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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While we do have the Cornerhouse where I live in Manchester, it only shows films for a number of days to a week meaning I may not be able ,due to work,to see the smaller releases.More often than not the big cinemas will dedicate two screens to a blockbuster meaning smaller,independent films don't get a look in. So releasing a film in cinemas,on DVD and on streaming services at the same time is a good idea in my book

I'm lucky that in Edinburgh we have the Cameo, which shows independent films but it it is a problem for people who live in smaller cities or who are out in the country. I think Film 4 have done the right thing by trying to bring it to an audience who otherwise wouldn't get the chance to see it.

As you say in the text, this is not a UK-centric problem, it's universal. I'm from Spain, and I don't have the luck to live in the cultural centers of the country, such as Madrid or Barcelona. This is a problem that I face almost every month, films like Holy Motors and Take Shelter didn't premiere in my city, where there are six cinemas, and I dare you to see Beasts of the Southern Wild or Spring Breakers with dubed spanish voices. Just awful.

Speaking of the release of A Field in England, in Spain we had the exact same case last year, with a film called "Carmina o Revienta", the debut of a very famous comedian in the country, Paco León. In the same day, the movie was in cinemas, a very cheap DVD and a Video on Demand platform. That was the plan, but a lot of cinemas didn't want to screen the movie, they were piss off about the release model, because they thought that cinemas would be the most affected part economically. The film did well the first weeks, but the spanish movie industry, which is very conservative, ignored the film.

I hope Wheatley the best, because is a very promising filmmaker and this movie looks really cool to me.

I largely agree - but of course there is the problem for the blockbuster big movie that if you wait three weeks down the line that the next big blockbuster will have the largest screen at the cineplex and it'll have been shunted down the line to one of the smaller screens by then. Of course, that's better than the option for the small movie which will be completely gone, as you say, but some blockbuster movies cry out to be seen on the best screen available - I'm saying this having just seen that gorgeous trailer for Gravity that makes me wish I had an IMAX screen within reasonable travelling distance.

The thing is, I am only likely to see 1 film at the cinema this month. A film like Sightseers I am happy to watch on a small screen and will enjoy it just as much. But Star Trek, come on, it needs a big screen. With home viewing options in such abundance, I only tend to see big budget popcorn fun at the cinema. Which does mean that I the better films are left for home viewing but imagine how bad the blockbusters are on a small screen

Well said. I try to do the same thing when choosing a film to see.
Frequently have the same problem in Australia: i want to support an Aussie film but can't find anywhere that's showing it.

You're right about the smaller screen, but there will also be fewer people in the audience and that means less chance that you'll be stuck next to someone talking/texting/whatever ;-)

I'm at Durham Uni and our cinema is awful! Alas, it showed only two of the Best Picture nods last year, and yet it had Hotel Transylvania on for 9 weeks, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for 6.

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