Review Of 2014: State Of The Nation

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If a year is a long time in politics, then it feels as if it has flown by in the world of cinema. Somehow 2014 seems to have slipped by in a flash, but the world has changed – as it always does in the space of twelve months, whether we like it or not – so I thought as part of this year’s review I’d try to take stock of a few things, and also provide a few updates on where hot topics of this blog from the past have got to.

Competition Commission

Competition Markets Authority

 

A huge amount of column inches on this blog last year were taken up with the Competition Commission referral from the Office Of Fair Trading regarding the purchase of Picturehouse by Cineworld. The decision in October 2013 that Cineworld would need to sell a cinema in each of three affected areas, Aberdeen, Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge was desperately disappointing for many, and not least myself as I live halfway between Bury and Cambridge and these cinemas represent the vast majority of my cinema visiting. (I also know someone that works in Aberdeen, so had a vested interest of some kind in the fate of all three.) Twelve months on, and the Competition Commission and the Office Of Fair Trading no longer exist, having been merged into the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), but that hasn’t stopped the process rumbling on very slowly in the background.

Cineworld plc announced very early on that it would sell the Picturehouse in Aberdeen and Bury, but that it was yet to make a decision regarding Cambridge. In April this year, the first sale took place with Aberdeen’s Belmont Picturehouse being taken over by the Centre for the Moving Image. It’s the same organisation that runs both the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has seen the level of independent programming at the cinema at the very least maintained, if not improved. This was always likely to be the least risky sale as the local council had been involved in the launch of the Belmont in 2000 and had directly appealed to the Competition Commission during their process to ensure that the offering was protected.

Then in the summer, the Bury St. Edmunds cinema the Abbeygate Picturehouse was sold. In this case it was bought by Tony Jones, who’s the co-founder and trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust and who has been the face of the Cambridge Film Festival for as long as it’s been running. Tony was also a co-founder of Picturehouse and seemingly couldn’t resist the opportunity to get back to the coalface with an opportunity to be back in cinema ownership (something he first did in 1968 when he founded the Arts Lab in Birmingham). This has also protected the programming and the new restaurant and bar facilities at the Hatter Street cinema, and the closure of the neighbouring bingo hall in November represents an opportunity for the cinema to look to expand its operations. I understand that the hall next door retains a lot of its original features, and if the plans can be brought to fruition this should represent a fantastic opportunity for the residents of Bury St. Edmunds, with the ability to show more live theatre events and an even wider range of art house cinema. It remains my favourite cinema and I’m thrilled that its future is secure, and I look forward with excitement to seeing what happens to it in the next 12 months.

That just leaves Cambridge, and rumours have persisted around the fate of the cinemas. My position on this hasn’t changed, that the loss of either the Picturehouse – which supports the Cambridge Film Trust and Consortium, who offer a much wider range of programming and educational activity above the already high quality programming of the cinema – or the Cineworld, which represents huge value for money in a city where cinema prices are at the highest of almost anywhere outside London, would affect cinema attendance in the city greatly. While the first two sales have both had positive outcomes, it seems almost impossible that Cambridge will be as fortunate. Rumours and speculation about the fate of the cinema continue, with some positive noises being heard, but at this point nothing concrete has been forthcoming and we continue to await the next stages of the process for Cambridge under the CMA’s stewardship.

Picturehouses, Curzon And The Living Wage

Picturehouse Ritzy

It’s been a tough year for Picturehouses, as you may have seen another of their cinemas repeatedly in the news. The Ritzy in Brixton, one of the chain’s flagship cinemas, saw a temporary closure when the staff took to the picket line in an effort to be paid the London living wage. The campaign to get the cinema chain to pay its staff the full London Living Wage of £8.80, a significant hike over their previous salaries, took a number of twists and turns over the last quarter of the year, with Picturehouses firstly saying that it would pay the salary but would have to enter into a period of consultancy over redundancies of up to a third of the staff, and then Cineworld stepping in to end the consultancy period. The staff appear to have gotten the right result, but it’s been a long and painful process.

