Sunday, 10 June 2012

Dear Mark Kermode,

My dear friend and occasional contributor to this blog, Simon Overton, has read Mark Kermode's latest book and wrote this open letter to him. While I have my reservations of Kermode and haven't read the book myself, I still, as always, had a lot to say. So this is a part letter a part theoretical discussion between Simon, myself and hypothetically Mark Kermode. To distinguished mine and Simon's thoughts I use colour (I'm in Gray) and different fonts (I'm Times New Roman). You are welcome to join in on this discussion or leave us be.

Dear Mark Kermode,

I've just read your book, "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies?", and wanted to give you my thoughts on your thoughts, chapter by chapter. I am a BA Film Studies graduate and I have worked in a cinema. I have written a lot, and I hope you will find time to read it.

Chapter One - Why you got the service you did, and why it's not like that in
Hong Kong

For many years after completing my film degree I worked in the kind of jobs you describe. In a way, you can't blame the staff for being moronic and adversarial. The job does that to people. Furthermore, there is a culture in the service industry of working at a minimum staffing level at all times (or even, just below the minimum). This means that staff get sent home (and their wages docked) and those that remain have to do the work of 1.5 or 2 people. This is probably the reason why the cashier was (a) visibly pissed off, (b) trying, and failing, to serve way too many people and (c) not caring about either (a) or (b).

I worked in Muswell Hill Odeon (just down the road from the
Phoenix, in fact) and I had this experience. When I was new to the job and desperately poor I was always sent home as soon as the manager thought it was just barely possible (and legal - fire regulations and all that) to do so. This was infuriating as I was struggling to pay my rent. Then, when I knew the ropes this changed and I frequently worked 10 hour shifts there, sometimes longer, doing the work of two or more people. We had to sell tickets, clean and open up screens and keep an eye out for little swines letting their friends in the fire exits with just a single cashier and a single usher for the whole cinema (and sometimes just one person, if the other was on a break). All this just to save a bit on staff wages.

I live in
Hong Kong now and things are different. Asia is more customer service oriented generally. At the cinema there are always at least two ushers per screen and plenty of staff selling tickets and popcorn (and I'm sorry, as much as I agree with you on many things, popcorn is one of the pleasures of going to the cinema, just as hearing music is a pleasure of eating in a restaurant, and drinking alcohol is a pleasure of seeing live music). What this tells me is that it *is* possible to have a properly staffed cinema with average ticket prices and still make a profit (and the overheads in Hong Kong, where retail space is very expensive, must be at least as big, if not bigger than in England). Any cinema chain that says otherwise is lying, and is exploiting their staff and customers.

English people don't complain enough. In HK, people would boycott a cinema that didn't have such basic levels of service as short queues and friendly staff (who are tri-lingual), and rightly so. I think diminished expectations extend beyond the content of the film and go right out into the auditorium and into the lobby.

(I would also point out that in HK adverts, trailers and notices last for a maximum of about 5 minutes before a film, again proving that things can be done differently without adversely affecting profits - mind you, I'm more scared of missing the beginning of a film in HK than I ever was in the

Hi Mark. I’m Aya, a friend of Simon and also a former employer of Odeon cinemas. I also worked as a camera assistant and have a BA in films and TV. I currently write, a lot. I haven’t read your book and wasn’t going to say anything, but here I feel I must. (It’ll probably happen more often than not). 

Unlike Simon I continued to become a supervisor at Odeon Leicester Square and a manager at the Odeon Covent Garden and I have discovered several things that I think many people either don’t know or choose to ignore, but has a significant input on why things are the way they are within the film exhibitors side of this industry. 

What a lot of people don’t realise, and I can’t say I blame them, is how little the profit is that cinemas actually make out of tickets sale. Cinemas that are not funded by charities or the government are basically slaves to the film distribution companies, who, as I found out, are this industry’s bully.

