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European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences

Conference Report: Europe on Screen 2008

11/12 June 2008

Academic film studies tends to be more interested in analysing films than in studying how they are distributed and exhibited and as Andy Willis, one of the three conference organisers, pointed out, academic contact with the film industry usually tends to be concerned with production. Here then was a chance to reverse the usual approach. Over a day and a half, ‘Europe on Screen’ featured a mix of academics and industry personnel (with some speakers wearing both hats) addressing issues focused on the distribution and exhibition of European films on European screens. Willis suggested that it was important to assess how specialised cinema was coping with the consolidation of twenty years of multiplex building.

Mark Cosgrove, cinemas director at Watershed Cinema in Bristol, opened the main proceedings with a personal account of how he saw distribution and exhibition in the UK, drawing on experience of more than 20 years of working in independent cinemas. He gave his paper the title “Where have all the films gone?” He outlined the difficulties he faced operating away from London, even in a major centre like Bristol and he also bravely attempted to explain some of the seemingly strange behaviour of the UK Film Council. Cosgrove contrasted his early experience as a programmer, encouraged by his success introducing audiences to new filmmakers, with the commercial realities of trying to develop audiences today. Watershed as an institution attempts to meet its array of targets re European films but it increasingly has to work within the more commercially orientated structures created by UKFC support for specialised film – which for instance, selects certain films to be promoted and others which it deems “difficult to attract new audiences to”. This sees relatively high profile European films like Downfall or the co-production, The Motorcycle Diaries, gaining a further push whilst others receive no support at all. Cosgrove wanted to to try persuade other exhibitors to get together and support new filmmakers who would otherwise be ignored

Sarah Perks and Rachel Hayward from the education department at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Cinema outlined the wide range of activities that makes Cornerhouse an important focal point for European Cinema in North West England – whether it is the diverse screening programme, the education events in various modern foreign languages, the high profile Viva! Spanish Film Festival or the variety of Director Q & As, evening classes and other day events.

The final session on the first day featured Janet Harbord from Goldsmiths in London. She presented early findings from her research into ‘Cinema exhibition as nostalgia’. Taking a cultural studies approach, she has begun to investigate how the Picturehouse chain of cinemas, operated by City Screen, offers what she termed ‘positive nostalgia’ to its clientele. The Gate in Notting Hill, one of City Screen’s acquisitions, was compared to one of the company’s ‘new builds’, the Picturehouse in Stratford, East London. Harbord discussed the ethos of City Screen and how this was represented in the choice of architects for new builds and how it had produced designs with nods towards Bauhaus and Le Corbusier whilst also seeing a sensitive updating of acquired cinemas, some with a long history. City Screen has positioned itself somewhere between the commercial multiplex and the kind of independent British cinema that has developed since the establishment of the ‘Regional Film Theatres’ in the 1970s by the British Film Institute. There was some discussion about whether City Screen’s approach could be compared to that of ‘quality art cinemas’ as seen in North America, but not previously seen in the UK. There were certainly many interesting questions here, but since the research did not take on the business interests and structures of City Screen (now controlled by Arts Alliance) there was a potential missed opportunity to link the presentation to others where Arts Alliance also figured. (City Screen ‘virtual’ – its programming service for other cinemas – now has a strong hold over specialised cinema bookings in the UK.)

On the next morning the conference was treated to a bravura performance by one of Europe’s leading film academics, Thomas Elsaesser from Amsterdam. Elsaesser’s paper discussed ‘The place and role of film festivals’ based on a current research project. He identified the central role that film festivals have played in European Cinema since the demise of the film clubs which operated in parts of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Crucial to Elsaesser’s approach was his search for other theoretical models outside of film studies and he focused on aspects of systems theory in an attempt to explain how and why festivals have proliferated. He sketched in a background that recognised the political imperative of old spa towns looking for a new role (e.g. San Sebastian) and major cities used as part of deliberate cultural interventions (e.g. Pusan in South Korea and earlier the promotion of Leipzig in the GDR to rival Oberhausen in West Germany).

Elsaesser’s was the longest and most detailed presentation and it offered a great deal for delegates. Just to pick out a few plums, he identified the plethora of modern festivals as offering something ‘thrillingly unpredictable’ – yet actually very standardised. The festival film has become not an evaluative category, but an institutional category. He then traced the impact of this development and its influence on the relationship between European independents and Hollywood and also upon production, distribution and exhibition worldwide and certainly within Europe. He also discussed the role of the festival director, now arguably more powerful than the auteur director as a presence in European Cinema and negotiating a role informed both by Hollywood and the museum curatorial tradition. He argued that post-war festivals have created ‘all auteurs’ (except presumably those created retrospectively by the auteur critics) and posited that festivals have an important function in relation to the public sphere combining ‘mediatisation and politicisation’ of film culture.

