After an agonising wait over the last few weeks, the Competition Commission have this morning publised their final report, and have given the news that rational supporters of cinema both feared and, if we’re being honest, expected: that Cineworld group must sell one of their cinemas in each of the three affected areas: Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds and Aberdeen. Cineworld have in turn published a statement, which would seem to suggest that they will not be appealing the decision (no statement is made that they will appeal) and that they currently plan to sell The Belmont in Aberdeen, rather than either of the Cineworlds there, and also to sell the Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St. Edmumds. They have not yet made a decision as to which cinema will be sold in Cambridge.
They have also made specific reference to the cafe in Bury St. Edmunds in their findings, in that it does not need to be retained by any cinema supplier. Given that any purchaser will be required to be in competition with Cineworld by the terms of the findings, the possibilty of that cafe being replaced by another screen or a bland concessions area in an attempt to make the cinema more competitive must surely now be very real.
The Commission also had the offer of putting price controls in place on the Picturehouse cinemas, and all three local councils had shown both a willingness to do this and two had comfirmed they have operated similar schemes in the past. The Commission rejected this, effectively on the grounds that restricting prices wouldn’t encourage competition – when the purpose of competition is solely to restrict prices – and that the Office Of Fair Trading would incur costs. Instead, those costs are likely to be passed directly to consumers.
The Commission are also required to consider any benefits of the merger. What they are not required to do in law is to consider any benefits of the two chains that existed before the merger and have been retained by it, but that would be lost by selling one of the cinemas. Consequently, the findings have overlooked the current state of operation of these cinemas, focused on a single point in law which misrepresents how the industry operates as a whole, and have pursused this point to the detriment of cinema lovers in each of these areas.
This is terrible news for all three areas. I remain of the belief that Cineworld and Picturehouses offer better deals to their customers than any of the other operators, in three key areas: price, programming choice and other services, and I say that as someone who has been to cinemas of every major operator in the past three years. The Competition Commission have ploughed a single-minded furrrow through an industry they do not understand, and have come to the conclusion that allows them to have taken the path of least resistance rather than protecting the desires and needs of customers.
As part of their final report they have published a set of letters from customers, including myself, and even one from the MP for Aberdeen that was send directly to them. I can find no response from them on a single question that was posed to them. Spectactularly, there is a post on their website which actually goes to the extent of summarising the concerns of the 600 people who wrote to them directly, and the 13,700 people who signed the petition to date, and then doesn’t respond to any of it.
If you navigate to my letter, you’ll find that I asked four questions of them the day after the initial report was published. I also wrote to them before the deadline and posed some futher questions, which remain unanswered:1. Was there no requirement to set a suitable threshold for competition in a given area? The areas concerned seem to have a luxury of competition compared to geographical areas of similar size and population density, and this decision is simply regressing them to the same level as their competitors.
When I reviewed the findings initially, I discovered that geographical areas of similar size to Cambridge don’t normally have competition in cinemas, they can normally only sustain one. Consequently areas such as Cambridge or Bury St. Edmunds, less than a quarter of the size of Cambridge, will surely struggle to maintain two cinemas if their offering is not substantially different, as it is now. Aberdeen is larger, but has two Cineworlds; the Commission have not instructed Cineworld as to which cinema must be sold, so customers are faced with the prospect of them retaining two Cineworld cinemas but selling a Picturehouse.2. Why, when the OFT’s initial report (published in June) indicated that multiplex and art house cinemas operate in different markets, have these cinemas been deemed to be in sufficient levels of competition such that a substantial lessening of competition will arise?
Everyone I’ve spoken to, even those who see benefit to retaining competition in these areas, recognises that these cinemas operate in different markets. Everyone except the Competition Commission.3. Why is it believed that introducing another party to these areas will have the effect of reducing prices or maintaining them at their current levels?
The only evidence that the Commission were able to provide is that the cinemas in each area monitor the prices of the cinemas of competitors. There is no evidence that they set prices competitively based on the actions of their competitors. A cursory examination of the marketplace suggests that cinema prices in each area are in a narrow range, and that competition is not as much of an influence on pricing as the local cost of living. (See my original post for sample evidence of this, looking at Cineworld prices over a wide area and also prices in Norwich which has more competition.) If the Commission wanted to be truly effectlve, they’d be looking at this issue on a national level. The likelihood is that whoever takes over each of these cinemas will offer a poorer deal for consumers, based on price and choice, and there is strong evidence to support this.4. Why were membership schemes excluded from the final calculation as these not only create a customer loyalty to particular cinemas, but in the case of these two cinema serve to insulate their customers from price increases both locally and nationally and could act directly to negate the impact of the creation of an SLC?
