Obsession

Review of 2015: Top 30 Scenes Of 2015

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So each year, as part of my review of the twelve months gone by, I’ve traditionally looked to break down the top 30 scenes of the past year. Each year this involves faithfully trawling through various video sites to see if I can find the clips I was thinking of in my head, and then taking the usual list of 40 or 50 clips and trailers and gradually pruning them until I come up with a top 30.

As I didn’t start writing the review of 2015 until the start of 2016, I thought I’d save time this year by just doing a top 10 scenes. There really is no reason to do a top 30, it’s just an arbitrary number, so I started putting together a shorter list to reduce to 10. The problem was, I had a list of 18 and couldn’t really part with any of them. Right, I’ll make it a top 20 instead, I thought – and lo and behold I now have 26 clips.

So top 30 it is again.

I have made one difference this year to liven things up (and to save a little bit of time): rather than sort them into a ranking from 30 to 1, I’ve left them in chronological order, which turns this into a nice little meander through the past 12 months from January to December. Even more nicely, the first clip is from the very first film I saw in the cinema way back in January and the last is from the 164th and final film I saw in cinemas on the day before New Year’s Eve.

My usual warning at this point – clips may contain violence, strong language and spoilers for the film concerned. If you’ve not seen a film and wish to remain unspoiled, don’t watch the clip – no further warnings will be given. Read the rest of this entry »

Competition Commission: The State Of The Cinema Nation

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The fight against the Competition Commission’s decision goes on, although since much of that continues to go on in darkened boardrooms and we occasionally get whispers of the latest developments, it’s hard not to feel a little disenfranchised at the moment. So with my own involvement in the campaign reaching a temporary lull, partly because of allowing the likes of Cineworld to pursue their own appeals and partly because, to paraphrase Derek Zoolander, I’m really really ridiculously busy right now with things that don’t relate to the inside of a cinema, I felt it was an ideal opportunity to dig deeper into one of the aspects of the debate that’s bothered me most.

When coming to the conclusion that the Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas were in direct competition, one of the pieces of supporting evidence revolved around the fact, supported by evidence from some of the cinemas, that the divide between art house and multiplex cinemas is breaking down and that digital projection allows cinemas to program a wider variety of films. Here’s some relevant paragraphs from the Commission’s final report on the issue.

Distributors are responsible for the marketing of the films they handle. Their aim is to maximize a film’s profitability through promotional activity, the timing of the film’s theatrical release and the subsequent exploitation of DVD and television rights.
Although the number of film releases has increased rapidly in recent years, the majority of new films do not achieve widespread release. Films are generally classified as mainstream or specialized (or non-mainstream), the latter category including foreign language and subtitled films, feature documentaries, art-house productions and films aimed at niche audiences. The BFI told us that the definition of specialized films included both films which were obviously specialized but also a range of films which were not inaccessible or challenging but which appealed to a specific demographic. Specialized films generally account for about 8 per cent of box office revenue.
Cinema exhibitors told us that digital technology had delivered a number of benefits: it had given a high-quality experience to customers, enabled the growth of 3D, and made it easier to change programming and advertise with shorter lead times. Odeon commented that the full benefits of this had yet to be realized, as there was potential to programme even more flexibly… In particular, Odeon anticipated that digital distribution would reduce the requirement for a fixed number of shows per week (historically a minimum of 21) and might result in any digital cinema being able to programme more varied content each week.

That gives some general background on how the industry currently sees itself. Now, something a little more specific from the cinemas, and the only paragraph I can find in the report that shows the cinemas are in competition in terms of programming, above and beyond a revenue comparison.

Non-multiplex cinemas are typically located in town centres. Some of the non-multiplex cinema chains and independent cinemas focus more on showing specialized films. Some of these cinemas show exclusively specialized films (and are typically referred to as ‘art-house’ cinemas), but the majority show a mix of mainstream and specialized films. Vue told us that in its opinion there were only a very small number of cinemas that played only specialized films, for example the Cornerhouse in Manchester, the Watershed in Bristol and the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield. Odeon said that there was no longer a differentiation in the eyes of the industry between ‘Hollywood films’ and ‘art-house’ films and that the distinction between different types of cinemas had been eroded by more complex fragmentation, with cinema exhibitors trying to meet commercial targets by programming the most successful films for each cinema on a week-by-week basis. A number of parties told us that they expected to see more overlap in future between film programming in multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas as digitization allowed all cinemas to be more flexible in their film programming.

So the view of the industry appears to be that the barriers are falling down. This must mean that access to the specialized films is becoming ever easier for customers, right? Although given that they only make up 8 percent of the market, maybe they’re not commercially appealing enough. What it doesn’t indicate is whether price or choice is viewed as more important. There is one paragraph that does comment on this, however.

Similarly to the parties, Everyman told us that Picturehouse offered a different experience, product and programming mix to Cineworld. However, Everyman also stated that it competed with both Cineworld and Picturehouse in that they operated in the same industry but did not currently operate sites in locations where they competed directly against one another. Everyman believed that if it were to compete with Cineworld and Picturehouse it would be on a mixture of product offering and quality of service and that price would not play a major factor. We also received a considerable number of letters from the general public stressing the differences between the product offerings of the Picturehouse cinemas and the Cineworld cinemas in Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. A smaller number of letters commented on competition between cinemas in Aberdeen.

So at least one independent cinema chain, and the customers of the cinemas themselves, appear to contradict the views of the rest of the industry that these lines are blurring. But don’t worry, the rest of the industry was keen to contradict its own customers one more time.

