Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why are British films commercial flops?

With the BAFTA film awards just a few days away, in the Telegraph David Gritten asks why even those British films that achieve critical acclaim rarely make much impact at the box office.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the British film industry won't be surprised at his main conclusion - that it all comes down to distribution.
Valentine’s Day, like so many heavily marketed and advertised Hollywood films in Britain, opened last week on a massive number of screens - 432. Fish Tank opened last September on just 47. What hope did it have? At that time I met its director Andrea Arnold, who told me plaintively she believed lots of people would like her film if only they got the chance to see it.

But they don’t. Some weeks back, I alluded to this in a Saturday Telegraph column, and a reader wrote to confirm that her friends were 'not aware of this type of (British) film, whereas they know all about American releases.’ Popcorn movies, she added, could be seen 'anywhere, at all times, but anything else is restricted viewing as far as my two local cinemas are concerned.’ Now this was someone with not one but two local cinemas. And she lives within 20 miles of London. If she feels excluded from British films, imagine how someone living in Cumbria or Cornwall must feel.


  1. So an uncommercial film was not as well distributed as films intended to be seen by lots of people.

    One of the reasons "critically acclaimed" films don't always set the box office alight is that people who work in factories (for e.g.) are more likely to want a bit of escapism, whereas a highly paid film critic is more likely to want to sit through a film about someone working in a factory.

  2. Even so, Nick H (and I don't disagree with your point), many towns are served by large multiplexes such as Cineworld or Vue, with up to ten screens, all showing pretty much the same kind of blockbuster film; and at holiday times, it's impossible to find anything that's not a "family" or action movie. Nothing for (single!) grown-ups, or anyone who just wants a bit of a change. Surely they could allocate at least one of these screens to more art-house fare?

    It needn't be a large screen, just an outlet for niche films within a mainstream building, which could build a regular local following.

    It's all too easy for distributors to argue that there's "no market" for art-house films, when the potential audience has nowhere to demonstrate its interest.

  3. Good point, Ming. Leaving aside the issue of how commercially viable some films are over others , I've always thought that multiplexes could in theory allow for at least a brief run on one screen of a British Film- and British doesn't always mean 'grim' or 'uncommercial'

    Take 'The Bunny and The Bull'for example: a film by the Director of the Mighty Boosh (and featuring cameos from Julian Barrat and Noel Fielding) that got hardly any release, yet the Mighty Boosh have a massive cult following (selling out the O2 etc.)
    Surely there was more of an audience out there?

  4. VUE show operas so I guess not all multiplexes are just in it for the money. Maybe they could set aside a screen for non commercial films.

  5. Yes, the opera (and NT Live theatre relays) are a good initiative.

    For the record, I guess Cineworld et al would say that they do show some low-budget British or art-house films, but even on one small screen they don't do good business. But these films are usually shown at odd times - e.g. 4.20pm on a Wednesday afternoon - and withdrawn after one week, before the potential audience has a chance to register that they're there - and then, of course, the low attendance seems to confirm that "there is no market".

    Perhaps the answer is for some brave distributor to market a series of such films collectively as a strand, with a joint publicity budget and a dedicated regular slot within a multiplex...?

  6. david Barry6:54 pm

    And the Sun Newspaper has the largest circulation. I rest my case.

  7. Chris W10:03 am

    Isn't it the truth that the vast majority of folk are followers (whether chained up in factories or offices, north or south)and will turn up in their droves if they are 'advised' to by the media/peer group/community. This then would lead one to conclude that PR budget is the critical factor. Vue, et al, don't care a damn which film is showing as long as there are bums on seats. American films have unbelivably large PR budgets and so, therefore, far more people are advised to see their product. In addittion to this, don't the Hollywood distributors have a great deal of unfair influence on the cinema chains - take my B Movie or you'll never see my blockbuster again. And whilst I'm on a roll, why the hell aren't the BBC forced to dedicate a channel to British/Independant/Art house output; there's plenty of space in their schedules judging by the massive amount of repeats they serve up daily....grrrrr!

  8. Barry McCann3:54 pm

    Chris W has hit the nail on the head. American studios are squeezing out Brit films in this country to make sure their products get all the screen time they can. Time for a quota system, methinks.

  9. Listen and watch BBC arts programmes. How often do they give their listener/viewers American film rubbish and how often do they give any attention to British movies? The same goes for most of the other arts. The present arts establishment at the Beeb seem to have become bewitched by America and all its works. See how much they spend on flights to NY and Hollywood in search of folms and TV programmes. There used to be a word for this kind of thing ut it appears to be politically incorrect to use it these days.

  10. American films spend, on average, 10% of the budget on the script; in the UK the script tends to take up 5% of the budget. I make a point of going to see British and Irish films, (and I think Andrea Arnold is incredibly talented) but I've lost count of the times I've sat in the dark wondering, "who was this film made for?" Take a look at any issue of Sight and Sound, there will be a long list of British releases that come and go so quickly, it's hardly fair to say they had a theatrical release at all. A disproportionate number will have a writer-director credit - and a totally under-developed script.

    Having said that, far too many good films do die at the box office though no fault of their own, and the point about massive PR budgets for blockbuster films is a good one. Perhaps the UKFC could invest in proper, all-guns-blazing PR support for films with the potential to find an audience, given a fair chance, in the same way that the Europa programme helps European films (the most recent one I can think of is the superb A Prophet) with distribution.


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