The Commission’s own independently commissioned research found that 58% of Picturehouse customers are members. Cineworld is also the only multiplex to offer a membership which gives direct discounts or free tickets to its members (Odeon offer a points scheme, but the rewards are significantly less), and also has abandoned booking fees online. These discounts are significantly greater than the 5% increase in ticket prices that the Commission proposed in its survey would cause customers to change cinemas.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.
Again, the focus of the Commission is very narrow, attempting to ensure competition which will do less to drive down prices than the current operators are doing at a national level. There is nothing to prevent another operator taking over the cinemas and charging whatever they want, as the Commission refuses to engage in any mechanism to control prices.6. Given that any competing chains in both the multiplex and art house sectors are currently charging similar prices for single price tickets and less discounts to members, what controls is the Commission able to put in place to prevent a change of ownership relating in a direct increase in prices for some or all customers, which would appear to be highly likely on the available evidence?
Three options exist for the purchase of each cinema: another multiplex chain, another independent chain or an independent purchaser.
- Other multiplex chains have shown a reluctance to take on small cinemas, as shown in the initial research. But the only other chain competitive on price on a national average is Empire, and they would only be competitive for customers purchasing small numbers of tickets. Any other multiplex purchaser would see an increase in prices, a loss of choice and they would be unlikely to run the other services.
- The only other independent chains are Curzon and Everyman. Neither offer the same level of diversity in their programming in their provincial cinemas as Picturehouses, and both offer less discounts to members, so the prices would rise for the majority of customers.
- Other independent cinemas in the country do manage to offer similarly diverse programming, but there would be no guarantee on prices. It must also be considered that an independent wouldn’t have the resources of one of the chains should the cinema operation encounter difficulties.
By failing to answer any of these questions, the Competition Commission have failed their duty of care to cinema customers in these three areas. The absolute best case now is that another supplier will come in and take over these cinemas, but all evidence of the industry suggests that prices of single tickets will not be any cheaper, anyone running membership schemes in other areas will offer less discounts, that choice of films is likely to go down and that there is no guarantee of support for the other services offered. The worst cases are that new suppliers fail to make the same success of these cinemas that the current suppliers have, and once the Commision is out of the picture they will each die a slow – or possibly quick – death.
I do not believe this should be the end of the fight. The Cambridge MP, Julian Huppert, has shown a willingness to continue the fight and his support is most welcome, but hopefully the 13,700 people who’ve signed the petition will also be willing to add their weight to finding a satisfactory resolution to this. I will also be contacting MPs in other affected areas today to see what support they can offer, and would encourage others to follow the same course, especially in those areas outside of the cities themselves.
Rest assured that I do not intend to give up the fight to protect what any of these cinemas offer, and the next few days will be spent attempting to secure as much support as possible for the next stages of the battle. To be clear, I still believe that losing either a Cineworld or a Picturehouse in either area results in a poorer deal for consumers and will fight to the last to protect what we currently have. If you have any views on any of the above, or wish to contribute to the battle to save any of these cinemas, please contact me at email@example.com as soon as possible. It’s still not too late to sign the petition; although this initially referred to the Competition Commission, it still acts as a focal point and a show of unified support, and the more weight we can put behind it, the better.
Thank you in advance for your support.
UPDATE: There will be a public demonstration at 17:15 on Wednesday 9th October outside the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. If the numbers become too great, it will relocate to Parker’s Piece, almost opposite. It is hoped that Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, will be in attendance prior to 17:45. Please do come and show your support if you are at all able.
Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 1: Just Before Losing Everything, Life Distorted shorts, Hawking, Prince Avalanche
This is my fourth Cambridge Film Festival, which I first encouraged myself to explore after starting this blog in 2010, and this year by the morning of the first day I had a palpable sense of excitement for what was coming up. Partly that’s my involvement, which this year is reaching new levels: as well as a daily diary here, I’m also contributing a number of interviews to Take One, the Cambridge publication that runs alongside the festival, and hosting two Q & A sessions. For me it’s a thrill to be involved, but also serves to further the reason for setting up this blog originally, to attempt to get word out about the finest films showing anywhere and to encourage people to see them, and my evangelising will reach new heights over the next eleven days.
The first day is always a slightly strange experience as it’s really a half day, with films typically starting late afternoon before the gala opening. I’ve had good experiences with the opening films, as in 2010 (Winter’s Bone) and 2011 (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), the first film I saw each year was also my favourite come the end of the festival. (Last year was the opposite experience, with my favourite two films being the last I saw.)