By contrast, Vue and Odeon did not draw such clear distinctions between the positioning of multiplexes and independent cinemas. Odeon told us that it was constantly evolving its cinema offer and attempting to ensure that each cinema catered for the widest demographic and taste and gave examples of refurbishments and upgrades it had carried out to meet specific needs. Vue stated that ‘a cinema is a cinema’. These views were echoed by Curzon: it believed that there was a large overlap between cinema types, with 60 per cent of customers willing to go both to multiplexes and independent cinemas.

There is clearly a marked divide between how much of the industry perceives itself, and the opportunities that digital distribution can provide, and how the customers in the affected areas see this. But are Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge unique cases, or symptomatic of a greater national divide?

There is only one way to find out, and that’s to look at what cinemas across the country are currently showing. To do that, I’ve taken a snapshot of the fifty largest urban areas in England and Wales. I will admit up front that I’ve taken a slightly different approach to the Competition Commission; they effectively stuck a pin in the centre of an area and drew a twenty minute circle around it to consider how far people would travel. I’ve considered urban areas, simply on the basis that it’s easier for me to work out, but also on the presumption that public transport would allow access for anyone within that urban area to see the films listed. The full list of areas can be found here, and Cambridge – our test case in terms of the Commission debate – is the 45th largest urban area on the list.

I’ve then looked at the films showing this week, between Friday 29th November and Thursday 5th December, in any cinema in each of those 50 urban areas. I’ve narrowed the field slightly; I’ve looked at those films given some form of general release in the calendar month of November, so either in this week or the four preceding weeks. I’ve taken my list from the films listed at Launching Films. (Cinema listing times have been taken from Google’s cinema listings pages.) There are a handful of mainstream films, including Thor: The Dark World, Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa and Captain Phillips that were released prior to this date that are still showing in the majority of areas. A number of cinema chains have had advanced previews this weekend, including screenings of Frozen in a number of cinemas. As well as that, the Picturehouse chain had advanced screenings of Nebraska on Sunday, Cineworld had The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty on Monday and Showcase had previews of Additionally, I’ve ruled out live events and Bollywood films for now to make the count easier – I’m hoping to automate the counting process with some of my IT knowledge from my day job, so that in future I can cover those too.

So of those films released in November, there are a total of 30 still showing somewhere in one of those 50 urban areas this week. I believe they break down into three distinct categories: the mainstream films, which are showing exclusively at the multiplex type cinema (or their smaller cousins); there are the specialized films, which are showing pretty exclusively at the Picturehouse or independent cinemas; and then there’s the crossover films, those films likely to be showing in almost any cinema that has the capacity. This last list is the shortest, and they can be easily categorised at this time of year by the approach of awards season. If you had to go through the list of thirty and pick out the four most likely to be on awards ballots come January next year, it would be these four. Consequently, they have a broad, cross-demographic appeal that neither of the other lists can claim.

Here’s the list of films, and the number indicates how many of those urban areas are still showing the films in question.

State Of The Nation 1

So if you want to see time travelling turkeys or futuristic child slaying, you’re in luck as those are the two films guaranteed to be showing everywhere this week. If you live in Barnsley, you may have to make do with those, as it’s the one area not showing Carrie and no longer showing Gravity. You also can’t see Saving Mr Banks there, and if you live in Slough you’ll also have to travel. So this shows that there are effectively eight films fighting for the largest share of the box office, showing in more than two-thirds of areas, and whether or not you can see the other films is a form of cinematic postcode lottery. In terms of the overlap between cinemas, only one film provides any evidence: Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, a film from a small but prolific American director with a more mainstream cast, had one-off showings in thirteen Vue cinemas on Tuesday night. It certainly shows the potential of digital alluded to in the report, but it’s hardly being exploited to the full benefit of customers yet.

But it’s not one that relates to the size of the area that you live in. Of the thirty films, I couldn’t find five of them showing in London this week, but there were still screenings at other cinemas around the country. But this is how the urban areas break down in terms of the proportion of those 30 films you can see this week in your area.

State Of The Nation 2

While the larger areas have congregated towards the top, there are a few anomalies. The people of the larger areas of Birkenhead and Luton would likely be looking at a long journey to catch most of the films listed, although in Luton’s case there are a high proportion of Bollywood titles on offer as well; Birkenhead residents are faced with a trek to at least Liverpool to catch a wider variety of films. At the other end of the spectrum, Ipswich performs very well thanks to a community based cinema, and both Oxford and Cambridge perform especially well. Cambridge manages to come out joint second, despite having only three cinemas, and actually has performed consistently well; if you look at the list of specialised films in the first table, every one of those films has shown in Cambridge during November. A total of 24 of those 30 films have shown in Cambridge at some point in the past three months, a figure which makes me very glad to live where I do. You can then add in special, one-off screenings of classic releases or themed events, which would put another four onto the Cambridge total this week alone; the areas with cinemas engaged in such activities are almost all in the first column of that second table.

So the diversity of films available in Cambridge is significant, and is the rival or the superior of any city outside London. But when the Office Of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission are fighting for the interests of customers over price, who is protecting the interests of customers over choice? Not the Department Of Culture, Media And Sport, who seem to have no interest in this debate (and a number of us have written to them, and received dismissive replies). But what are customers truly seeking? What’s most important to cinema customers in terms of what their local cinema offers them? If only we had some form of survey to answer that question, such as the independent survey undertaken by GfK for the Competition Commission as part of their investigation.

State Of The Nation 3

This is slide 31 from their full presentation, available here. It shows that, of the 21,000 people surveyed, the choice of film is the single biggest driver to their reasoning. It would have been fascinating to see if that survey had given people the choice of one or the other, price or choice, to see which is the single biggest factor.

