Competition Commission: And Now, The End Is Near

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Cineworld Cambridge

Finally, more than two years after Cineworld plc acquired the City Screen business that operates Picturehouse cinemas (yes, it was December 6th 2012 that this all started), and getting on for two years after the Office Of Fair Trading first referred the purchase to the Competition Commission, the actions that the Competition Commission requested have finally now all been completed and we can – almost – make an assessment of who’s gained and lost in this process. Today it was announced, about a week after the signs came down and the speculation began, that the European cinema chain The Light would be taking over operation of the Cineworld in Cambridge. The chain, started by businessmen Keith Pullinger and John Sullivan, currently operates two cinemas in the UK in New Brighton and Wisbech as well as two in Europe, with plans for another six in the UK over the next two years. Their mission statement on their website is promising, as they pledge:

  • Eye catching architecture and contemporary interior design which creates an exciting environment and encourages socialising.
  • Adventurous film programming, featuring blockbusters, independent and international films.
  • The newest and latest on screen content: opera, sport and music
  • A café bar creating relaxed atmosphere, a place to socialise and attract the mix of families, young people and mature adults who make up the cinema audience.

But this process has taken so long, it might be easy to forget how we got to this point. (It’s been frustrating recently for customers of the Cambridge cinemas, but the nature of the legal process meant that no one could formally announce anything until the sale was completed.) With a particular film theme, let’s look at the winners and losers in all this.

The Good – good news for Picturehouse customers

Back in 2012 when the acquisition was first announced, the mood was pessimistic to say the least. It was presumed by many that the change in ownership would see the cinemas transformed into mini-multiplexes, losing their focus and character, yet if you look around the country that hasn’t happened. I can say this with first hand knowledge, having been to Picturehouse cinemas in Norwich, Liverpool, Hackney, Exeter, Southampton and Edinburgh since that day in 2012 as well as my two locals, and they all still by and large have the same quirky, comfortable atmosphere and the same higher end film programme. Each is distinct but clearly part of something larger, and that can also be said of the cinema in Cambridge.

Two of the the Picturehouses did get sold under the Competition Commission decision, in Aberdeen and Bury St. Edmunds. The former was purchased by Filmhouse, who not only run an independent arthouse cinema in Edinburgh but also the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it has carried on pretty much business as usual. The latter was bought by Tony Jones, former co-founder of City Screen and now back in independent cinema. The Picturehouse programming arm continues to programme for that cinema and a reciprocal agreement on membership has kept discounts in place. Thankfully the cinema had a significant refurbishment before the sale and the bar and restaurant are a delight, and with the news that the Abbeygate (as it is now called) have purchased the bingo hall next door and are converting that to a third screen, the future of quality cinema in Bury St. Edmunds also looks assured.

But these were always likely to be the easier of the two situations. It wasn’t impossible that an independent could have come in and taken over Cambridge, just that there were so many more babies in the bathwater there that a change in ownership could have very easily set the cinema on a path to ruin. The easiest way to maintain everything that the cinema stood for seemed to be to keep the current owners in charge, and that has been the final outcome. The Arts Picturehouse will remain, and for those like myself who stood on the pavement outside the cinema in 2013, placards in hand, and to the 15,126 people who signed the petition directed at the Competition Commission – the vast majority of whom were current or former Arts customers – it is time to breath a sigh of relief, albeit a guarded one.

I’ve been in discussions with people on social media who fear that the change to a mini-multiplex in 2012 was just delayed for Cambridge and that the programming for the Arts Picturehouse will now simply transform it into the mini-multiplex now that Cambridge no longer has a Cineworld in town. There’s a few reasons why I don’t think – and hope, for nothing in life is certain – that this will happen. First off, Cineworld seem to have recognised through this process that Cambridge is one of the crown jewels of the Picturehouse chain and that to dilute it now would be nonsensical. The multiplex that they are selling has around four times the seating capacity in its nine screens that the Arts has in its three, and even the economists of the Competition Commission (sorry, couldn’t resist one last dig) could work out that a profit-based decision would be to sell the arts cinema. Also, if you look at the kinds of areas I mentioned earlier (Norwich, Edinburgh, Southampton, Liverpool and so on), they are a mixture of areas both with and without a Cineworld but all with other competition, and their core programming is not so different to that of the Cambridge cinema. Bear in mind that the programming for all of these cinemas is generally planned months in advance and then fine tuned the week before, wholesale changes are not even possible in that sense for some time to come without massive and unnecessary disruption.

However, one of the big things that sets Cambridge apart – and one of the major motivating factors for trying to protect the status quo – is all of the programming at the cinema which doesn’t come directly from Picturehouse or which marks them out from the competitors. If you look at the latest programme you’ll see there’s still at least one 70mm film a month being shown, there are repertory programmes from the University of the Third Age, the University of Cambridge’s Faculty Of Modern and Medieval Languages, short films from / Encompass Network and films from young trainee programmers at Long Road Sixth Form College. But the two most undervalued contributions come from the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium – who have a dozen educational events in the latest programme alone – and the Cambridge Film Trust, who work to foster film education across the Eastern region and the whole of the UK, and who – not the Picturehouse as most people seem to think – run the Cambridge Film Festival each year. The festival last year moved to late August and saw a 30% increase in attendance on the previous year, and if you’ve ever been to the Arts Picturehouse and wondered what was up the stairs beyond the screens, then it’s these organisations and the projectionists. Hopefully any doubt in what the future held for any of them is now removed.