This came on the back of the decision by Curzon Cinemas, who have mainly operations in London but have now expanded into regional cinema in a few areas, to pay all of their staff the Living Wage earlier in the year. They had become embroiled in a battle with staff initially over zero hours contracts, which do not even guarantee staff the minimum wage as an average over the week, and action by the cinema staff there (focused around the cinema’s Soho operation, from what I saw in the press) looks to have also had the right result for their cinema staff.

This is good news for the two art house chains, but inevitably will have consequences for the customers of those chains. Much was made in the press about the £1.3 million pound profit that Picturehouses made in 2013, but it’s also become clear through the process that Picturehouse isn’t paying the Living Wage in as many as eighteen of its cinemas, and that £1.3 million pounds would likely pay for the required increase in no more than two or three of those cinemas. My local Picturehouse in Cambridge has also seen a sharp increase in ticket prices since the Competition Commission process started, with a Friday night ticket rising without discount rising from £10 to £11 after two increases in the last twelve months. (This, coupled with a 50p increase in the Cineworld ticket price, has seen the local Vue cinema move from being the most expensive cinema to the cheapest for non-members after their prices haven’t changed in the same period.)

Curzon, who have committed to the Living Wage, opened a new cinema in Canterbury this year – an area that drew focus after it hosted the infamous Russell Brand / Nigel Farage Question Time episode last month, and Russell Brand visited the food banks in Canterbury, so you could hardly describe it as an exclusively prosperous area – and the standard ticket price there for a Friday night for non-members is £13.50. We can only hope that the higher prices for these cinema chains are being channelled back into the pockets of their employees, but it’s clear that if we expect the staff who look after us to be paid well, we are likely to have to support that in some measure. I’m not a fan of boycotting cinemas, because you’re directly impacting the staff in the first instance and just making their situation worse, but at the same time public pressure needs to be brought to bear on the cinema chains to ensure that any price increases are being used to pay the staff a suitable salary.

And that doesn’t just apply to the two higher end chains. I’ve looked at job adverts in the last month for entry roles at cinemas in the Cineworld, Vue, Odeon and Showcase cinema chains, and in every instance – including some jobs being offered in places such as Wood Green, which I believe should be on London Living Wage – the starting salary is listed as £6.50 per hour, the national minimum wage as opposed to the Living Wage (which is now £7.65 nationally and is due to rise to £9.15 in London). It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you visit a multiplex chain, the person serving you is likely to be living below the poverty line if they aren’t receiving a decent amount of overtime and bonuses. Think on that next time you complain about your overpriced popcorn – as that, not the ticket prices, is the main source of studio income – and if anyone has any bright ideas about how we can see fair treatment for all cinema staff, I’d be the first to sign up to them.

The Interview, Paddington And Censorship

The Interview

It’s also not been a great year for censorship. In the last couple of months we’ve had a North Korean dictator becoming the focus of an international incident with American movie theatre chains forcing the hand of a major studio into a release of their latest film into independent cinemas and online only. I’ve not yet seen The Interview – if it’s like most other comedy product featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco over the past few years, I expect it to be mildly entertaining – but for one scary moment there, it did appear that we were putting censorship into the hands of anyone with the IT skills to be able to hack into your company’s network and then make demands. (And before North Korea declares war on The Movie Evangelist, I’m sure your country’s lovely and doesn’t deserve this essentially harmless satire of the leader of your country. Apropos of nothing, if you haven’t seen Camp 14, a tale of brutal hardship in North Korea’s concentration camps and one man’s struggle to escape to the free west, it’s currently on Netflix UK or available in a cheap DVD emporium near you, and there’s no better time to watch it.)

