There's more to movies than just the big old blockbusters
Bonjour! Travel broadens the mind they say, so for the last two weeks I've been in La Belle France doing just that. I've returned refreshed, relaxed and with the following insights;
1. if both France and the UK are struggling with austerity, on the evidence of what I've seen and done, the French version is a good deal more tasteful and stylish that ours;
2. public transport in France is a revelation. I travelled all the way from Lincoln to Montpellier and back by train, and by train, tram and bus while there. I was astounded by the cleanliness, the comfort, the speed, the punctuality and value for money on offer, especially interesting given the predictable complaints that followed the announcement that rail fares here go up again in the New Year (note to politicians – if you want to see public transport working properly, visit Montpellier.)
3. I had hoped (as happened on my last visit there) to watch some French cinema but I was disappointed to see virtually the same programme of films on offer as here in Lincoln.
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Now, French cinema is a byword for an industry that values film makers and produces intelligent, entertaining work; but it appears that the curse of the Hollywood blockbuster has infected even France. This point interested me. I have been reading the British Film Institute's analysis of UK cinema in 2012 and trends that are developing, which I think speak to a wider truth internationally.
Some of the findings are not surprising. James Bond and Harry Potter became the highest grossing franchises of all time ($7.7bn & $6.1bn respectively.) Action films proved very popular, as did those such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which were aimed at particular audiences. Marigold Hotel and The Woman in Black made considerable money (£135m & £128m) worldwide.
Other findings raised a tiny eyebrow. £1.1bn in ticket sales (the most ever) was generated from 172.5m attendances (the 3rd most in the past 40 years) 647 films were released, 12% up on the previous year. And the over 45s became the biggest proportion of the total audience (36%), overtaking the 15-24s which fell from 31% to 26%.
British stars, writers and directors continued to prove their worth on the global stage and there were encouraging developments in British film making. To quote directly from the report: "The spend of domestic features hit a three-year high of £226 million, up nearly 16% from £195 million in 2011, helped by films including Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman, Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love and Tom Hooper's Les Misérables." (BFI Statistical Year Book: 2012)
So, on the face of it, there seems much to celebrate. But wait – dig a little deeper and there are some worrying trends for those of us that love cinema and wish to see as much variety and richness in our film going as possible.
Consider this – the top 100 films released in 2012 earned 92% of the box office receipts. The rest (547, in case you're wondering) shared the remaining £93m between them, earning an average of £170k each That's nothing to get excited about, is it?
This is disturbing. It's essential for the success of cinema that small, independent films get made and get seen. That's how the next generation of film makers – such as Blueprint Films and Electric Egg (both based here in Lincoln) begin.
The BFI recognises the threat for independent film making and is committing funding to help underwrite some of the commercial risk for low budget films. But they have their work cut out because it's clear that distributors are looking at what makes money and are developing new strategies to attract audiences.
Firstly, viewing habits are clearly changing. Younger audiences are watching films on tablets or home cinema systems via subscription TV. The only thing that gets them through the doors of the cinema seems to be the mega-budget action blockbuster.
Secondly, it is no surprise that the over 45 audience segment grew so much. They, after all, are the ones with the money and can afford the cinema as a regular leisure activity: hence films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Thirdly, there has been the rise of live opera, dance and drama relays, which have attracted significant audiences and are clearly paying their way.
If this continues, it will lead (as is it doing in Lincoln) to a further contraction in the breadth of film available, to the point where only action blockbusters, comedies about retired people and live theatre will be on offer. The future for the smaller film looks far from certain.
The BFI is supporting audience development, but people need to drop their prejudices against films they've never heard of and take a chance. If they will tune in by the million to see subtitled Scandinavian crime dramas or French supernatural thrillers like The Returned on TV, why not see such work in the cinema?
Film Society is important to Lincoln because it's the only place offering any sort of variety and choice for the film fan.
Next week, I'm writing about our new season in detail.
By the way, membership is still available – e-mail lfs-membership@ hotmail.co.uk for more details.