Contemporary British Film Culture and the Growth of the Multiplex
In November 1985, encouraged by American distributors, the first British multiplex opened in Milton Keyes. This new venue called the Point boasted ten screens, the latest box office and projection technology, free parking spaces and a large selection of snacks (Hoad 2010). Opening such a place was originally a controversial decision among British exhibitors considering that 1984 had been the United Kingdom’s lowest point in terms of cinema attendance with only 54 million admissions (Hill 1999a: 81). Moreover, cinemas were closing in large numbers all around the country and had been since the 1950s (see Eyles 2009: 81). This was largely due to the widespread popularity of television and the advent of video that had rendered theatres obsolete. However, the Point proved extremely popular, selling over one million tickets in its opening year (Hanson 2000: 48). As its first manager, Gerald Buckle, recalls: ‘You couldn’t move in the foyer on a Saturday night. There were so many people there waiting for shows to start’ (quoted in Hoad, 2010). This success encouraged the development of multiplex cinemas around the country. The impact of this development on film distribution and exhibition will be examined in the first section of this essay, before evaluating how film production in the United Kingdom adapted to the market changes. The arguments will focus on both the economical and cultural aspects of the industry that have been affected by the new cinema going experience. Ultimately, this essay will demonstrate that while the multiplex can be credited for reviving the British film industry, it arguably came at the expense of much of the country’s national cinema, making the industry largely dependent on Hollywood.
Before the advent of the multiplex, cinema attendance had been dropping steadily since its 1940s’ peak. As the population’s standards and comfort of living became higher, cinemas could no longer compete with the carpeted homes fitted with comfortable sofas, the popularity of television and, later, of video cassettes (Eyles 2009: 81). Furthermore, as audiences lost interest, ticket prices began to rise (ibid.: 82). The working class population, which had been the cinema’s main audience, could no longer afford to purchase seats on a regular basis. Thus, cinemas were no longer considered modern, had become expensive and had been replaced by more convenient alternatives. The audience had become much more selective and would only go see the occasional Hollywood blockbuster:
Consumers had forgotten about cinema, really. There were the Bond films every couple of years, the early Spielberg adventure films, Star Wars, and not a great deal else. Strange to think about it now. There was no habit. A lot of traditional sites were hanging on by their fingertips (Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributor’s Association quoted in Hoad 2010).
In order to subsist, cinemas began to rely on advertisers and snack sales. However, to gain advertisers, they needed a predictable amount of customers on a regular basis. This problem was solved by the multiplex: it offered a variety of popular films that were shown several times a day to different demographics, making audience targeting easier and more predictable for advertisers. These new cinemas belonged to five chains – Cineworld, Odeon, UCI, UGC and Warner Village – and were run in a similarly highly controlled and profit-oriented way. To be sure, their management followed the four principles of ‘McDonaldization’: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control (see Hanson 2000: 51). A more centralised organisation allowed cinemas greater control over the films they showed and maximised the profits on food, drink and ticket sales. Furthermore, it allowed cinemagoers to expect the same service and procedures in every cinema they went to, thereby increasing consumer confidence in the overall movie-going experience.
Additionally, the building of multiplexes in leisure centres attracted a different type of audience: people with more disposable income and the means to drive their families to the location. The centres also linked cinema to consumerism and leisure rather than culture:
Multiplexes have attempted to re-articulate the cinema as one part, albeit the central part, of a total leisure package set around the notion of ‘a whole night out’ or even a ‘whole day out’. The cinema has become not only the best place to see a film but the best place to eat and drink, dance, bowl and swim; all of which you can do after doing the weekly shopping nearby (Hanson 2000: 51).
The ‘leisure package’ selling point led audiences to go to the cinema expecting entertainment and escapism rather than intellectual stimulation. In contrast, before television, cinemas were associated not only with entertainment, but also the news reels and discovery. Early audiences, for instance, would learn about the world and current events through travelogues or the British documentary movement of the 1930s. However, the multiplex encouraged whole new cinema-going expectations.