The one comment that I’ve made before and that I’ll make again is that if the programming changes at the Arts Picturehouse, it’s less likely to be as a result of the sale of the Cineworld and more likely to be down to the fact that the cinema’s programmers are making brave choices that then don’t get backed up by an audience. In November the cinema had screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but none in the much larger screen 1, and the cinema responded to audience requests and moved a Friday night screening into screen 1 which then pretty much sold out. But I was also at two separate films on Friday nights in screen 3 last year that had an audience in single figures, and that’s not sustainable. There’s no point in the programmers being bold if no-one then watches the films, and I would urge any regular customers reading this to check their brochures and seek out the daring films being shown. Quite often these days the more niche films, such as the recent Denis Villeneuve release Enemy with Jake Gyllenhall, get relegated to a 10:30 slot because there’s no confidence they’ll attract a sufficient evening crowd, and I can’t buy all of the tickets myself (as much as I’d like to). Just don’t come complaining if you don’t watch the films and then they disappear.

The Bad – Cineworld Unlimited customers (and possibly all Cineworld customers)

Cineworld Unlimited

When someone tells you that you have two things and one is going to be taken away, and that you must lose one or the other with retaining both not an option, then it’s almost impossible to campaign for both. I did try to draw attention to the potential risks of losing the Cineworld in terms of cost, but the momentum to fight for the Cineworld just never materialised to the same extent. I personally consume films in huge volume, averaging around 160 a year since I started this blog, and much of that has been made possible by the use of my Unlimited Premium card. I can and will still visit Cineworlds in Huntingdon, Bury St. Edmunds, Haverhill and Stevenage regularly (as well as a host of others if I’m in the area) and I’m hoping that there’ll be a new Cineworld just fifteen minutes away from me in Ely come next summer, but I’ve often relied on seeing three or four films in a day split between the Arts and the Cineworld in Cambridge. The Light have said they will honour Unlimited cards, which also give significant discounts on food and drink, for three months, but after that I’m expecting to see my costs go up every time I have a film day in Cambridge.

The Competition Commission’s research suggested that around 8% of their customers nationally are Unlimited customers (there was no figure specific to Cambridge). But I guarantee that the vast majority of that 8% in Cambridge are seeing two or more films a month, and for them this will represent either a significant rise in cost or more likely a significant reduction in the number of films they can see in the cinema. Frankly, as this blog was founded on the principle of encouraging people to watch as many films in cinemas as they could, that breaks my heart just a tiny bit. I hope anyone that can’t get to another Cineworld still manages to see some films once the Unlimited extension expires.

But what of the other 92%, those that just buy single or group tickets and don’t rely on the discounts of Unlimited? We’ll know tomorrow at noon, when the Light’s website goes live, whether they’ve gained or lost on price. The fundamental basis for the decision by the Office Of Fair Trading to refer this to the Competition Commission in the first place was that more competition helps to naturally regulate price, but we won’t know until tomorrow if there’s any change to the cinema’s costs. The good news is that in Wisbech, the cinema seems to have recently reduced its prices by 20% in an effort to better pitch to the local consumer. One of the things I found out in my research into this in 2013 is that cinema chains set prices locally, so in that sense competition should have an effect, but there’s probably only half a dozen cities in the country with enough cinemas for competition to make any difference, three being unlikely to cut it. With that 20% price cut in Wisbech, a standard Friday night ticket is still 20p more expensive than their only competitor, the single screen The Luxe – your guess is as good as mine as to whether there’s actually any market forces at work there.

I also then looked at that same Friday night comparison for The Light’s other cinema in New Brighton, and that looks less promising. There’s quite a diverse collection of cinemas within half an hour’s travel of that cinema, and the range of standard Friday night ticket prices is impressive:

New Brighton Prices

To give The Light their credit, they are competing a little with the Picturehouse on content, showing Birdman and A Most Violent Year when few of the other cinemas have, but their closest three cinemas geographically are the three on the left, so if you see a mainstream film at The Light in New Brighton, you’re paying significantly more than the local competition.

So I will reserve judgement on the pricing and film choice of the new cinema until their website is live tomorrow. The best possible outcome for the cinema lovers of Cambridge would be The Light starting to compete more on programming with the Picturehouse while making the pricing competitive, but only time will tell. Hopefully customers, now much more conscious of price if this process has had any effect, will vote with their feet if they’re being overcharged in Cambridge and the pressures of the market might actually have the effect that I cynically doubt they will. I am completely happy to be proven wrong on this one.