We proved in this country that we can’t do much better, after we gave a Christmas movie full of reindeer defecation set in a prison a U rating (Get Santa), and then slapped a PG rating on Paddington for the following:

  • it could encourage children to hide in refrigerators and to slide down bannisters, because no child would think about that if they hadn’t seen it in a film and didn’t have parental guidance to tell them it’s a bad idea
  • at one point Paddington is lying unconscious in the vicinity of some taxidermy tools
  • a man dressed very unconvincingly as a woman is flirted with by another man
  • there is one mumbled use of the word “bloody”

Clearly the nation’s children are at a terrible risk. No mention of the fact that this is a predominantly white film where the only non-white characters are a calypso band that play incongruously on the street or happen to be an underused henchman, so it’s good that we’ve got our priorities right. *rolls eyes*

In memoriam – the greatest losses to the world of cinema

Philip Seymour Hoffman

There have been the usual array of losses to the world of cinema, and I can guarantee that no matter how many I listed someone would feel that I’d missed off a name that should have been included. So instead I will mention the two most untimely deaths that took away performers from us before their time. Robin Williams felt compelled to end his own life at the age of just 63 in August, but six months earlier drugs had claimed the life of Philip Seymour Hoffman at just 46. Both will be deeply missed, but have at least left behind a legacy that’s probably currently still being expanded in a cinema near you with the Night At The Museum and Hunger Games franchises respectively.

Without wishing to appear facetious, there are two other losses this year that will also affect what many of us consume at the cinema. The first is the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, who has enchanted two generations with his films for Studio Ghibli but who advised that this year’s The Wind Rises would be his final film. I still have some Miayzaki to catch up on, but there will always be a soft spot here; Ponyo was the first review and post I ever published on this blog. The other great loss, although not one which will affect me directly, is the Orange Wednesdays campaign, which gave cinema audiences a 2 for 1 offer for over ten years in almost every cinema in the country, but which will come to an end in February. While the offer was said to be in decline in terms of usage, cinema attendances in 2014 are still 50% higher on Wednesdays than other weekdays, a figure that represents around 4% of the total weekly cinema attendance, and I hope another offer from somewhere will help to ensure that attendance isn’t lost.

The Death Of Originality From Disney To DC And Beyond

Marvel Movies

Not that the film studios are worried, of course; many of them have announced projects for years to come. Both Warner Brothers / DC and Disney / Marvel have announced their superhero slates up to at least 2019, and with confirmation there’ll be a Star Wars film a year for the next five years and a long list of animation plans announced, the cinema landscape for multiplexes over the coming half decade is more clearly mapped out than ever.

Not that I’m sure that’s a good thing. With seemingly every major actor ending up committed to one or other of the franchises, and with 2015 looming as a year in which the most original major studio film (Tomorrowland) is inspired by a theme park ride in the tradition of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies – of which a fifth is in the planning stage – and which will see the year consumed by everything from Avengers to stormtroopers, original cinema looks to be facing its toughest challenge for some years. I can’t encourage you enough to support original, local films wherever you are, to prove to studios and cinema chains that there is still an audience for these films. When even the announcement of the title and cast for the next Bond – which was to all intents and purposes just a giant car advert – gains more column inches than most film releases, maybe we all need to re-evaluate our priorities.

Tim Burton And Helena Bonham Carter, And Moving On

Tim Burton Helena Bonham Carter

And then in the last few days an announcement which also struck close to home and fits with the same theme of priorities: Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, one of the last decade’s most enduring cinema partnerships, are separating. They met in 2001 on Planet Of The Apes and have completed another half a dozen films together since then. It struck a chord with me as it was the same year that I first started dating the future Mrs Evangelist, and after nine years of marriage we are now also entering into a separation. She’s been a regular mention in the blog over the years and I’ve always fit my cinema attendance around her, so at this point I’m not sure whether this will mean more or less time in the cinema for me in 2015 as I work out the next stage of my life. But I know one thing – the support I’ve received from people through everything I’ve done with this blog over the past four and a half years has been immense, and I head into 2015 ready to embrace whatever the future has in store, as long as it’s not homogenised, heavily censored films in overpriced cinemas with poorly paid staff. Ahem. Or maybe 2015 is the year we remind ourselves what’s important. See you on the other side, once I’ve got the remainder of my review of this year out of the way.

Coming soon (probably in this order):

Tomorrow – The Top 25 Performances Of 2014

Monday – The Top 30 Scenes Of 2014

Tuesday – The Man And Woman Of The Year

Wednesday – My Top 10 Old Films Of The Year

Thursday – The 40 Best Movies Of 2014

Friday – The 40 Most Anticipated Films Of 2015

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