There are about 3,500 cinema screens in the UK. This week they are showing 43 films. In Egypt, there are 20 films showing across about 230 screens.
It’s a better ratio, but the range of what’s on offer is just as narrow. In the UK, I would consider 10 of those titles independent. In Egypt, there’s only 1.
The puzzling thing about this narrowing of choice is that is seems to run counter to the main selling point of living in a modern capitalist society. Everywhere else it is choice that is being highlighted – from the spectrum of fruits and vegetables on display in Waitrose to the towering wall of jeans lined up before you in Uni Qlo – affordability, disposability and variety are the cornerstones of consumer culture. This is firmly entrenched in British life and is (or, hopefully, was) arriving rapidly in Egypt. So why are we so lacking in cinematic variety, since it is mostly so disposable?
The amount of films on offer these days feels more suited to 1950s life. Consumerism was no less heavily advertised back then, but there wasn’t the technology to offer you 3,00 varieties of Nikes, so you chose from a handful. And everyone walked around looking the same. And they saw that it was good.
Then, as Adam Curtis argues in his excellent film, The Century of the Self, the rise of the politics of individualism was accompanied by manufacturing progress that allowed brands to offer consumers vastly more choice; a shift that was sold as a new ability to ‘express’ yourself and your personality through your products.
But what happened in cinema? How is that we are still languishing behind with 1950s levels of choice when there are hundreds of films out there? If I walk in to supermarket I would now, appallingly, expect to be able to find Kenyan roses, Malagasy prawns, Peruvian avocadoes, Chinese televisions and American sunglasses. All year round, 24 hours a day. I have a thousand channels on my satellite dish. I can afford to fly wherever I want in Europe. I can read tweets from around the world instantly. But when it comes to cinematic experience my decisions are still being made for me by the same people that have been running the cartel since it began. And they couldn’t be more limited.
I understand that the products in the supermarket are available because of the exploitation of the vast disparities of wealth between Europe and the South. And yes, it is clear that Hollywood can’t make as many films as Levis can make jeans. The point is that the less desirable aspects of modern life are supposed to be outweighed by luxuries like endless variety - also rather gratingly known as 'the spice of life'. And if that's what people are used to, if they accept that life is something that needs spicing then how come we allow ourselves to be kept in this flavourless desert of choice? Why do we, in fact, encourage it when there are so many interesting films being made out there?
If you live in Darlington and you’ve got some kind of an intellectual date and you don’t want to take her to a film about a wizard that lives in people’s pockets (‘he’s in here’) or penguins or angry monkeys then you’re out of luck. You’d have to go to Newcastle, which ruins everything. If you drive then you can’t settle in to a bar to dissect the apes’ motivation and thrill at each other’s wit until the early hours. If you take the train then you’ve got to hurry for the last one like a teenager and the long, dark night journey home is a greater foe than most first dates can handle. Either way, it’s a non-starter.
If you’re in Egypt you have to take her to Lebanon.
And yet there seems to be no agitation for change. Box office revenues go up and up and up, as does their Dark Prince, popcorn sales.
But everything breaks. Something broke in the UK last week and I am excited to be returning for a few days. I’m excited to walk through the streets, to talk to people, even to read what the lousy tabloids are saying. If this level of street politics and debate is going on everywhere, then the riots – intended or not - have certainly achieved something.
For the first time in my generation the politics of protest are alive and there is the possibility of really grabbing this moment to push for change. So, film-makers, what can you do to help? Hollywood and Odeon will never change if we don’t make them. There’s no doubt that Odeon sells more popcorn to Justin Bieber fans than Bela Tarr aficionados. So we have to make them believe they can, at least, sell a few lousy tickets. And if we believe that cinema plays a part in shaping our culture, then everyone has to step up and take responsibility for changing the system.
If we were a couple of years in to the future and I had my first gritty, bload-soaked Western in the can we could start an experiment now. But, unfortunately, I’m not there yet. But here are a few ideas.
Let’s assume you’ve got an independent distributor and you’re lined up to play two weeks in a Curzon. They’ve got no money for advertising and they’re not expecting anything big from your film. You, however, know it’s a masterpiece. So you’ve got to do something yourself or it’s going to sink. These are some things you could do:
- Attack the mainstream. Get some mates and a graffiti stencil and spray an advert for your film on top of every Hollywood movie poster you can find.
- Invite artists to work on the campaign with you. Offer people creative roles on your next film if their work fits with yours.
- Have free public screenings in parks and squares to build up some hype.
- Take a couple of choice scenes and get your film-makers friends to add them on to their DVDs as hidden extras. You could even have the whole film scattered across 60 other films being released that year, if you have a distributor with a lot of films. [That one’s probably a bit unrealistic]
- Start a campaign, collect signatures to pressure mainstream cinemas.
- Declare that one seat from the first evening's screening will be randomly selected and given a speaking role in your next film. Or one seat from every screening can be an extra (Griffiths got people to pay to be extras!)
- Make something up. Invent an actor and say she died during filming. That’ll get you media interest. And then even more interest when you charmingly reveal it was a fake.
That’s ten minutes worth of ideas. Maybe you think they’re all crap. That’s fine. The point is we need to see some invention. It’s great the independent cinemas of the world still exist, but we need film-makers and audiences to work with them to get us out of this spiralling chasm of doom. So let’s get thinking.