So the residents of the Cambridge area remain worried that their privileged position of cinematic choice is being put in jeopardy in an effort to protect them from a potential price rise. But my survey also shows that the ideas of the cinema chains such as Vue, Odeon and Curzon that the barriers of the marketplace are breaking down are nowhere near coming to fruition. Only two multiplexes, one in Cardiff and one in London, are showing Blue Is The Warmest Colour this week, a film only released a week ago and winner of the Palm D’Or at Cannes this year. Almost everything else on the specialised list is studiously being avoided by the big cinemas outside of London, and while the likes of Odeon and Curzon are diversifying heavily in their London outlets, that pattern is the complete opposite of the rest of the country.

There is still a clear divide in terms of cinema exhibition, with Picturehouse, Curzon’s London cinemas and a selection of independents (Manchester Cornerhouse, Leeds Hyde Park Picturehouse, Watershed Bristol, Showroom Sheffield, Newcasatle Tyueside, Broadway Nottingham and a few others) on one side showing a wide mix of crossover and specialised films, and the remainder (Cineworld, Odeon, Vue, Showcase, Reel, Empire and Everyman, plus smaller independent cinemas not in large urban areas) showing a mix of crossover and mainstream films. The only stipulation from the Commission is that cinemas have to be sold as a going concern, so any sale of the Picturehouses in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen could be to a cinema operator in the second list, not showing specialized films or at a drastically reduced rate, and at present no-one is fighting that corner on behalf of the customers who rate that more important than the price concerns raised by the OFT and the Competition Commission.

This survey isn’t intended as a critique of any one particular cinema or chain of cinemas, but a call to all of them to be doing the most they can for their customers. I intend to run this survey on a regular basis, hopefully at least monthly, in an effort to understand if there is any movement in the right direction, and that movement needs to be on a national basis, not just in one area. In a world where these specialized films make up just 8% of revenue already, does that seem commercially appealing to new operators of cinemas when the regulatory bodies are prioritising competition over choice? So who is going to fight for choice in our cinemas, not just in Cambridge or the other affected areas but across the country? The BFI? (Here’s a copy of their letter to the Competition Commission on 30th August, expressing just these concerns, but which didn’t carry the same weight as the cinema operators in the final analysis.) Maybe it should be other local independent film trusts and film clubs? Maybe it’s the customers of the cinemas, who surely should have the most influence over the operators if they put their mind to it? Or does the answer simply start with you?

(In case you're interested in more detail or want to check my workings - a move that I'd always encourage - here's the spreadsheet I compiled with my review of the 50 areas:
State Of The Nation Spreadsheet - November 2013
Any and all feedback welcome, as always.)

Competition Commission: The Definition Of The Cinema Market

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The man with the red letters refused to bow to George Lucas and his insanely long titles.
The man with the red letters refused to bow to George Lucas and his insanely long titles.

I’ve written a huge amount about the Competition Commission’s decision making process over the past few months, but one thing has been at the core of all the debates, and that’s how you define a cinema and its market. The Competition Commission and The Office Of Fair Trading have taken counsel from the people who ought to know how this works: the industry itself. However, the definition that they’ve come up with is one which simply differentiates between multiplex and non-multiplex cinemas, and has missed that there are other types of cinemas out there.

I do wonder if there had been a more accurate definition of the different types of cinema in the marketplace that we wouldn’t be in this mess now. What I do strongly feel is that, no matter the outcome of this process, that if we get into this debate again over any future mergers or acquisitions that the cinemas need to understand their own market and their customers better.

So I believe the market actually consists of five main types of cinema:

Large standard

Cinemas that focus on American and high profile British films currently on general release, typically with five or more screens. They may have some form of social area, and serve a small range of food and drink concessions to be taken into screenings. They will usually be found in either out-of-town areas in areas of high population concentration and are likely to form part of a large chain. They will focus on digital projection of films.

Small standard

As Large Standard (similar range of films shown and food and drink offered) but with less than five screens. They may be found either in or out of town, typically in smaller towns that cannot support a Large Standard cinema. They will typically be required to upgrade to digital projection if they haven’t done so already.

Premium

As Large Standard (similar range of films shown via digital projection and food and drink offered), and may form part of a Large Standard cinema. They will offer increased comfort and at-seat food and drink in return for ticket prices higher than those of a Large Standard cinema.

Quality

Cinemas that show a mix of both American and high profile British films, as well as world cinema and lower profile British films. They will offer a greater range of special interest events and showings of classic films, will have an alcohol licence and will offer hot and cold food for consumption in a dedicated area. They will also retain analogue film formats wherever possible.

Art-house

Cinemas that will focus almost exclusively on world and low profile British cinema at the expense of American and high profile British films. They are most likely to have screenings of older films or special interest events. They will have little or no focus on food or drink offerings, and will also retain analogue formats wherever possible.

I believe that 99% of cinemas in this country will clearly fit one, and only one, of these definitions. (There will always be the odd exception: take the Prince Charles Cinema in London, which is probably Independent with a bit of Small Standard by these outlines.) There are two things I don’t think you can apply to these definitions: the first is any sense of membership or ticket price definition, as cinemas in most of these sectors offer memberships which differ wildly in concept and execution and ticket prices will vary by geographical area. The second is live events, such as the National Theatre or the RSC, as these are increasingly being shown across all these types of cinemas. It is the films themselves, rather than live streamed events, that create the separation in definition.

These are the kind of cinemas I see fitting into these definitions:

Large Standard: The vast majority of cinemas owned by the major chains, including Odeon, Showcase, Cineworld, Vue and Empire, as well as the larger cinemas owned by Reel.