Even with a smash hit film that breaks records, the income for cinemas out of ticket sales is almost non existent. Most of the profit from ticket sales is divided so production earns most of the money, of course, and whatever % is left is divided between distribution and the cinemas. Only the distribution companies hold all the cards and negotiate impossible conditions and take most of the money. The bigger the film the less a cinema will see of its profit. While filmmakers get funded by the government and/or special funds to make a film and then go one to make a profit or loss from the finished film, most cinemas, those who are not BFI or Phoenix, have to find more creative way to make money, which is why the retail prices, for example, are so high.

Moreover, the negotiations with distribution companies don’t stop at money. They can and do dictate what film will go in what cinema, what screen inside the cinema and how long for. I have worked in Odeon Leicester Square when we showed The Village to an empty 2000 seat auditorium for months, because the same distribution company holds Harry Potter for ransom. All these months of empty screen are time in which the cinema doesn’t earn any money, but often loses it. 

There is a very low if any part of the overall UK film budget that is dedicated to developing cinemas. More importantly, there is no kind of legislation to put distribution companies under control. 

Taking all this into account and the fact that a cinema manager at the Odeon earns less than a £1 an hour more than a member of staff at the BFI for example, working at a cinema becomes, sadly, not very different than working at McDonalds, and I've never met a happy McDonalds employee. It's not suppose to be like this, but it is and the sad truth is that cinemas are not a way for people to make money. Franchises, like Odeon, are taken over by companies who use it either because they can, the owner of Terra Firma the real estate agent company that took over Odeon, likes films or because it's good to invest in for tax purposes. Cinema is the last thing that interests them, because they need to be event cinemas like the Odeon Leicester Square to actually make profit, and many smaller Odeon that weren't listed buildings were demolished and/or converted when Terra Firma first took over. 

I don’t know what the situation is in Asia, Simon, but I don’t think many cinema goers, even the precious one like us, really know the full situation. I wrote about this in this blog before.

I had a dream once to open my own cinema, which would have been my kind of cinema I would want to go to. This is why I started working in a cinema in the first place. However, realising just how little control the cinemas actually have over their own establishment, I have pushed this dream to the back burner.

Chapter Two - I agree with you

Yes, it is baffling why bad films get made. OK, we can't all be Christopher Nolan with a brother like Jonathan Nolan churning out excellent scripts all the time. But films could at least be coherent and have some basic respect for story-telling. I imagine that the problem is micro-management: producers trying to justify their existence by tampering with things unnecessarily.

I am not sure what this section is about. I’m not sure who and how should a good or bad film can be evaluated. I think that as someone whose job is to review/critique films and as a result get to watch all of them for free, there isn't much you could or should do about it. 

I don’t think everyone should make films and I have worked in too many films who couldn’t get the money to make the film and ended up mortgaging producers and directors houses in order to complete. I think it's wrong and if you haven’t raised the money there is a reason for it. However, if they do, let them. There are other kind of bad films, made by big production companies, and those are made because they have an audience. It might not be you, me or Simon, but it exists. I as a viewer, don’t have to watch them. You as a reviewer do, it’s your job! Stop complaining. I hardly think too many bad film made is a genuine problem of the film industry and find it hard to relate to.

Chapter Three - Why depth of field proves that 3D is incompatable with the medium of cinema

What for me you didn't quite nail in this chapter was that 3D is a different pleasure from cinema. It is a pleasure more associated with, as you mentioned, computer games (ie: interactive entertainment), where having direct control over your surroundings is what makes the experience immersive, and therefore having a sense of distance would be an enhancement of the game. Significantly also, in computer games there is no depth of field, or rather depth of field is unlimited, so the alien standing right in front of you is as sharply in focus as the one on the far side of the moonscape. The computer doesn't know which one you're going to shoot at next, so they both have to be in focus. So, with infinite depth of field (as in a computer game) where everything is in focus, the appearance of distance might be quite nice (personally I'm in no rush to buy a 3D TV, but I can imagine many would enjoy that). With cinema, however, there *is* depth of field and it's an important part of the cinematographer's (and director's) palette. It's what draws your attention to... whatever it is you're supposed to be looking at for the purposes of telling the story, which (unlike a computer game) you cannot choose for yourself but that you have entrusted to the director to chose for you (therefore, a pleasure unique to cinema).