Since its development in the United Kingdom, the multiplex has dominated the exhibition market and led to the closure of many ‘old-fashioned’ cinemas (Eyles 2010: 83). Some remained by becoming luxury or art-house cinemas and screening films that were too small for multiplexes such as art films, foreign language films and independent British features. In fact, national British films have been conspicuous by their rarity in multiplexes. Although these new cinemas promised more choice and variety, it can be argued that they encouraged movies to become even more homogeneous. They offer a vast majority of Hollywood successes and blockbusters, movies that repeat proven formulas in the form of sequels and remakes. Furthermore, a popular film will often be shown in several screens of one multiplex throughout the week, considerably limiting that multiplex’s selection. Stuart Hanson criticises this ‘myth of choice’ (2000: 54) that multiplexes promoted, and Ian Christie, speaking of the industry’s recovery, echoes his sentiment:
The doubling of attendances owes much to a programme of multiplex building which began in the mid-80s; and the multiplexes have little interest in showing foreign films. Their identity and publicity are firmly geared to a mass audience in search of pre-sold studio fare, accompanied by popcorn and cola (Christie 2000: 69).
It appears that for multiplexes, most British productions are as unpopular as the foreign films Christie mentions. In fact, their distribution was never explicitly encouraged by the government and cinemas have no incentives to show such films. Unlike the American film industry, the British film production has been divorced from distribution since the 1950s (Hill 1999a: 81). In the mid-1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, as the multiplex was developing across the United Kingdom, the Thatcher government was in power, a government that had abolished most incentives to the production of films in order to encourage a free market (Miller 2000: 37). This government was generally indifferent to the cultural value of British film production (ibid.) and therefore, there was no attempt to help the distribution of smaller British films in multiplexes which were originally run by American companies (Hill 1999a: 82). As a result, British films are now produced without any guarantee of ever being shown at the cinema. This makes national film production a very risky enterprise that will rarely be rewarded with a high budget or an effective marketing campaign, making a film less likely to attract large audiences. For these reasons, multiplexes do not trust many British films to generate profits. When they do decide to screen such a film, Geoffrey Macnab explains that distributors will lose more money if the film does not sell enough tickets:
The less popular a film, the higher percentage of the box-office returns the exhibitor demands. ‘With less successful films, we keep more of the take because of the severe fixed costs which we now face, particularly with multiplexes’, explains Richard Segal [Managing director of Odeon Cinemas]. In other words, when a film flops, the distributors suffer most. […] Given the level of risk, they don’t have much incentive to handle British product, which is almost by definition deemed ‘difficult’ (2000: 138).
This draws attention to the fact that a British picture represents a considerable risk for the exhibitors, distributors and producers. This has been intensified by the advent of the multiplex which presented Hollywood films to audiences as the only films worth seeing on the big screen. Arguably, British films could be attractive to smaller cinemas that focus on catering for niche audiences who seek films as art forms or cultural mediums. However, even these venues have little interest in showing British films as they will lose the European subsidies that they need to survive:
Not only is there currently no distribution or exhibition subsidy to support [British films] but there are actually disincentives to screen them in specialist cinemas. Under pressure from Brussels, Europa Cinemas subsidy is largely determined by the proportion of ‘non-national’ European films a member cinema shows, which means it may cost a cinema vital support to choose British rather than a film from elsewhere in the EU (Christie 2003).
Thus, specialist cinemas are more likely to show foreign language pictures than British films in order to obtain the subsidies they need to survive as a business. This is not to say that British films are never successful. Indeed, Britain has known some worldwide successes over the years, instances of which are Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, UK 1994), The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, UK 1997) or The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK 2010). It must however be noted that a wide majority of these films have had Hollywood backing at the levels of production or distribution. Furthermore, some smaller British pictures have experienced profitable releases in multiplexes by using original yet effective marketing campaigns. For example, Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, UK 2004) based its campaign around the celebrity of the rapper Ashley Walters to create effective word of mouth among its young black target audience. Speaking of Bullet Boy’s distribution strategy, David Sin reports that ‘the film had grossed an impressive £450,000 at the UK box office, most of this achieved in carefully selected urban multiplexes rather than specialised cinemas’ (2005). Unfortunately, these films remain exceptions as a large number of British films never get released. In fact, the increasing cinema admissions brought along by the advent of the multiplex prompted an abrupt rise in film production in the United Kingdom (Watson 2000: 80) and Geoffrey Macnab points out that in 1996, ‘nearly 60 per cent of the films involving a UK producer […] have yet to be released’.