Small Standard: Cinemas in small towns, typically where there isn’t a Large Standard cinema present, such as some of those owned by Hollywood or Reel cinemas. They may also be the run by provincial operators such as Everyman who would be operating Quality cinemas in areas such as London.

Premium: The Showcase De Lux screens, Cineworld’s Screening Rooms in Cheltenham or the Odeon The Lounge Whiteleys.

Quality: Picturehouse cinemas nationwide, as well as the likes of Curzon and Everyman cinemas in London and major independents such as the Watershed in Bristol, The Cornerhouse in Manchester, The Showroom in Sheffield and the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle.

Art-house: The ICA or the NFT at the BFI in London.

As digital projection increases, I can see cinemas who are currently small standard looking to make the transition to quality based on a wider range of offerings. The cinema most local to me in Ely, which operates for only one or two days a week, has recently made the transition to digital and they’ve already begun to open up the scope of their events, which is heartening news for locals.

Eventually it may be the case that these definition start to merge, that the distinction between Small Standard and Quality, or between Quality and Art-house, begins to break down. However, change is not always an agent of speed, and this could well take decades rather than years. But for now, there is a fight to protect cinemas in Aberdeen, Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge which fall into the definition of Quality. If under new owners they become Small Standard, then they simply won’t be able to compete with the Large Standard cinemas in close proximity, and becoming Premium cinemas will remove all of the current customer benefits of price and choice that I and so many others have fought to protect these last few weeks. Hopefully the cinema industry will wake up to itself before it’s too late.

An Open Letter From The Competition Commission To Me

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After repeated letters to the Competition Commission, including letters sent to the Commission e-mail address on the 3rd and the 10th September this year, in which I sought a response to a number of questions around their findings, the Commission have finally responded to me via the deputy chairman and the head of this particular panel, Alisdair Smith. I am grateful that the Commission have finally engaged in dialogue, around two weeks after their decision has become legally binding.

They have given me a response to my initial queries plus a subsequent post on the condition that I reproduce it in its entirety, without edits, and I do so below. I will be writing my own response to their response tomorrow, but until then feel free to make your own mind up.

AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE COMPETITION COMMISSION TO MARK LIVERSIDGE

Dear Mark

 

In your Movie Evangelist blogs, you have made several reasoned criticisms of the  Competition Commission (CC) decision on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. Several of your points have been picked up by other commentators or members of the public who have written to the CC.

As you know, the period after the publication of the CC’s provisional findings report in August was when interested parties could influence our thinking. The legal framework within which we operate does not allow us to re-open an inquiry after the publication of the final report.

Nonetheless, we think it is in the interest of public understanding to address the points you have raised. That’s why I am writing this open letter to you. It serves only to state our position on certain issues. It is not being sent to initiate a further debate. And we must stress that the comments that follow are not formal positions; our Final Report, published on 8 October, is the definitive legal statement of our findings.

Letters from the general public

It has been suggested that we have taken no notice of the many comments from the general public we received on our provisional findings of 20 August 2013. That is not the case.  We gave these comments careful consideration and indeed sought to address points made in those letters where we felt that our provisional findings had not sufficiently explained our thinking.

 

In particular, we explained at paragraph 6.5 of the final report how we had taken into account the differentiation between Cineworld and Picturehouse in our analysis of the impact of the merger. Similarly, we responded to your specific and interesting point on the effect of Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme directly in the final report at paragraph 6.55.

Specific points

In your blog dated October 8, you make several points and ask a number of questions. I respond below to some of the numbered questions – although this does not mean that we agree with the other points you have advanced but on which I have not commented.

 

1. Was there no requirement to set a suitable threshold of competition in a particular area?

The task of the CC in a merger inquiry is to decide whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in a particular case referred to it by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), given a particular set of circumstances. Our task was not to consider the whole landscape of competition in cinema exhibition in the UK.

The CC is required by law to identify the market that is relevant to the merger in question.[1] The market for cinema exhibition is largely a local market, so the question becomes whether there is a substantial lessening of competition in particular localities. Indeed, cinema exhibitors told us the specific local conditions of areas were key drivers of their product offering. The report summarises the evidence we received on this matter in paragraphs 6.6 to 6.20. There is no simple rule which determines how many competing cinemas could successfully operate in a given area.

There may well therefore be communities comparable to Bury St Edmunds which are served by a single cinema operator, but that has no bearing on whether this merger results in a substantial lessening of competition in Bury St Edmunds.

 

2. The OFT’s initial report indicated that Cineworld and Picturehouse operate in different markets

This is not the case: paragraph 110 of the OFT’s report of June 5 referring the merger to the CC states: “The OFT has analysed the transaction against a market for film exhibition services in this case. It has considered whether it is appropriate to segment this wider market by art-house and multiplex cinema. The parties failed to provide sufficient evidence in support of their arguments that the product market should be further segmented, Further, a number of pieces of evidence including: survey evidence, entry analysis, price concentration analysis and film overlap analysis indicates that there is competition between art-house and multiplex cinemas and it would not be appropriate to segment the market in this case.”

 

3. Why is it believed that introducing another party to these areas will have the effect of reducing prices?

The evidence discussed in paragraphs 6.14 – 6.20 and the econometric analysis of the relationship between prices and local concentration in Appendix C suggest that the extent of local competition affects prices.

