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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

City Screen
City Screen or the passion for programming.
City Screen is Britain’s largest circuit of arthouse and community cinemas. The company runs its own venues and offers a film booking service to independent cinemas - City Screen Virtual. FW met Tony Jones, director of programming, and Jason Wood, programming coordinator.
In an era of continuous expansion of multiplex chains and an increasingly competitive market, it is becoming difficult for independent cinemas to survive, let alone book films on release from the whole spectrum of titles available. City Screen and City Screen Virtual are committed companies that promote independent cinema both as exhibitors and programmers.
Filmwaves - Can you tell me about City Screen history?
Tony Jones - I was programming in Cambridge on a freelance basis when I was offered to take on the programming of the Oxford cinema. Shortly afterwards we formed City Screen and the first site that we bought was the Phoenix in Oxford, and after that we bought the site we transformed into the Clapham Picture House. That was around 12 or 13 years ago. Now City Screen has sites in all the major university towns in the UK and recently we acquired the Oasis cinemas, which makes it a good mix for the company by adding a site in Edinburgh with the Cameo and The Gate and The Ritzy in London.
Today we have City Screen and City Screen Virtual, which is just a programming company, headed by Clare (Binns), for the contract sites, like the Phoenix at East Finchley or the Everyman and the Electric. But since we own freeholds or leaseholds we are also exhibitors.
FW - Your programming basically decides what it is worth seeing in a limited but influential number of cinemas. How do you choose the films?
Jason Wood - We are committed to quality cinema, we want to have a cultural role so we make sure we support a diversity of films. We also want to play some titles that are commercial, because some sites are in commercial areas, such as Stratford-upon-Avon. There you are likely to see films like The Matrix Reloaded. But in the majority of our screens we play independent or foreign language films, seasons dedicated to certain filmmakers, auteur cinema. Thanks to the Cambridge film festival - of which Tony is the director - we discover a lot of first time filmmakers and then we support those in our sites.
FW - Can you explain a bit about how the chain sales agent-distributor-programmer-exhibitor works?
JW - Normally a filmmaker will have his or her film acquired by a sales agent who would sell the film to a UK distributor. We will then be contacted by the distributor who will screen the film for us, or invite us to a preview screening. The distributor will explain what their promotion tacticts will be, how much they are going to spend on the film, the day they plan to release it, the kind of press and marketing that is going to be involved. Then it is up to us to think where the film may fit within the City Screen’s circuit.
If it is an American blockbuster we start thinking in commercial terms, which commercial sites should take it. With British films it is more difficult. We are committed to supporting them but we need to guarantee a certain quality. A film that we gave a lot of support to recently was The Lawless Heart (Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, Optimum Releasing), that played in almost all City Screen’s sites. We formed a good relationship with the directors and they came down to our cinemas in Cambridge and Clapham and introduced the film.
TJ - Sometimes what happens is that too many filmmakers think that a direct deal can be done with the cinemas. They think their film is appropriate for, say, the Curzon Soho or The Other Cinema, and when you ask them how much money they are to going to spend on promoting it - and for certification - they have not even thought about it. What they need to understand is that the capital costs of building and running a cinema in the West End are phenomenal. Filmmakers must budget a reasonable amount of money (25,000) reserved exclusively to promote the film. And if the film is not up to scratch for a theatrical exhibition at least that 25,000 pounds can go to towards launching it on DVD. The hard truth is that without some decent coverage in Time Out and The Guardian it is difficult to get attention. There are films that we think are worth showing, but the public need to know that the film is there.
So, filmmakers cannot easily cut out distributors because they know about certification and promotion but also about ancillary sales, like cable TV and DVD release and DVD distributors with a good shelf space in a retail outlet. Because it is all very good to have your DVD but if it is stuck in the bottom shelf where no one can see it, it will not do well.