The Great Multiplex Swindle

The recent drought of big budget releases has dragged the world’s second-largest cinema chain into bankruptcy proceedings… but are multiplexes missing out by overlooking smaller homegrown fare?

The past few months have seen UK cinema chains bemoaning the lack of new releases to draw audiences back to the multiplex. Delays in the production pipeline due to the pandemic and an overworked VFX industry have resulted in a clutch of crowd-pleasing blockbusters being pushed into 2023. Meanwhile, the kind of mid-budget comedies and dramas that exhibitors used to rely on to fill their remaining screens have now largely become the preserve of streaming platforms.

The summer drought of new films has led to cinema chains devoting even more screens to increasingly scarce blockbusters as they aim to wring as much profit from them as they can. Repertory screenings have also been firmly back in fashion with old favourites like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies being yanked back into circulation to entice blockbuster audiences back into multiplexes. Whilst the dry spell is finally showing some spells of abating, the severity of the conditions has driven Cineworld, the world’s second-largest cinema chain into bankruptcy, highlighting just how overly dependent multiplexes are on a continual influx of blockbuster entertainment. To a certain degree, this is a situation that cinema chains have created for themselves, contributing to a national climate that rarely platforms homegrown, small budget film at a wide theatrical level.

The expenditure of time and money that is needed to deal with huge corporate structures creates too many difficulties for some independent filmmakers. Mark JT Griffin, director and producer of 2021’s Lawrence After Arabia, regrets the amount of time he spent vainly pursuing a theatrical release: “When we released the movie, multiplex chains wouldn’t consider it,” he recalls. “If you wanted to screen [the film] at a 100-seater auditorium, it would cost £1500 and they would refuse to advertise the movie on their website unless you get ‘corporate’ approval which again is very difficult and is a barrier rather than an enabler.”

Stuart Brennan in 2019's Wolf, a rare beast in modern multiplexes.

Overcoming obstacles

Stronghold’s Stuart Brennan did manage to get several of his micro-budget UK films into the multiplex, including 2019’s Wolf, the grim and bloody depiction of an elite group of Roman Legionnaires trapped beyond Hadrian’s Wall with a marauding werewolf. Wolf, a British production that cost less than £100K, ultimately released on 70 multiplex screens nationwide, but how did Brennan manage it?

“I built a relationship with Cineworld,” he explains, “starting with helping film festivals sell out at their venues and then asked if they’d support me with a ten screen release to get my movie Plan Z in the running for the Scottish BAFTA’s. They did and we actually managed to harness Facebook marketing and we achieved a decent per screen average, which they were happy with and certainly brought more attention to our small movie.” After screening at 12 Cineworld sites, Plan Z would go on to be picked up by Netflix and do what Brennan describes as ‘decent international sales.”

However, he is keen to stress that the challenges don’t stop with securing multiplex screens, they multiply: “It’s expensive,” he states. “You need to get a BBFC theatrical rating, create DCPs and ship them to the cinemas, get a BBFC certificate for your trailer, ship that to the cinemas. You need to have a 5.1 mix for your film. You need to get posters designed and create a marketing campaign and spend money on it. Being in a cinema, doesn’t guarantee an audience.”

“It’s really hard,” emphasises Andrea Cornwell, a veteran British producer who worked on 2019’s Saint Maud, a low budget British horror that broke through, gaining huge buzz and critical acclaim. “There’s always new players coming in, but generally they only have a capacity to release on thirty or forty, certainly fewer than a hundred screens and that’s not enough critical mass to get you a marketing campaign and get you to a particularly high box office tally, and it’s hard to get even those slots.”

Mark JT Griffin on the set of 2021's Lawrence After Arabia

Take it on tour

After abandoning attempts to get Lawrence After Arabia, a spiritual successor to the beloved 1962 classic into multiplexes, Griffin would instead opt to go in another direction, carefully targeting independent venues:

“In the end we took a targeted screening where we hired the screen at independents that were much cheaper than chains and would advertise the screening,” he explains. “We chose cinemas where we knew the film would sell tickets and then ran 30 screenings over a month with the film ‘on tour’ with a director introduction and Q&A and this was where we had sell-out audiences and bought in revenue. Hard work but well worth it!”

Likewise, even though Brennan was able to secure a relatively wide multiplex release for Wolf, he was still careful to target select screens: “Every cinema we released Wolf in had a Games Workshop nearby or a Dungeons and Dragons club, or Roman LARP or re-enactors club nearby. We did decent box office numbers for our small release.” Of course, there is a wider cultural aspect to all of this. Whilst multiplex chains like Cineworld routinely carve out a small but crucial source of income from low-budget Bollywood films that play in selected venues, that is a culture and an audience that has been nurtured and developed over time. As such, Bollywood fans going into watch Babe Bhangra Paunde Me with its production budget of $1M have realistic expectations regarding what to expect and not to expect, when they pay for a ticket.

Brennan argues that other audiences need to develop a similar understanding and for him, that begins with critics, so often the mediators who help audiences to understand and contextualise films: “I think it has to start with the film critics,” he explains. “They immediately start their reviews with low budget comments - when really - that’s irrelevant. A film like Wolf, made for under £100K, needs the critics to praise its creativity and tenaciousness, rather than even mention its low budget.”

2019's Saint Maud was able to secure a wide release following a successful debut at Toronto International Film Festival.

A magic wand?

It’s certainly true that British audiences are overfed with Hollywood films and long-starved when it comes to low budget films appearing in the cinema. As such, we’ve reached a situation where Cornwell believes the visibility of such films is diminishing to a vanishing point: “In the past you would expect to earn a couple of million at the UK box office, occasionally above five.  Now you can get five star reviews and make a few hundred thousand, which if you translate into actual heads and eyeballs, means almost nobody.”

It’s a sentiment that Brennan agrees with. He adds that, “in the Hollywood world we live in, people only see huge numbers as a result. Did Wolf make millions? No. So that’s a flop? No.” Wolf may not have set the world alight, but both Brennan and Cornwell are keen to stress that with these types of films, that’s never the point. Decades of multiplexes shaping audiences’ tastes exclusively towards more bombastic fare has now backfired as when big-budget films dry up, cinema chains have little idea how to induce audiences to enjoy anything else.

Still, for Brennan, he looks back on the process positively, arguing that the increased theatrical visibility would help Wolf beyond its cinema run, and arguing that simply getting your film into a multiplex is no magic wand. “We make more from Wolf sales each month digitally than we do any of our other movies,” he concludes. “I love the cinema. The biggest lesson I have learnt along the way, is that you have to put the hard yards in. No one will fill a cinema for you. You have to make it happen. And it’s very hard.”

Dan Cooper
Dan Cooper probably has opinions on too many things for his own good. As such, you can find his thoughts in a number of fine publications as varied as Wireframe, Tech Radar and Men's Fitness. His main passion however, is film. You can find his words in each monthly issue of Film Stories magazine and in various nooks and crannies of the internet.

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