film distributors

   The Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television argued in the Mergers and Monopolies Report in 1994 that the concentrated structure of the British distribution market created bias against the distribution of non-US films. Film historian Ian Jarvie (1992:122) showed that US companies abroad were originally distributors, not producers, operating a policy of wholly controlling distribution through foreign subsidiaries rather than local agents. Hence in Britain today, long after the collapse of the Rank/APBC duopoly, producers are almost totally at the mercy of American distributors.
   Each of the five major distributors in the UK is affiliated to Hollywood studios, with the following accounting for over three-quarters of the UK industry: United International Pictures, Buena Vista International, Twentieth Century Fox Film Company, Warner Bros Distributors and Columbia Tristar Films. The 1995 report of the National Heritage Committee on the film industry notes these as primarily sales and marketing groups distributing films in the UK which have been made or acquired by their parent companies. They are involved in only one-third of films released, and earn three-quarters of the market from a limited number of blockbusters. Of the additional twentyfive independent companies, two or three (usually Rank Film Distributors, Entertainment Film Distributors, Polygram Filmed Entertainment or First Independent) account for most of the remaining quarter of the market. These smaller distributors circulate a wider range of films, including most of the British and Continental films, for a very small slice of the box office earnings. Artistic films are usually distributed by the British Film Institute (BFI), Institute of Contemporary Arts and Artifi-cial Eye.
   A Keynote report (1995) on British film shows that distributors make limited copies of most British films. For example, for Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), ten copies were made for UK distributors, whereas in Italy forty copies were made. British Screen Finance remarked to the 1995 National Heritage Committee that the British cinema market is possibly one of the least hospitable in the world for British films, which are distributed mainly by the subsidiaries of their US competitors. One of the biggest problems facing all distributors is the cost of launching a new release (upwards of £1 million). As Julian Petley (1992:78) points out, whereas the majors benefit from scale economies, most independents and smaller distributors do not. Independent producers who handle British or subtitled films face problems of limited distribution outlets as well as substantial costs of the new release. This helps to explain the demise of distributors such as Oasis and Enterprise.
   Of all the world’s major film markets, the UK has the greatest concentration of ownership and the greatest degree of integration between distributors and cinema exhibitors. John Hill (1992: 17) shows that from the mid-1980s, the gulf between production and distribution/exhibition deepened dramatically, while concentration in the distribution/exhibition sector tightened (often fatally for the independents). Although there is increasing competition amongst exhibitors, the majors have further concentrated their share by opening multiplex cinemas. Unfortunately, a rising number of screens does not necessarily mean that a wider variety or larger number of films is shown: long holdovers of popular films are common, and the multiplexes carve out core consumer sectors rather than creating new viewers.
   One solution, suggested by Petley, is to encourage a British version of the EU scheme to enhance the distribution of low-budget films, or a quota for independent distribution and exhibition along the lines of the 25 percent ruling that was imposed on British television. Another, stemming from the Middleton Report and now in place through National Lottery funding, provides for a dis-tribution-led studio approach towards a major film making and distribution company. The ultimate aim is for commercially viable films on which studios retain rights, thus enabling future productions.
   Whether such approaches will succeed is difficult to judge. The underlying problems seem to be the increasingly volatile, risky nature of distribution, being heavily dependent on the success or failure of particular films. This makes distributors prefer to see the finished film before putting up any money, so that in abstaining from risk investment they ensure that British films remain small. In 1994, 46 percent of UK films had still not been released one year later, and the majority had poor box office receipts. In 1995, British films accounted for around 4 percent of the market share, compared to 2 percent for foreign language films. In 1996, over 120 British films were produced, yet just over 50 were released. Another problem is summed up by the fact that while the multiple Oscar-winner The English Patient (1997) was supposedly a British film, with an independent producer, the enormous box office takings still flowed to the USA.
   The BFI Handbook’s Centenary Film Section pointed out that the British watched more than thirty films each in 1946 (when cinema was more popular in Britain than anywhere else in the world). Today the average person watches two films a year in the cinema, two films a week on television, and one film every three weeks on video: a film habit of more than 120 films a year. It may also be encouraging that almost 15 percent of the television networks’ output in the UK is currently devoted to feature films. However, as interactions inevitably increase with the audio-visual industry, where film distribution is subject to wider media strategies of multinational companies, it is increasingly important for British film to concentrate on the development of property rights and distributive rights at the earliest possible stage.
   See also: BFI; cinemas
   Further reading
    British Film Institute (1997) BFI Film and Television Handbook 1997, London: British Film Institute.
    Hill, J. (1992) ‘The Issue of National Cinema and British Film Production’, in D.Petrie (ed.), New Questions of British Cinema, London: British Film Institute.
    Jarvie, I. (1992) Hollywood’s Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920-1950, London: Cambridge University Press.
    Petley, J. (1992) ‘Independent Distribution in the UK: Problems and Proposals’, in D.Petrie (ed.), New Questions of British Cinema, London: British Film Institute.
   ARTHUR McCULLOUGH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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