Offbeat films and the distribution problem

Can multiplex cinemas spare just a screen or two for non-blockbuster fare in the summer high season?

The blockbuster season is upon us. You’ve probably noticed. For the rest of the summer, a parade of big, loud, glossy films will hit cinema screens, some of which will have been made on a budget big enough to finance a small country for a year. Along with the now obligatory comic-book franchise films, there will more than likely be a few romantic comedies, a natural disaster and perhaps a sprinkling of thriller/action and we’ll be set.

But what about the films that fall on the stranger side of life? Where do they fit in, and how can they even get screen space? It’s a growing problem.

Recently in the UK, we got the release of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, the eccentrically satirical story based on J G Ballard’s novel. I both saw and loved it. Unusual in its premise, it tells the tale of a 1970s mammoth tower block, its occupants segregated by classist differences, who all slowly but surely fall under the power of the block itself – reticent to leave, preferring to face the unravelling corridor wars than abandon ship. Surreal and razor-sharp, it was refreshing to watch something so, well, different. It got me thinking about what is missing on our cinema screens.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that I haven’t enjoyed movies recently. I’ll watch anything and everything with an open mind. But it does seem in recent years that, when it comes to the movies allowed on our multiplex screens, originality is falling by the wayside, as studio bigwigs clamber to establish the next biggest franchise, or the most impressive universe.

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Like everything else, the popularity of film genres swings around in cycles. But I want to know what’s happened to those gloriously nutty, refuse-to-fit-in-anywhere, bonkers films that confuse, confound and generally run amok? Could these films survive in the climate of figure-chasing, risk-avoiding studios? We’ve been witness to the takeover of the PG-13 film. Everything family-kid-pet-friendly, with studios reluctant to invest in anything of a higher rating through fear of ostracising the spend-thrift kid faction of movie-goers. Blessed relief was issued with the arrival of Deadpool, proving that gratuitous violence and swearing in a comic book movie won’t send the potential audience screaming for the hills. Just include a pair of crocs and a couple of poorly treated unicorns and we’ll overlook pretty much anything. An example of a film that happened purely because it was wanted, and what seems to be gradually inspiring the leap into comic book R rated territory (The Wolverine 3 is next, with Kingsman: The Golden Circle also a cert for an R).

That isn’t to say that such films are no longer on the radar. One of the more memorable films I’ve seen recently is Robert Egger’s The Witch. Eerily deliberate, it didn’t so much take you out of your comfort zone as run at you with a pitchfork, chasing you out of it. Although deemed a horror, it provided a sense of being so much more. Historically accurate, it transports you back to Puritan America, indicative of the daily life of belonging to a religiously fanatical family, the social pressures of the time, and the undue burdens particularly applied to young women. It was raw, unforgiving and powerful to watch. Plus I’ll never look at goats the same way again. Thank goodness Universal was willing to take a chance on it in the UK, so we at least had a chance of getting to see the movie on a big screen.

That said, the studios aren’t the only barrier. Distributors play their part, and if they don’t want it, we don’t see it. Like the studios, they’re predominant concern is their bank balance, and that’s to be expected. But such a difference could be made on their part if they would take the opportunity to showcase lesser known talent, such as Ryan Coogler (surely one of the most satisfying directorial breakout stories of recent times). Not only would it broaden the spectrum of what we, the viewing public, would be able to watch, but the knowledge that someone out there is actively encouraging newer, diverse talent could be the spark that lights the fire of somebody else’s ambition.

Cinemas are too accountable for what we’re able to watch. I know from personal experience how frustrating it is when my local six screen cinema chooses to play the same film across four screens, limiting access to a more diverse field of viewing. Rather than concerning themselves with the multiplicity of their audience, they’ve become hell-bent on squeezing every single one of us into the same, monotonous box. Who wants to watch an original story when you can see Transformers: Darkside Of Your Eyelids in 23 screens? Granted, it’s a small cinema in comparison to most, but is that really an excuse to not show a little of everything rather than one whole bucket load of one thing?

There is now, more than ever, a vast, vast problem with screen space being held for only the biggest films. I had to drive 20 miles to our next nearest cinema to see the likes of High-Rise and The Witch as my local refused to screen them. They were worth the journey, but it would have been nice to have seen them closer to home. Imagine the impact if these cinemas invested just a small amount of schedule time to showing off films outside the remit of the usual fodder. Clearing just one screen and allowing something different to be seen. How refreshing that would be, against the grain of pushing films out of the side door if they don’t immediately bring in the crowds.

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There is very little build up now. Films are no longer given the time to brew, to cajole the audience through the door. They must simply succeed, or the comedy walking-stick will emerge from stage-left and yank them out of the spotlight.

Speaking of which, Spotlight is another fine example of a beautifully made film, sans explosions or epic battle scenes. Yes, it has a starry, established cast and it wasn’t exactly weird, but it was a sanctuary of quiet in amongst the commotion of brasher releases, a wonder in itself. It told its story gently, informative but not thrusting that information upon you. It succeeded in telling a fundamentally awful story in the most honest way it could, and focused on character development and story-telling, rather than forcing action and overexcitement.    

Films have provided a platform for the weird and wonderful to evolve. How else would we have witnessed the ghoulish glory of Beetlejuice, the whimsy of Labyrinth, the horror of The Fly or the downright weirdness of A Clockwork Orange? These were not films chasing down awards, or trying to apply themselves to the masses. They were purely being themselves, and, luckily for us, they were allowed to be. Studios are so intensely focused on the next biggest film, the one to break the box office, resorting to a plethora of remakes and reboots, it’s concerning that originality and imagination, to some extent at least, seems to be taking a backseat. As a friend of mine described it, it can feel like sterilised art. I can imagine modern day studio execs shivering in horror at the idea of producing Hellraiser or Blue Velvet.

It makes me question whether some of my favourite directors could have thrived, or even survived in such a climate. Had there been such pressures in place previously, would Tarantino have had the freedom to create Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction (yes in the case of the former, given how micro-budgetted it was, but what about the latter? Where’s the Miramax equivalent now)? Stanley Kubrick may have faced such stringent restrictions from the studio that the aforementioned A Clockwork Orange may have looked very different, if it had been made at all. Tim Burton’s whimsically dark offerings berated into being normal? No thanks. It begs the question – what are we missing out on? So many budding writers and directors out there not getting a look-in because they don’t conform to the accepted style of film-making. I hope it’s not drastically the case, but you have to wonder.

Some may argue that the influx of other visual platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has changed – and challenged – the landscape of film making and viewing. It certainly appears that the streaming services are prepared to be bolder in their choices of what to invest in and what to make available, both in film and TV series. Granted, they don’t have the overt pressure of box office takings lurking ubiquitously over their shoulder, but they are expected to perform, grow and succeed. Is it really enough that, because another source is providing the more unusual or daring projects for our viewing pleasure, the cinema industry is settling into accepting formulaic, predictable fodder? Or should they be upping their game, competing to attract a more varied audience?

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Personally, I hope they decide to fight fire with fire. Like I said, I’ll watch anything, but sometimes it’s refreshing if that anything is just a little bit different.

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