might just find the wider audience that Wheatley's films deserve. 

Film critic Matthew Turner, who you can find on Twitter here, is a regular advocate of what he calls 'See Smaller Films First'. In his excellent weekly blog, he continually lists the films that could use help in this way (here's an example). And we figured it was long past time we lent him our support.

Turner's argument, and it's an entirely correct one, is this: if a big blockbuster and a smaller (not necessarily small) movie arrive in cinemas on the same day, and you want to see them both, go for the smaller movie as early as you can. It's not a case of avoiding the blockbuster, just go and see it second.

After all, the blockbuster will be around for a good few weeks, unless it's an outright disaster. But even excellent smaller films drop out of distribution worryingly fast if they don't make enough money up front to convince the distributor concerned to fight for more screen space. There were no midnight screenings of Sightseers on day of release.

Take today in the UK. Warner Bros is releasing Deadfall, the new movie from the director of The Counterfeiters. Entertainment is releasing Mud, the new film from the director of Take Shelter. A Highjacking is also worth a look, and the fine folks at Dogwoof are putting Village At The End Of The World in 'key cities' around the UK. What those four films have in common is this: if they don't get support fast, it'll be virtually impossible to see them on a cinema screen in a month. Star Trek Into Darkness will still be playing. 

We're fans of cinema in pretty much all flavours, from the big blockbusters to the small indies. There's no way we'd suggest backing the smaller film over the big blindly: no matter what the budget, the price at the box office remains the same, whether the film you're watching cost $200m or £200.

But we'd just ask this: help us pick up the mantle here. If you've ever been frustrated that a smaller movie hasn't made it to your neck of the woods (and this isn't a UK-centric problem), then when one does, support it, and support it fast. Then encourage others to do the same. If we don't do this, then Men In Black 7 will play across half of the screens of a multiplex, while five smaller releases will be squeezed out.

If we do do it, then the only thing that may happen is that a small film gets one more week with decent distribution. But that's surely a prize worth fighting for...

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