Conversations About Film in Bradford
One of the most widely-circulated quotes about the film industry is by the screenwriter William Goldman in his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade:
“Nobody knows anything.”
He didn’t mean that people in Hollywood are particularly ignorant. He was emphasising that in the film business it is impossible to predict what will happen next and especially how audiences will react to a film in a cinema that started out as a great idea many months earlier.
In 2016 in the UK the cinema box office rose slightly but the number of admissions stayed roughly the same. Compared to 2005 there are now more cinema screens and the number of official film releases has soared to nearly 1,000 a year. Around 100 of these are screenings of ‘live events’ – opera, ballet, theatre and other special events. In addition there are many new ways in which to watch films and long-form TV narratives (i.e. the ‘box-set’ concept) online, the most prominent being Netflix and Amazon Prime. DVDs and Blu-rays survive despite claims that they are doomed. ‘Nobody knows’ what will happen next.
In Bradford Metropolitan District there are 35 cinema screens with six more due to be added when the Light multiplex in the Broadway extension opens. But do more screens necessarily mean more choices of what to see? Since 2005 while cinema audience numbers have more or less remained the same, the audience for foreign language films (excluding Bollywood) has declined by 50%. If films are not being seen in cinemas this inevitably has an impact on subsequent access to DVD and online screenings. Without a cinema release, a film title has little profile.
It is often the case that a week or more might pass without a foreign language title playing at a Bradford cinema and it is becoming more difficult to find foreign language films on UK television. During the two week Christmas-New Year period there was one Hong Kong title on Film 4 and nothing in Bradford cinemas. What used to be ‘specialised cinemas’ committed to showing ‘cultural cinema’ now routinely show commercial blockbusters alongside live events. It is the exclusion of foreign language titles (and smaller British independents) and the subsequent lack of diversity that worries us most.
You might wonder why this is happening. There are several reasons. One is the range of cuts in public spending on the arts and the changes in arts policies. Some of the cinemas that used to show films for cultural rather than commercial reasons have lost funding and are now being forced to try to boost income by showing blockbusters – the same films that are also on at the multiplex. A new commercial market in luxury cinemas has developed as three chains (Curzon, Picturehouses/Cineworld and Everyman) have taken over the other former publicly-funded film theatres (either as programming agents or operators) and are now opening new cinemas with a programming model of live events and English language ‘art’ films alongside blockbusters.
The gradual collapse of foreign language teaching in the UK is another factor. Film distributors have convinced themselves that subtitled films are difficult to sell and in one sense they are right since the audience that has been introduced to European language cultures is shrinking. On the other hand, the growing numbers of migrants living in the UK means that it is now possible to find regular screenings of Polish, Turkish and Chinese films in UK multiplexes alongside Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Malayalam films – most of them subtitled. These films are not marketed to the whole UK (they are not routinely reviewed by mainstream UK media) but in Bradford many of them appear at Cineworld and the Odeon in Thornbury. Do you want to see them?
We have tried to host screenings ourselves but have found it impossible to make these economically viable, despite voluntary labour and ‘in kind’ venue support. On the other hand, our Day Schools and ‘One Hour Intros’ at the Mechanics Institute Library have worked and have proved that there is a demand for access to foreign language films and an appetite for discussion about them.
We don’t intend to give up on the possibility of further public screenings, but we realise that first we need to build a substantial mailing list of interested potential audience members. In the current jargon we need to develop a ‘Conversation’ about film in Bradford and somehow pull together all the separate initiatives which are trying to maintain a diverse film viewing environment in the wider city region (we know some of you live outside Bradford and that you are prepared to travel a significant distance to see something worthwhile).
Our proposal is to develop a set of linked resources which will support such a Conversation. We plan to continue our Day Schools and Introduced screenings but also to offer a website and a monthly Newsletter. These would provide a service designed to help you find the films you want to see. We should be able to flag up in advance the major titles to look for and tell you about who might screen them and eventually how you might buy or rent them if you can’t get to a cinema or film society screening. In the meantime, we’ll also be looking to find a suitable venue for further screening programmes of our own.
What can you do?
If you want to support us in this project, the most important thing you can do is to make sure you are on our mailing list and then to encourage your friends or anyone else you meet interested in our kind of cinema to join as well. We’d also like to hear from you about how you think such a Conversation should develop and indicate which kinds of films you are missing in mainstream cinemas and would like to see. You can contact us through the website here.
Bill Lawrence, Roy Stafford