 

4. Why were membership schemes excluded from the CC’s analysis?

Membership schemes were not excluded from the CC’s analysis. In our survey, as described in 4(b) of Appendix D on consumer surveys, separate questions were asked about membership schemes. We agree that the Cineworld membership scheme effectively sets a national price for membership. However, the results of our analysis gave us more concern about future Picturehouse prices than Cineworld prices in Aberdeen, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The Picturehouse membership scheme is different the Cineworld scheme and does not insulate members from local price increases.  The different cinema membership schemes are described at paragraph 6.22 of the Final Report and the specific point made by you about Cineworld’s Unlimited Scheme is considered at paragraph 6.55.

 

5. Is there any evidence of any other part of the country where competition alone is successful in influencing prices? On inspection, the prices seem to be set at a level more related to the general cost of living than the factors used in the correlation in the report, and comparisons with local areas with both more competition and no competition do not suggest any evidence of a strong effect of competition on prices in this sector. The subsequent fear is that any competitor purchasing either of the cinemas will not be able to be restricted from raising prices from current levels, and I would be keen to understand the Commission’s powers to influence in this regard.

As explained in the CC’s merger assessment guidelines, competition between firms is generally expected to create incentives for firms to cut price, increase output, improve quality, enhance efficiency, or introduce new and better products.[2]

In relation to cinemas specifically, our econometric analysis found local competition effects after allowing for local cost effects. It is the strength of local competition which will restrict a purchaser of the cinemas to be divested from raising prices.

 

6. What controls will the CC put in place to prevent price increases as a result of a change in ownership?

The CC is not proposing price controls and we see no reason why a change in ownership should result in a price increase.

Economic terms

You entitled a blog of  October 13  “A request for the Competition Commission to explain basic economics to me”, and particularly asked about “GUPPI”.

GUPPI calculations, described and used in Appendix F to the Final Report, on Pricing incentive analysis, are a standard tool for considering the effects of reduced competition following a merger in markets, like cinema exhibition, where sellers offer products which are differentiated from the products of their competitors. It is perhaps worth adding that the GUPPI calculations were only one element which went into the judgements about whether there would be a substantial lessening of competition.

 

Primacy of the Final Report

We hope this open letter goes some way to help you and other critics of the CC come to a better understanding of our findings on Cineworld’s acquisition of Picturehouse. We must stress again in conclusion that these one-off comments are intended solely to help you and the wider public understand our reasoning; and the CC’s final report remains the definitive legal statement of our reasoning.

 

Kind regards

 

Alasdair Smith
Inquiry group chair on behalf of the inquiry group and staff

 

E: Alasdair.Smith@cc.gsi.gov.uk

T: @Smith_Alasdair

Forty Films To See Before I’m Forty: Your Help Needed

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You're only as old as you feel... Yes, that cracking noise *was* my hip, what of it?
You’re only as old as you feel… Yes, that cracking noise *was* my hip, what of it?

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Tell me what films I should have seen before I turn 40. I would like to make a list of 40 of them, and then make sure I’ve seen them before I hit the big day. Scroll down to the bottom if you need some inspiration.

USUAL EXTENDED WAFFLING: I reached a significant milestone in my life in February last year. I had some very nice cards, but didn’t have a big party or a massive celebration. Because, for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, it’s not seen as a major achievement by most to be 20,000,000 minutes old. To me, birthdays are boring, one year passes so slowly and small numbers don’t have the fascination to my mathematical mind that larger ones do. So in my own little universe, I’ll be more interested in March 2015, when I’m 15,000 hours old, or December 2037 when, God willing, my age in minutes will be a perfect number – 33,550,336 – which, unless I turn out to be the Highlander, will be the last time in my life when any measure of my age (years, days, hours, minutes or seconds) will be a perfect number. But for those who are in thrall of society’s conventions, today could almost be seen as a significant day, for today I am exactly six months away from my fortieth birthday. I am, sigh, thirty-nine and a half years old today.

Except: hold that sigh. There’s nothing wrong with being forty any more. It might be the half way point for most people of average life spans, but that just means that, barring illness or injury, I’ve got the chance to double up the amount of life experience I’ve already had. I had an existential life crisis when I turned 25, for I felt I hadn’t achieved anything significant with my life: I was stuck in a menial job, having not been able to find suitable work after two different university courses, I was renting a tiny room in a run-down house, I’d never had a steady girlfriend, I couldn’t drive, I’d been abroad for a grand total of one day, and so the list went on: I didn’t feel I’d managed to achieve anything significant with my life.

Now I’m on the cusp of middle age, I’ve removed any possibility for grumbling. From that menial job I’ve built a worthwhile and well paid career, with a wife who loves me and puts up with all of my more insane addictions, I’m ten years into a twenty-five year mortgage, I’ve done 40,000 miles driving in a year and a half for work and to the cinema, I’ve been to three different continents – as well as seeing a lot more of this country and realising you don’t always need to go abroad for a great holiday – and as well as the film blog and the various other media contributions I now make to film studies such as Bums On Seats, I have my name on a plaque on a church wall that may well outlast me, and I conduct my church choir, write occasional music for them and even have a qualification in doing it. I also managed to run 10k last year in under an hour, and if I can ever get this persistent ankle injury sorted I still have hopes of something much longer. I’m pretty happy at this point with the hand that life’s dealt me.

Sure, I’m starting to feel my age a little. There’s just the odd wrinkle appearing at the corners of my eyes, which are now covered by glasses that little bit thicker than when I was 25, and the lithe and limber frame of a skin and bone teenager who could put his legs behind his head has given way to a creaky middle-aged man with a slight paunch who can barely touch his toes, but on the up side I still have all my own ginger hair and three quarters of my own teeth and I can still run up the stairs two at a time, so for now the idea of being forty isn’t filling me with too much dread. But there’s just one area where I feel I have a gap in one of my regular interests that I’d like to use my last six months of thirtyhood to address, and you’ll be relieved to hear – given that you’ve had to read four paragraphs of my rambling before I’ve gotten to any kind of point – that it’s film related. (If I ramble this much now, what am I going to be like when I’m 33,550,336?)