But this year also marked a personal milestone, in that on day one I finally managed to get to a short film programme. I’ve taken in Tridentfest for the last two years, but for externally submitted films I’ve had tickets and then had to return them for various reasons. So it was a joy to finally be able to take in a selection of shorts, and I’m hoping I’ll get more chances throughout the festival.
Here’s my breakdown of the good, the strange and the desperately unfortunate that made up day 1.
This French short, running to around 25 minutes, is showing in conjunction with a number of other shorts programmes over the course of the festival. It’s difficult to get too much into plot without giving the game away, but there’s a number of sharp and sudden escalations in the plot and the viewer is left to piece together what’s happened from pieces of conversation and visual clues. By effectively stripping out any exposition and allowing the plot to drive the narrative, Just Before Losing Everything builds and maintains tension almost out of nowhere, while running parallel social commentary, and it perfectly fit the running time. It comes highly recommended if you get another chance during the course of the festival.
What followed was the first of the festival’s half a dozen or so short film programmes that will run during the course of the festival, in this case seven films which each had a somewhat skewed outlook on life. Personal highlights included Our Name Is Michael Morgan, a tale of competition between two eerily similar salesmen, and Emmeline, the tale of a girl who has to overcome an unusual affliction to find happiness. Director Tim Hewitt was also in attendance for his adaptation of a Graham Greene short story A Little Place Off The Edgeware Road, and the thread also included the voiceover difficulties of A Big Deal, the a satnav with jealousy issues in Bird In A Box, the short and slightly macabre animation Menu and the tale of extreme recluse author Izzy Blue in Hermit. Overall there wasn’t a significantly weak link, and with two or three charming and provoking shorts this was a well composed programme. A slight sound issue on the first film thankfully didn’t cause too many problems.
The main event of day 1 was the gala screening of the documentary Hawking with Q & A, which had not only taken over all three screens at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse but was also being beamed live to cinemas around the country. Demand was certainly high, and five minutes before the scheduled start time I was in a queue that stretched virtually throughout the entire length of the cinema, from the screens doors through the bars and almost to the street.
The documentary they were all served up is a curious beast. Although directed by Stephen Finnegan and Ben Bowie, it’s been co-written by them and Hawking himself. Hawking takes his opportunity to summarise his career achievements, from theories on the Big Bang to his partunification of various fields, but that’s all it is: a fairly thin biography that serves to eulogise its subject without ever getting below the surface. In that sense it achieves its initial aim, as Hawking wrote The Brief History Of Time not only to bring science to the masses, but to encourage the wider questioning of the fundamental aspects of the universe. Consequently, a documentary that doesn’t question anything feels violenty at odds with its subject and his philosophy, and for a pseudo-scientist such as myself it comes over as an exeperiment based on a fundamentally flawed terms of reference.
This was then followed by a question and answer session that can charitably be best described as excruciating. A set of unfortunate circumstances, including Professor Hawking’s seeming movement to the wrong part of the cinema leaving him stuck when it came to his time to answer pre-recorded questions, a failure of his pre-recorded questions to answer, a set of odd questions from a bemused audience who seemingly hadn’t been briefed that they couldn’t answer Hawking any direct questions and Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s insistence on (probably unintentionally) doing his best to draw the audience’s attention to the flaws at any given point, the whole experience was the equivalent of a slow-motion car crash, enlivened only by video messages from Sheldon and Amy from The Big Bang Theory (geekgasm), Richard Branson (space advert) and Morgan Freeman (bizarre non-sequitur). To cap it off, when fellow scientist Kip Thorne was asked where Hawking sits in the scientific pantheon, he gave a very honest answer that still felt somewhat uncomplimentary in an evening desgined to celebrate the world’s most famous scientist. I don’t believe anyone at the cinema or the festival itself to have been too responsible for what happened, and it would be unfortunate if it reflected badly on them.
David Gordon Green’s directorial career has followed a somewhat unusual trajectory, from the inide credibility of George Washington and All The Real Girls to the mainstream excess of Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Pineapple Express represents a meeting of minds of the two David Gordon Greens: Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are two highway workers wandering through a wilderness painting lines on the road and putting up posts, while they gently bicker and attempt to resolve the issues with their respective love lives (not least the fact that Rudd is dating Hirsch’s sister and has only taken him on this journey out of a feeling of loyalty). Their relationship is fractious, slightly daft and often laugh-out-loud funny, and if that was all there was to Prince Avalanche it might not be enough. But the wilderness they’re tracking through is one devastated by wildfire and their encounters with some of the other residents of the wilderness add a resonance and a sweetly melancholic tone. It’s also lovely to see a great performance from Lance LeGault, remembered by anyone my age and sensibility as Colonel Decker from The A-Team in what turned out to be one of his last roles; the film is dedicated to his memory. It’s a fine achievement by Green, bittersweet and roughly honest with itself and beautifully shot in the washed out residue of the American wild.
