Has cinema programming now just gone back to normal?

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It’s a familiar story if you head to a multiplex this weekend, with two films dominating the majority of screen space.

Over the past couple of weeks, owners of multiplex cinemas around the UK have finally had what they were after: huge blockbuster movies. After their experiences last summer, in the time of Warner Bros’ will-it-won’t-it toing and froing over the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, there’s a bit more certainty surrounding the big screen release schedule. As such, Fast & Furious 9 roared into cinemas at the end of June, and Marvel’s Black Widow has now taken up residence too. Two gigantic movies, both finally with us after year-long delays.


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In fact looking at the listing for my local multiplexes for what’s showing this weekend, and it feels like the last 15 months or so simply hadn’t happened at first glance. A good thing to a degree, but also looking for tickets for something to see, and the choice seems to have dried up a little.

The nearest multiplex to me has 13 screens. Programmed on those screens are six releases, on top of a few matinees of kids’ films. Movies such as Nobody, The Father, In The Earth and Spiral are gone. Now, it’s umpteen showings of Fast & Furious 9 and Black Widow, with a couple of slots for In The Heights, A Quiet Place – Part II, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and the latest Conjuring film. But the bulk of the programme is given over to just two films.

Multiplexes have been awaiting the huge movies of course, and we’re not quite at the stage where the same complex had Star Wars: The Force Awakens on 12 screens and the comedy Sisters on its other. But it’s a sizeable leap back in that direction.

It’s basic supply and demand at work of course, and cinemas have a habit of showing what we’re expected to go and see. The disappointment though is that as damaged as the cinema release schedule was last year, it did demonstrate that there was a slightly different way of doing business.

Last summer, after all, was when the big studios basically all but vacated cinemas, and the smaller distributors stepped up in their place. The likes of Signature, Vertigo, Studiocanal, Munro, Shear Entertainment and Altitude all doubled down, and gave us a breadth of choice on multiplex screens that hadn’t been seen in a long, long time. Furthermore, there was space too for some re-releases as well, all at a time when the big studios were still working out just what their strategies were.

The push back towards some degree of normality for UK cinemas was always going to see things swing back towards the bigger films. What’s a shame though is the pendulum appears to have swung back pretty much entirely already. We’re back to the smaller distributors – who never went away – struggling to secure screen space for a sizeable release, and the big studios having pretty much what they want.

At the end of it all there’s us, the humble consumer. Of course there are independent and art house cinemas that continue to offer the breadth that a multiplex ironically won’t, and those are places that particularly now need your help and support.

Yet I contend there’s an issue of accessibility here. What if you don’t live close to an independent, and a multiplex is your local access point to the big screen? What happened to the idea of putting aside a few smaller screens for a couple of more leftfield, counter-programmed alternatives (appreciating this is idealistic and rhetorical, but still, for several months it’s just what we got)?

I love big films, and I love blockbuster cinema. I’m not one of those people who instantly goes off a film just because it’s big and/or lots of other people are going to see it. But I do think choice is important. I’m assuming that somewhere down the line, numbers have been run and algorithms have been deployed that demonstrate giving five screens to Black Widow is far more lucrative than slotting in a smaller British indie production. Yet there’s a hidden benefit that’s harder to tabulate in a spreadsheet. That of making a multiplex less narrow, the kind of place where you think it might just be worth double checking the listings to see if there’s something more leftfield on.

Then there’s the knock-on of that too. That smaller movies have more of a chance. I’m reminded of indie director Paul Tanter being able to ring major chains up last autumn offering his latest film, Stealing Chaplin, and getting it picked up by multiplex cinemas. Sure, that was an extreme situation said exhibitors found themselves in, but what harm really is there in leaving such a door open?

After all, outside of Tenet last year, the film that soared to over £3m at the UK box office was After We Collided. In ordinary times, it simply would have struggled for screen space in the first place, yet last year it got people into cinemas at a very dark and difficult time. And who knows? It may have brought in patrons who’d been away from cinema longer time and quite liked what they found.

Cinema is a broad church, always has been and always will be. But I do think there’s a chance here to alter the old demarcations, and to not have just a handful of films blockbooked onto the majority of screens. This may just be a blip at the moment – how often we will have two films of such size quite so close to each other? – but it’s also a reminder of how things used to me, and look like they might be again. Hopefully, something towards a half-way house can be found longer term…

Lead image: BigStock

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