This extreme difficulty that Britain has encountered in making successful national features, especially since the development of the multiplex, has increased the country’s dependence on American co-productions. To be sure, Britain and America have long benefited from what Annabelle Honess Roe refers to as a ‘special relationship’ (2009: 79) in terms of politics, economics, culture and linguistics. Since the 1980s, the production of films in close partnership with Hollywood has proved particularly attractive for the United Kingdom. Indeed, shooting an American film in Britain considerably reduces the risk involved in film production as distributors are attached to each film. Furthermore, this increases the worldwide image of technical British talent: high demands in terms of quality and technicality helped develop a skilled British workforce in areas such as special effects and postproduction (Watson 2000: 82). British actors have also benefitted from Anglo-American partnerships, as some have become a part of the American star system. This has allowed names such as Colin Firth, Ewan McGregor or Helena Bonham Carter to contribute to the success of subsequent British pictures. For these reasons, as Neil Watson argues, the British film industry has focused on attracting American filmmakers through cost incentives such as attractive exchange rates and tax-relief (2000: 81). As a result, numerous highly successful blockbusters were shot at London’s Pinewood and Shepperton studios. Such films as The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, UK 2007), The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA 2008), as well as the James Bond (Various, UK 1962-2012) and Harry Potter (Various, UK 2001-2011) franchises contributed to make the United Kingdom a major location for film production worldwide.
However, as Higson (2011) argues, cinema is central to the United Kingdom not only as a business, but also as a cultural medium. Indeed, it has been observed that cinema can be central to the definition and promotion of a nation’s culture in all its diversity: ‘vibrant national production bases and innovative, independent filmmakers do still have an important role to play in terms of articulating voices, values and identities that may otherwise fall by the wayside’ (Higson 2011: 48). Therefore, the British film industry’s close alliance with America has been criticised for contributing to a certain ‘erosion’ (ibid.: 40) of the national culture. Echoing this point, Nick James points out that in collaborating with Hollywood, the United Kingdom has participated in the promotion of British stereotypes on a national as well as international level that reflect in no way the state of British culture:
In the multiplex and blockbuster boom years of the 1980s and 90s, when British film fortunes were at their lowest, we became used to British actors being cast as evil masterminds in big-budget Hollywood films. More recently, in British movies, a new kind of character and class system has been created, mostly for export [the British gangster] (James 2001: 303).
In order to encourage a better balance between Hollywood inward investments and more culturally specific films, the UK Film Council introduced a ‘Cultural Test’ in 2007. As Andrew Higson explains, this scheme would
determine the ‘Britishness’ of a film production, and therefore its eligibility for public funding and/or tax relief . This test radically overhauled the official definition of a ‘British’ film, moving beyond the economic principles that had been the guiding force for the previous 80 year, and finding space for the acknowledgement of cultural value (2011: 56).
Therefore, an American film made in Britain can now be considered as British as a culturally specific UK production, so long as it fulfils enough conditions. This encourages foreign investment in the film business as much as the promotion of culture through artistic and socio-cultural observations.
However, as discussed previously, producing a British film without American help represents a considerable risk. John Hill (2009: 14) highlights three possible strategies that the British film industry could adopt. The first one would be to compete directly with Hollywood: to produce spectacular and entertaining films according to working formulas that multiplexes would exhibit to worldwide audiences. This has been explicitly encouraged by David Cameron when he abolished the UK Film Council in January 2012 (Brooker 2012). The second strategy would be to make small and specifically British films for British audiences and become a cultural industry providing material for art-house and independent cinemas. The third strategy would be one of differentiation: making relatively expensive pictures to be shown in multiplexes to worldwide audiences that would cater to a demographic that is not after the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Such films would need to be transnational enough to sell abroad, although they would be able to represent British culture to other nations. John Hill argues that while competing directly with America has proven over the years to be impossible (see Hill, 2009: 14), relying on the small national market is fraught with difficulties – the main one being the divorcement from distribution that renders the release of many British productions highly uncertain. Consequently, the best strategy for British cinema to adopt is differentiation.
Indeed, the representation of British cultural specificity has appeared to be more viable if represented for an international audience as well as a British one. For instance, the heritage genre has proven especially popular with American audiences. John Hill notes that:
A Room with a View, for example, earned $23.7 million in the United States and Canada while Howard’s End took over three times as much in the United States (12.2 million) as it did in the United Kingdom (where its gross was 3.7 million) (1999b: 79).