The Ugly – the Competition & Markets Authority

Yes, this process has been going so long that the body that referred this decision and the people they referred it to have themselves been merged, the OFT and the Competition Commission becoming one in the Competition & Markets Authority. When you’ve processed the irony of that, let’s recall what the intent of this process was to do. The idea of forcing Cineworld to sell a cinema in three areas was to encourage competition in those areas and that in return, that competition would naturally help to control prices for consumers. As was pointed out by others almost on day one of this process, if that were true in and of itself then cinemas in Leicester Square would be the cheapest in the country, but clearly there’s more at work here. What the CMA and its predecessors couldn’t do – because that would effectively be a price control, and that’s not their remit – would be to determine how much competition should influence pricing in the market. At the time of the sale, one of those standard Friday night tickets at the Cineworld in Cambridge would have set you back £9.90, compared to £9.70 at the Vue or £11.00 at the Picturehouse. If in the longer term those figures don’t all just increase in line with the Retail Price Index, then this process will have achieved something. It will be fascinating to see tomorrow how The Light’s starting price compares to the final Cineworld price; I would argue that if it’s even a penny higher, this process has failed spectacularly on the main front it was trying to deliver.

But actually, I’d make a further argument that it’s already done just that: this process has already repeatedly allowed to happen the exact thing it was designed to stop. 

What do I mean by that? Well, although it couldn’t set price controls, the Competition Commission set a test as part of the third party survey conducted in their investigation. The idea was that they questioned people as to whether or not they’d change cinema if the one they normally went to put their prices up by 5%. The principle is that, if enough people would switch from Picturehouse to Cineworld or vice versa if the price went up in one of them, then it would be in Cineworld plc’s interests to raise prices because they would still keep the profit.

What the research showed was that it was in Cineworld plc’s best interests not to raise prices in Cambridge, because three times as many survey respondents said they would go to the opposition (i.e. Vue) as they would stay with a Cineworld plc cinema. In that event, Cineworld loses all of the money rather than gaining the profit, so that one piece of evidence should have told them that not keeping prices competitive would have seen them lose business, and the market was already telling them.

But that’s not the way the Competition Commission saw it, they demanded the sale of a cinema in Cambridge and two other areas. This was taken from one of my blog posts in September 2013, and prices were still at this level when the Commission made its final judgement in October 2013.

CC Chart 1

Can you guess what happened next? Between then and now, Cineworld have made a price rise of 50p per ticket (more than 5%) and Picturehouse have made two of 50p each (more than 10%). So if there was anything to be gained by customers switching cinemas, then this process has taken so long that Cineworld plc have profited from it three times in Cambridge before the cinema sale went through. Doesn’t that strike you as making this process a spectacular waste of everyone’s time and effort?

Anyway, what’s done is done, and despite our best efforts the process has ploughed on unhindered, ignoring the voices of not only the general public but prominent industry figures and members of both Houses Of Parliament. And now, here we are, with the CMA having taken nearly eighteen months to put a bolt on the stable door, but the horse has already made its exit.

I think there are questions to be asked here of how these bodies have conducted this process: the definition of any kind of success criteria is shaky at best, what I’ve seen an outsider from the reports I’ve read has given the impression that industry feedback has been overlooked in favour of evidence provided by competitors with vested interests in destabilising a competitor and we now have no guarantee that this will actually deliver what it was intended to, especially given that what it was trying to prevent has already happened. Maybe the merger into the CMA dragged out the process, but frankly I would be living in fear and trepidation if this was how the CMA handled an investigation into an industry I worked in. I think, as consumers that this body is working to try to protect, we deserved better.

In Conclusion

Sometimes good things come of bad processes. I would like to give the CMA some credit, for at least in forcing the sale the Picturehouses sold ended up in safe hands of a similar size and shape and we will shortly be in a position to judge if the sale of the Cineworld has had a similarly positive outcome. I truly hope that’s the case here, and in an ideal world The Light would help to keep prices down relative to the cost of living, and we’d start to see them programming some films which might give Picturehouse a bit of competition of the kind we actually need. It might also see the sadly defunct bar next to the Cineworld and the foyer itself given a new lease of life, and possibly an end to the generally loathed allocated seating policies that hadn’t won Cineworld many friends in the last year or so. Putting the Cineworld into the hands of a brand with the best of intentions, but who aren’t as tried and tested as the likes of Odeon or other multiplex operators, is a brave move but it’s not completely without risk either. Like Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, I hope, but the next few months will tell us if it’s warm sand between our toes or a dank, muddy beach covered in puddles and time to get out the Wellington boots.

P.S. One last thank you to all the staff at the Cineworld in Cambridge, who it seems are being taken on by The Light. It’s one of the few multiplexes I’ve ever been to where, when I raised an issue with projection, they did something about it, and the staff have always been friendly and courteous to me. I’d just like to wish them all the best for the future.

The Cineworld / Picturehouse Merger: The Final Decision And Next Steps

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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

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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.

Just Before Losing EverythingJust Before Losing Everything

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.

Life Distorted

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.

Prince AvalanchePrince Avalanche

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.

The Half Dozen Special: Cambridge Film Festival 2012

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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.

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Wreckers: An Interview With Dictynna Hood

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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.

The Extra Mile: My movie obsession and random stupidity

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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.

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