Elsaesser’s injection of a theoretical debate crossed with insights into film cultural practice across Europe gave a real boost to the proceedings. It was a hard act to follow, but the next three sessions all offered some useful ideas. Paul McDonald from the University of Portsmouth offered ‘Bringing European film home: DVD in Europe’. It must be difficult to research and prepare presentations on this as the market is changing so quickly. McDonald discussed the decline of DVD rental and the rise of online retail and rental – what termed ‘e-tailing’ – as well as the coming of film downloads as a potentially viable market (the VOD market has been touted for a long time, is ‘Download to rent or own’ going to become meaningful more quickly?). He touched on Arts Alliance and its interest in LOVEFilm (now merged with Amazon’s rental business in the UK and Germany) and also asked whether the ‘long tail’ of the ‘e-tail’ market offered audiences a way out of the bottleneck of theatrical distribution – if the film doesn’t come to you, go and get it on-line.

Julia Knight from the University of Sunderland followed with discussion about independent film in the digital era entitled ‘Digitalisation and Diversity’. Knight herself has a background in independent distribution and she reminded us of the earlier claims of VHS as an alternative distribution mode. She introduced contemporary alternative modes such as the successful viral marketing of Outfoxed (US 2004) and various websites hosting independent short films and archive material. Knight operates a website which gives background on the history of distribution of ‘Independent Film and Video’ in the UK plus ongoing research projects and links etc. She discussed the possibilities opened up by Web 2.0 but also raised the issue of rights for avant garde filmmakers and the websites that don’t seek permissions.

David Sin is the Acting Director of the ICO (Independent Cinema Office) in the UK. He has many years experience in the specialised cinema sector and he began his paper by suggesting that 2008 was a very different scenario compared to 2000, when many European films failed to secure a UK release. The ICO aims to support and promote the exhibition of specialised films in the UK and it offers a film booking service used by 18 independent cinemas, as well as training courses and touring seasons of films. Sin outlined a current scenario with seemingly paradoxical factors. On the one hand, there are many new independent distributors, with theatrical exhibition being seen as a means of raising the profile of a DVD release. On the other hand, specialised cinema screens are closing and what was once ‘arthouse cinema’ is developing a Hollywood mainstream mode (not helped in my view by City Screen’s increasing use of mainstream films in its programming). Sin was only a few weeks into his acting role and therefore reluctant to say too much about how the ICO could counteract these trends, but he suggested that they weren’t necessarily good for European film. He left us with two  questions to ponder. With specialised cinema screens closing in London, are regional cinemas becoming more important in the UK? And, how important is the retention of the DVD window in terms of theatrical distribution?

The last speaker was Ian Christie, film historian and polymath from Birkbeck, London, but on this occasion speaking as Vice-President of Europa Cinemas. There are 42 UK cinemas registered as members of the Europa group and for many of us the ident telling us about the cities across Europe in which Europa operates is as familiar as any studio logo. However, in an impassioned presentation Christie warned us that we in the UK don’t get involved enough in Europa activities – we don’t join in and we don’t get the benefits. As arguably the second most valuable film market after the US, we could do a lot more to promote European film. He stressed that certain myths had been established in the UK, such as the assertion that the 1930s quota system had been a failure – it hadn’t, it had been a success and many of the UK’s failings in Europe were as a result of 1980s ‘de-regulation’ policies. In the UK, we should be involved in all Europa’s four priorities: distribution as a driver of policy, script development, training and support for exhibition. Too often, the UK has missed out for no good reason. Europa aims to promote ‘National’ and ‘Non-national European’ films across Europe (and beyond into the Mediterranean littoral). It is in the latter that the UK lags behind.

There was a little time at the end for general discussion and Thomas Elsaesser announced an interesting new research project in which he envisages re-thinking the ways we categorise/classify films for study by considering the terms used in internet discussions via ‘Tag Clouds’.  (One for us on this website possibly.)

It was an enjoyable and informative couple of days and I certainly got a great deal from it. I’d like to thank all the speakers and organisers and especially Andy Willis, for making me welcome.

More on the University of Salford’s Institute for Social, Cultural and Policy Research here.

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