These films, however, are often distributed and sometimes produced by American companies, especially the Weinstein Company who backed productions such as Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, UK 1998), The King’s Speech and The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, UK 2011). The casting of famous actors, whether British or American, are often a central selling point for these films and heritage films often garner Oscar attention that work to raise their profile on an international level. As well as being strongly attached to America, the ‘Britishness’ presented by the genre was also criticised by Andrew Higson. He argues that the heritage film is associated with a one sided and often protectionist representation of the British past which only rarely reflects the diversity of British culture (Higson as quoted in Monk 2002: 179). Indeed, the United Kingdom comprises many different regions, politics, classes and even nationalities that are not represented in such films. Other more original instances of British cinema, such as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK 1996) and Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, UK 2002), have proven that films representing life and culture in Britain can become considerably successful on their own terms. They also demonstrated that differentiation can be an efficient way of promoting British culture in all its diversity while still generating a profit. Unfortunately, such successes remain rare and British cinema remains a small minority among the Hollywood dominated multiplex offering.
Another opportunity for British differentiation in the multiplex has been the recent return of baby-boomers to the movies:
Between 1995 and 2010 the number of over-50-year-old Americans who regularly visited the cinema increased by 68%. In Britain, the proportion of over-45s among regular filmgoers rose from 14% in 1997 to 30% in 2008 (Cox 2012).
The teenagers and young adults that have been the primary target audience for multiplexes have receded with the increased popularity of movie downloading and online streaming (ibid.). The complementary increase in the over-45 demographic has been linked to specific interests that do not include action movies or spectacular blockbusters: ‘older people enjoy films about maturity and the past. They are also keen on reality-based material such as documentaries and biopics. Above all, they warm to good stories with rounded characters’ (ibid.). Interestingly, these features have largely corresponded to the recent British movie output. Films and novel adaptations such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, UK 2011), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, UK 2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, UK 2011) and One Day (Lone Scherfig, UK 2011) seem to directly target this new niche of cinemagoers. This demographic is ideal to Britain’s differentiation strategy as they do not require British film campaigns to saturate the media in order to compete against blockbusters. David Cox adds that ‘it is estimated that around a third of forthcoming Hollywood productions are being made with an eye on older audiences’. The fact that a new multiplex audience is being acknowledged raises another point: cinema-goers can change, and therefore the multiplex offering can adapt.
Britain could therefore educate its younger population to appreciate the cultural aspect of films and, in so doing, help develop a new generation of multiplex customer. It has been argued that a solution would be to introduce incentives to educate the population about British national cinema and its appeals (Christie 2003). Such a scheme called ‘Back British Film’ has recently been offered by the multiplex chain Odeon: their cinemas will show at least one British film a month and offer a generous amount of loyalty points to each owner of their loyalty card who goes to see these films (see http://www.odeon.co.uk). Other European countries have already begun to encourage their younger population to seek out culture as a leisure activity. For example, some regions in France have been distributing cards to pupils aged between 15 and 18 every year, giving them a 30€ credit to spend on cultural activities (such as art films, books, museums, sport activities and musical events) (see http://www.edenred.ro). Such as scheme could help teenagers find value in British films that experience limited releases and support a move of these films to multiplexes on the long term.
This essay has shown that the advent of the multiplex in the United Kingdom has revived a film industry that was almost only supported by television. As audiences returned to the cinema in the 1990s, British film production was encouraged, along with an increasing dependence on American inward investments. Collaborations with Hollywood helped make Britain a leading country in film production, however, the cinematic representations of ‘Britishness’ suffered. Indeed, a strong weakness in the national film distribution meant that culturally ‘British’ films struggled to be released while movies shown in multiplexes promoted stereotypical views of the country. Some rare films have succeeded in representing the rich and varied national culture by differentiating themselves enough from Hollywood productions while still targeting an international audience. However, changing multiplex audiences have brought hope that British national cinema may have found a stable market, allowing it, hopefully, to become profitable in its own terms. Nevertheless, it is likely that the United Kingdom will remain dependent on American distribution for the years to come.
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Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, UK 1994).
The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, UK 1997).
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK 2010).
Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb, UK 2004).
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, UK 2007).
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA 2008).
James Bond (Various, UK 1962-2012).
Harry Potter (Various, UK 2001-2011).
Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, UK 1998).
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, UK 2011).
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK 1996).
Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, UK 2002).
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, UK 2011).
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, UK 2011).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, UK 2011).
One Day (Lone Scherfig, UK 2011).