The attempt to get 33 million candles on the birthday cake was falling well short...
The attempt to get 33 million candles on the birthminute cake was falling well short…

Down to business, then: I still feel there are some significant gaps in my film knowledge, and I’d like to plug a few of them before I hit the big four-oh. Unless you’re a paid up film reviewer, you’re not going to have seen everything, and there’s bound to be a few gaps in the knowledge of just about everyone. Last Friday, for example, I saw Time Bandits at the cinema, and I was concerned that I’d be in the minority, not previously having seen it; as it turns out, of those I spoke to the majority were Time Bandits virgins. (My review? It’s great, see it if you get the chance, it’s held up well for something well over thirty years old. I’d like to think it’s not alone.)

But there are some major holes in my film knowledge that I feel would improve the blog, and my critiquing in general, were I to fill them. I do always try to judge each film on its own merits; for example, in my Frances Ha review recently, I wondered if knowing that Greta Gerwig running down the street to David Bowie is a reference to Denis Lavant doing the same in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang improves your understanding of the film. In my view, such moments need to work on their own terms, not purely the self-referential, so I still firmly believe that your knowledge of other film merely enhances, rather than defines, your understanding and enjoyment of any given film. At the same time, it can’t hurt to have a bit of insider info.

So what I intend to do over the next six months is to plug up to forty of the most significant gaps in my back catalogue, and this is where I’d like your help, faithful reader. I’d like you to tell me, via comments here, social media or just accosting me in the bar of one of my local cinemas if you see me (I’m easy to spot – tall, ginger hair, runs up the stairs two at a time) what films I should have seen. Over the next six months I will use the blog to catalogue my efforts, I’ll see any of the films nominated in the cinema, and by February next year I’ll produce a list of not only what I saw, but what I think any reasonable cinephile should have ticked off as a bare minimum.

I did try to assess the list myself, but there are so many gaps I’m not really sure I know where to start. I do feel I’ve made progress over the last five years of cinema obsession, and as well as an evolving fascination with Haneke and a reinforced love for the Coens, I can now tell my Kiarostami from my Kaurismaki, I’ve opened myself up to classic British film makers from David Lean to Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and since I started the blog I’ve mopped up everything from the likes of Chinatown to Battleship Potemkin and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, but in my quest to watch films in their best environment (the cinema, obviously) I can only be served by what’s showing at any given point.

The use of technology or established writing to try to compose the list just complicated the matter further. The Internet Movie Database have a Top 250 list, and if you’re logged into the site and have rated the films you’ve seen, it will tell you how many you still have left to see. Which in my case is 130. (Gulp.) I also own a number of film books, one of which is called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, and mathematically speaking, the list of films I’ve actually seen is notably dwarfed by the list of films I haven’t even heard of.  There’s even a list that the BFI put together in 2005 entitled “50 Films To See Before You’re 14“, of which I’ve mustered a grand total of 13. (*beats head repeatedly against wall*) So you can see that the position is pretty desperate.

So tell me. Tell me what I should have seen. Tell me what are the classics, the simple pleasures, the pivotal moments in cinema history, or just the films that you keep going back to. I can’t undo all of those repeated childhood viewings of Return Of The Jedi or Beverly Hills Cop 2 or Space Camp or even Dirty Dancing – my mother’s favourite film at the time, and with only one colour TV in the house I could probably recite most of it word for word, even now – but I can look forward, and make amends for the sins of omission of the past by hammering the internet and my LoveFilm account for the next six months. Then who knows where these new avenues will take me?

You can nominate as many or as few films as you like, but I just ask two things: please make a list of less than forty, otherwise you’re just not helping, and if your choices are likely to fall into the “you probably won’t have heard of it” camp, then I might ask you to justify your reasoning somewhat. Don’t be afraid to nominate things you might have seen, I’d rather have a Spielberg or a Scorcese film on the list if it’s important and it might just be the one I’ve missed. But please be vocal, and get nominating now!

To get you started, I’ve compiled a list of my ten most sinful omissions, the ten biggest gaps likely to get me drummed out of the local film reviewer’s circle and shunned to the back row of the greasiest multiplex imaginable, all of my cinema memberships revoked in disgust. Please don’t restrict yourself to just items on this list when making suggestions; there are bound to be some other horrendous voids in my knowledge, these are just to get the ball rolling. You may well be appalled at some of the things on this list, you might even find yourself making a sharp intake of breath at some points in sheer horror, but that’s fine: the whole idea is to plug these gaps before it’s arbitrarily too late. You might want to nominate films from these lists, or others entirely, but I will respond to any and every suggestion. Probably at great and waffly length.

1. Westerns

good-bad-ugly_1797953i

For some reason, the thought of Westerns has always left me completely cold. Maybe it’s the (completely incorrect) mental connection between country and western music, which also gives me mental shivers, or maybe it’s just all of those grubby men in badly fitting clothes grumbing in the desert that just never engaged me. To give you an idea of just why this is the number one gap on the list, here’s the Time Out list of the 50 Greatest Westerns. How many have I seen? Two. And one of them’s Blazing Saddles.

2. Japanese cinema

Seven Samurai

I’ve seen a lot of Korean cinema over the past few years, from Oldboy to The Host and The Yellow Sea, but the fact that Confessions was my favourite film of 2011 sits as something more of an anomaly in my viewing habits. I bought a batch of around 40 DVDs from an employee of mine a few years ago that contained large amounts of Kurosawa (all still unwatched), the likes of Ozu – who sits at third on the most recent Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time – have completely passed me by, and my viewing of Studio Ghibli extends to those films released in the past five years. If there’s one country I’d love to visit, it’s Japan, but I fear I may need to watch more of their films before they consider letting me in.