Coming soon: day 2, with my reviews of Mushrooming, Particle Fever and The Crash Reel.
This is a local blog, and for eleven days a year it becomes one for local people, too. Far away from the bright lights, the razzle-dazzle and the overpriced food of London, many other major cities have film festivals during the course of the year and tomorrow the 32nd Cambridge Film Festival gets underway. I’ve often thought about trying to get down to London for some of that festival action (happening in October, in case you’ve been living under a rock), but with this much varied, and quality, film entertainment right on my doorstep then surely it makes sense to take advantage?
And take advantage I have. I packed in 19 films in my first visit in 2010 and, despite a slightly reduced programme due to other factors, still caught 27 last year. So, in what is now becoming something of a tradition, I’ve assembled every trailer I can find for the films I’m seeing. It’s not been easy – the likes of more mainstream releases such as On The Road and Liberal Arts are easily accessible, but two films have eluded me completely (both from the MicroCinema thread); another, from the Catalan stream, has no online trailer (but I did find the whole film, without subtitles; the first of four parts is here for your viewing bemusement) and a number of other trailers are again appearing in a foreign language without subtitles, a situation which will thankfully be rectified once I get to the cinema.
Sadly, time travel hasn’t yet been invented so I can’t see everything. The likes of Woody Allen’s new one, Ashes (with Ray Winstone and Jim Sturgess) , Blind Spot and Big Boys Gone Bananas have all eluded me due to scheduling conflicts – and that’s just A to B! Still, with 39 films and 2 short programmes, I’m not going to complain too much. So if you’re not local, get a cup of tea and a biscuit, sit back and spend around an hour and a half getting a flavour for what’s possible at a film festival. And if you’re there in person, don’t forget to say hi. I”ll be the tall one with square eyes and an even squarer posterior.
You might recall an article I wrote last year about a film that had been made in my own village last year, called Wreckers, starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch. I wrote a review, as well as a piece on how I was Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, long before this blog was a glint in the milkman’s eye, but I also took the opportunity to conduct an interview with the writer and director, Dictynna Hood.
The interview took place at a local tea shop, where we had some delightful tea and scones, and I recorded a forty minute interview on my iPhone, which came out surprisingly well. Typing it back now has been a strange experience – particularly listening to the clanking and bustling going on in the rest of the tea shop – and Dictynna was a very open and friendly interviewee for my first such attempt, for which I must say a big thank you. We covered a wide variety of topics, everything from the films of Michael Haneke to Doctor Who, but it’s the cinematic impact and benefits that I’m most interested in, so what’s here are my questions specifically around that subject, and the film in general.
The film is showing tonight and tomorrow night (24th / 25th April) at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and tonight there will be an opportunity to ask Dictynna your own questions. Hopefully if you’re in the area you’ll be able to make it, and enjoy both the film and the Q & A as much as I did.
When you set out to make Wreckers, was the intention to get it into cinemas or was it just an extension of the short films you’d made previously?
I was definitely thinking of it for cinemas, knowing that we’re selling to the BBC and abroad it will also be mainly TV sales, but we definitely wanted the cinema release. Claire Foy is also very filmic; she has this quality that you can just watch her. She does a lot of watching, not speaking, in the film and I think holds the screen fantastically, which is one of the reasons it’s gone into the cinema. In the cinema, you can also see the subtlety of the performances more clearly, which gets lost a little on TV when you’re more focused on the plot.
What was it that decided you to set it in a village specifically? Was it more plot driven or was it about the film economics?
A little of both, really. It’s very contained, and while there’s a budgetary reason for that people have mentioned at Q & As that they saw that containment as a blessing. There were a lot of people who helped with the production of the film who’ve ended up being cut; nothing to do with them or their performance, but that was all to do with keeping that contained feeling. The village in the film isn’t a literal reflection of the real village itself, or the village I grew up in, but it’s important that there’s that small space with a very large area around it.
I had a fascination with the Fens for a long time; I also had a look at the West Country, and took a lot of pictures, but it somehow didn’t feel right. I had a book of Fenland stories which was inspirational. I was looking for a village that wasn’t too twee or precious. A friend suggested looking in the Isleham area, and when I went to the village I found the church open and the layout of the village was immediately appealing. I’d also looked at Norfolk, but the extreme landscape on the Fens was just so appealing.
I understand you studied in Cambridge; was that where the love affair with the area came from originally?