3. Billy Wilder

Marilyn Monroe

This is where I must really hang my head in shame. I’ve not seen many Westerns or Japanese films, but the DVDs are sat at home waiting for me to watch. Apart from the last 20 minutes of Some Like It Hot, I’ve never seen, and nor do I own, any Billy Wilder. Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Spirit Of St. Louis, Witness For The Prosecution, Irma La Douce, The Apartment – the list is as long as it is painful, and surely must be redressed somewhere in the forty. Or should it?

4. The martial artists

Bruce Lee

Saw a fascinating documentary at the Prince Charles Cinema last year called I Am Bruce Lee. I just hadn’t seen most of the films that the documentary actually referred to. I am already hoping at this point in the list that at least knowing what I haven’t see is counting somewhat in my favour.

5. Early Woody Allen

Woody Allen

Another monumental director whose work I’ve only engaged with since I started regularly visiting the cinema as an adult. In this case, anything good from Mighty Aphrodite is likely to be on the seen list, anything prior is likely to be up for debate. Woody’s the main example, but pick any major director and there will be the odd one or two films in just about anyone’s portfolio of work that I’ve so far missed. In Woody’s case it might just be one or two dozen. Ahem.

6. The French New Wave

400 Blows

I made a joke in my Frances Ha review recently that some people think that Francois Truffaut is just the French guy from Close Encounters. While I’m not quite that bad, my list of films influenced by the French New Wave, from Wes Anderson to Michel Gondry and Quentin Tarantino significantly outnumbers the list of films from the actual French New Wave that I’ve seen. (Just reading this is depressing me, if it’s any consolation.)

7. George Romero

Dawn Of The Dead

As we get down the list, the balance between the seen and the unseen starts to tip further in the other direction. I can claim to have seen The Exorcist on a very scratchy print at a cinema back in the Nineties before it became widely available again; I recently ticked off one of my other major gaps of The Evil Dead trilogy before the release of the new version this year, and I have history in everything from Peter Jackson to Eli Roth. (Not that I see that as necessarily a good thing.) But the biggest gap in my backstory is George Romero’s Dead series, which has still eluded me more effectively than a fast zombie running in the other direction. Also probably worth me dropping in Dario Argento’s name here as well, just in case you weren’t depressed enough already.

8. Silent classics

Buster Keaton

Charlie Chapin? Nope. Buster Keaton? Nada. Laurel and Hardy? Forget it. I wouldn’t blame you for disowning me at this point, I really wouldn’t.

9. Classic musicals

Singin In The Rain

Thankfully we’re into the realms of barrel scraping here. Not only can I cover the modern exponents like Chicago or Moulin Rouge, I can lay claim to having seen earlier classics from Grease to The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz to The Blues Brothers. Unlike the list of westerns, I’ve seen around half of this list of 50 Greatest Musicals but that still leaves about half of the list open to selection – including, shamefully, the one in the picture.

10. Blaxploitation

Shaft

And finally, in the name of true diversity, an example of another whole genre that’s completely passed me by, with the exception of send-up Black Dynamite. Is any such list complete without the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? You tell me.

So get nominating. E-mail me at the address in the sidebar of this page, tweet me at @MovieEvangelist with the hashtag #Forty40, find me on Facebook, accost me in the cinema or in the street or sit outside my house late at night, shouting general abuse. Just let me know, and I’ll keep you regularly updated on progress. Thanks in advance!

An Open Letter To The Competition Commission: Don’t You Mess With My Cinemas!

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Cineworld Birmingham

Got a nice little pop-up when I signed into my blog this morning, saying “Happy Anniversary!” While I thought it nice, if a little creepy and stalkerish, that WordPress knew it was my wedding anniversary yesterday, I then also remembered that last Saturday was the third anniversary of The Movie Evangelist. Seems hard to think that, at the time of my wedding in 2005, the cinema in the picture (Cineworld Birmingham) was one of my two regular haunts, and only even became a Cineworld that year after the merger between the Cineworld and UGC chains. Now I frequent mostly the local cinemas of Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds, living as I do somewhere in between the two, and a blog that wasn’t even a glint in the milkman’s video shop owner’s eye at the time has now been running for three years, churned out over four hundred posts and been to numerous film festivals and has seen me get on local radio and host Q & A sessions.

The intent to start a blog came nearly three years after I moved to Cambridgeshire with Mrs Evangelist, but despite the wealth of cinemas in both Leicester – where I lived for seven years – and Birmingham, where I spent another three, there was something almost serendipitous about my increased love of cinema and desire to blog about it and the fact I was living where I was. Cambridge and Bury St. Edmunds are both lucky enough to have both a Cineworld and a Picturehouse cinema, and I’m certain this blog wouldn’t have had the depth and breadth it has if that hadn’t been the case. I hope that the Competition Commission isn’t about to put a giant spanner in the works of the Movie Evangelist, because of something that happened a few months back.

There was a certain amount of fear and trepidation when it was announced in December last year that Cineworld had acquired the Picturehouse chain of twenty-one cinemas for a sum of £47.3m. So far, any concerns about what the merger might mean have been unfounded, as it’s been absolutely business as usual for both chains since that date, but now another threat looms. Yesterday, the Office Of Fair Trading referred the purchase to the Competition Commission on the basis that five areas, including Cambridge and Bury, will see a reduction in competition based on the purchase.

There’s actually a total of five areas listed in the news story, so let’s consider the competition for a moment.

Aberdeen: four cinemas, of which two are Cineworld and one is a Picturehouse, the other being owned by Vue, serving a population of 212,000 people.

Brighton: this south coast resort has two Picturehouses, a Cineworld and an Odeon, all serving 155,000 people.

Bury St. Edmunds: an eight screen Cineworld and a two screen Picturehouse only in this smallish market town of 35,000 people.

Cambridge: the university city has a Cineworld, a Picturehouse and a Vue serving around 124,000 inhabitants.

Southampton: there’s an IMAX-ed up Odeon, a Picturehouse and a Cineworld in Southampton and a Vue five miles up the road in Eastleigh, all of which are easily accessible to the 304,000 residents of the Southampton urban area.

So of the five, only one – and by far the smallest of the five – doesn’t have another cinema chain in the immediate vicinity, so in four areas, competition will remain.

But what does it matter if there are two or three cinemas under the same ownership in each area? The argument made as part of the referral is that the Picturehouse chain, while generally offering a diverse range of art house and independent cinema, makes a decent slice of its cash by showing the bigger films that would be on in both cinemas. Consequently, having two cinemas with the same owners could see a rise in prices.

If that were to be the case it would have to see a radical rethink in terms of the pricing policy of one or the other chains. I would make a case that Cineworld and Picturehouse are the two best cinema chains in the UK, because they offer something that the other large chains (Vue, Odeon, Empire, Showcase) don’t: membership rates. Picturehouse members get three free films a year, and no booking fees and discounts on all other tickets, and Cineworld are the all-you-can-eat-buffets of cinema, offering as much as you can watch before your eyeballs dry out for just £16 a month. (Rest assured, I know from personal experience that you can see a LOT of movies before that happens.) It’s also the case at most of the Picturehouses I’ve been to that the big films they’re showing are also filling screens at other cinemas, such as Skyfall and Les Misérables, so it’s a case of supply and demand more than restriction of competition.

But it’s not just about the initial membership rates. Cineworld also reward me for being a long term member with their Unlimited Premium scheme, and I now get 25% off all food and drink as well as no 3D uplift charge. Picturehouse also have a proper bar at every screen, so I can take my decent coffee or my pint in with me or enjoy it, or excellent food, in the bar, all with a member’s discount. There is no doubt in my mind – and I can say this as someone who also makes regular trips to a variety of other cinemas, including Vue, Odeon, Empire, Showcase and Curzon, as well as a few independents – that the Cineworld and Picturehouse chains reward their core audience and are the best at value for money. Picturehouse goes a step further and offers the best cinema experience you’ll get, at affordable prices. If it ain’t broke, OFT, then it don’t need fixing.

I don’t want to lose either of these chains from either of my local cities, not least because it happened once before. The Cineworld chain were forced to sell off seven cinemas from the UGC chain when they merged, including the Cineworld Great Park in Birmingham, my local at the time. It’s now an Empire, and while it’s not a bad cinema experience, you do get charged per visit, which for someone like me starts to ramp up the cost significantly. It’s this that I fear the most from yesterday’s announcement, as it’s the only practical way to attempt to restrict the possibility of competition. While there might be a risk of prices increasing – and losing customer loyalty in the process – under the current set-up, there’s an absolute guarantee that selling any of the cinemas off in the affected cities would guarantee an immediate and significant price rise for anyone seeing more than two films a month, as consumers become forced to pay the higher prices of the other chains.

So please, Competition Commission, allow Cineworld and Picturehouse to carry on operating as they are. Look at restrictions in areas where they’ve yet to expand, rather than restricting their current practice, which has two business models that complement each other and drive costs down for the consumer, as opposed to the other chains who are actually the ones more interested in profit than the consumer experience.

An Ode To Mrs Evangelist On Valentine’s Day

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Is that cabbage in your teeth? Sorry, sorry, never mind.
Is that cabbage in your teeth? Sorry, sorry, never mind.
For three years now I’ve wittered on
About my love of flicks
The films that thrill my heart and mind,
My choicest movie picks.
My love for film grows stronger yet
With every passing year,
But there’s a love that’s greater still
One thing to me more dear.
 
We first met thirteen years ago
Through mutual love of singing,
(Who knows how different life would be
If instead I’d done bell ringing?)
I never thought that anyone
Could want this ginger freak,
But somehow she’s as mad as me
And tolerates my geek.
 
Our first date, all those years ago
Was in the cinema
She took me to Unbreakable
(Best Shyamalan by far).
I turned up in a Matrix coat
All black and crumpled leather.
She’s worked since on my fashion sense –
It’s helped keep us together!
 
Our second date, surprisingly
Was also Odeon based,
What Women Want? – not usually me,
I’m an acquired taste.
But this girl saw much more in me
In both my heart and head,
And four years on, my dream came true,
The two of us were wed.
 
Five years ago, because of work
We moved to Cambridgeshire
And thanks to her extended shifts
I hit another gear,
With every second that she’s out
Devoted to the love
Of Hitchcock, Hooper, Haneke
(Well, most of the above).
 
She tolerates my rampant needs
Because she knows I’m keen
Last year I saw two hundred films,
She managed just eighteen.
But she knows that she’s the only one
Who sets my heart a flutter
I love her more than any film
(Because I’m not a nutter.)
 
 I’ll also go to anything
That she would like to see
From Beverly Hills Chihuahua
To Alvin / Chipmunks 3.
She’s gorgeous, warm and caring,
She’s perfect, naturally,
But for putting up with all my crap,
I love you, Mrs. E.