No, I think it actually came from the book of stories originally, but it wasn’t something that it particularly occurred from my studying. I’d been on a biking holiday with my sister on the Fens when I was younger, but it didn’t capture me then, only later. I’d still love to do more filming in the area in the future, possibly getting on the water, or exploring the farming and the legends. I do think it’s one of the most extreme landscapes in the UK, and it gets away from all the murder mystery and period drama feel that you normally associate with the countryside.
Although I live in the village, I wasn’t aware of who you had in the film until after you’d finished filming. How did you put a cast like that together?
We cast them because we thought they were a cracking cast; as it turns out, everyone else seems to have thought that as well! They were fantastic, and obviously that has helped the film enormously. Their profile has increased since we filmed, and we were very lucky to get them all, especially given how especially Benedict’s profile has soared since. He makes David’s character very ambiguous, with a more straightforward performance the film would have taken a very different turn, and potentially been less interesting for it.
Reading interviews with him, he seems to be in it very much for the craft rather than the attention. How did he come across when filming?
My impression is that he loves to work, and that’s why he did the film, as he had a gap in his schedule. I read in one of his interviews that he wanted to follow the James McAvoy path, mixing blockbusters with films like this, but his schedule actually made finishing the film rather complicated.
When did you actually film? Was it a couple of years ago?
It was 2009, and it’s actually turned out to be a real help that it’s taken a while to put together, in terms of the profile of the cast and where they are now, but at the time it didn’t it didn’t feel like that, it felt like, “why can’t we just finish this bloody thing!”
I need to be careful, I’m technically a PG blog!
But no, everything about it felt wonderful in the end, for such a small production.
How do you go about getting a film into something like the London Film Festival [the film played at LFF in 2011]? Is it a fairly lengthy, tortuous process?
When we showed it to our cast and crew on a big screen for the first time we realised the film had a real pull in the cinema. Then we hosted a couple of screenings for industry folks and got Artificial Eye our distributor on board at that point which no doubt helped. We invited one of the programmers for the London Film Festival to an industry screening, it’s certainly better if a programmer can see your film big screen.
Do you think that British film is becoming confined to the festivals? It seems harder to get distribution for British films these days.
We had very realistic expectations for our film and it’s already gone beyond those expectations. I saw a lot of bold films at the London Film Festival which probably won’t get a release, but I’m not sure what the answer is; maybe more the French style of distribution. There’s a lot more film clubs in villages these days, which does open up more opportunities for folks to see films on the big screen. From a filmmaker’s perspective it does help enormously if you can cast people more recognisable to a wider audience, but it’s a shame if you have to do that at all times.
Has Wreckers turned out pretty much how you imagined it?
We realised on day three that we couldn’t shoot our storyboard, so we had to work out quickly how to capture the feeling we were after, happily we’d had a lot of discussion during pre-production about the grammar and the atmosphere of the film and how to maintain that even if shooting not exactly as planned. Even if you’re Hitchcock or Kubrick, as soon as you cast it the film becomes something different, as actors embody the characters and make them their own. The key as a director is to hold on to the core ideas and the core feeling of the film and to create around that. It’s was Annemarie’s [Lean-Vercoe,director of photography] first or second feature, and I couldn’t have done it without her, but all of the crew were magnificent.
What’s next for you, now that Wreckers has been a success and gotten into cinemas?
I’m exploring what to do next; we’ve got a story about a big family gathering where the parents are ageing hippies, and we’ve got a wonderfully twisted rom-com. I want to get on and direct more, but you have to make sure that the script is a match, and I guess the joy of writing is that you know your script is a match! [laughs]
Dictynna Hood, thank you very much.
Wreckers is also available on DVD now from all good stockists.
I’m now up to 40 films seen this year, and at the rate I’m going, that would put me on pace for just over 100 again this year. It’s not a goal I’m aiming for (been there, done that, didn’t get a T-shirt – maybe I should), just to see good or interesting movies whenever they come up. But it’s also about maximising the spare time I have to see as many as possible, and that’s where I wonder if I do sometimes take things too far. Take for example this Sunday just gone.
The following takes place between 11:30 and 8:30 p.m. Events occur in real time. Ish.
11:30 Get in the car to drive into Cambridge. My wife is at work for the day, and her shift runs from 12:30 to 8:30. I have three choices for the day: church barbecue (but it’s the hottest day of the year, and being part ginger I can’t be out in the sun and it’s not as much fun without my wife), carry on with trying to get some work done (been doing for two days, including some on Saturday, and that’s driving me mad – need a break), or heading in to see something at the cinema. Four movies I want to see at the moment, and having done some pre-planning I think, with a fair wind and a bit of luck, I can get three of them in today.