I like looking around the frame when I watch a film - to capture all the details and sometimes to spot boom mikes and other gaffs. I have found that trying to do this in a 3D film is quite a painful experience (I found this during Avatar, actually, not even a retro-fitted 3D film). Your eyes want to focus on something in the background but can't. I find it tiring - physically tiring - to keep staring at the point of focus. Strictly speaking, depth of field should be eliminated from 3D films so that they are properly 3D (like a hologram) and your eyes can rove around wherever they want. But removing that element of story-telling is changing the pleasure of cinema. The next logical step would be to allow audiences to choose what happens in the film (you hinted at this with the red-eye blue-eye alternate ending of... whatever film it was).

As it is, you're forced to look at the point of focus *only*. I've found that the point of focus can be viewed without the 3D glasses, so I will often just take them off when I get a headache. Unfortunately, HK people like a gimmick, so 3D is quite popular over here. So, let's imagine that 3D films become properly 3D and you can look anywhere in the frame you want. What then of cinema? That wouldn't be cinema, it would be more a hologram show or something. Removing depth of field would be like removing characters or locations or sound or music. It would be a pleasure, for sure, but a different pleasure.

As it happens, I don't even think surround sound necessarily enhances the pleasure of cinema. I think 2.0 stereo is fine for all films, and many films would be fine in mono. Often it irritates me to hear a surround sound artist struggle to make a car sound appear behind the audience, and then switch it to screen left as the shot cuts and the position of the car shifts. Many
DVD re-releases of pre-surround sound films suffer greatly from this (just as many great albums suffer from shonky stereo work on CD re-releases - but thank God for Dylan and the Beatles leading the way back to good old mono in recent times).

Not a lot for me to say. With the exception of Hugo, which is a one of a kind event, I think 3D is the root of all evil.

Chapter Four - I agree with you, again

I don't have much to say here except that, when I read some reviews of Avatar (which I didn't like very much), many people gave it ten stars while conceding that the story was a bit naff. 10 stars and it still has problems? Surely 9 stars, then, or 8? I think you're quite right to not give star ratings for films - they are entirely meaningless.

Here is my review of Avatar, which include my hatred towards 3D. 

Chapter Five/Six - Why, with film distribution, the micro is as important as the macro

I think a major problem that you touched on, but could have developed more, is distribution. And I mean on a cinema-by-cinema scale. When I was working at the Odeon in Muswell Hill, I suggested to the manager that people in the area might be interested in the film 2046 (Wong Kar Wai's film). OK, I mostly said this because I really wanted to see it for free (and I wanted to nab the lobby poster), but still. The manager told me this was impossible and then explained why. Distributors distribute multiple films during any one deal with a cinema. It might go something like, "We'll let you have Harry Potter, but only if you take New Years Eve, Sex Lives of the Potato Men and What To Expect When You're Expecting as well". Now, how can a cinema refuse a deal like that? They've
GOT to take Harry Potter because it will pay for most of the rest of the year's expenses by itself, but in doing so they are - unwittingly, perhaps - accepting all the other bilge too. (And then there are deals that are cut on ticket price percentages...)

Muswell Hill Odeon has a huge Screen 1 with balcony seating and two little screens downstairs (2 and 3). 2046 didn't even make it into the little screens. Instead, we got Scooby Doo 2 for two whole weeks in Screen 1 and nobody went to see it. The locals in Muswell Hill couldn't understand why the films they really wanted to see were being shown in little screens and were therefore sold out, and the biggest screen with the most seats was sitting empty.

I refer you to my first comment.

Chapter Six - Local films for local people, international films for National Geographic readers, and what's left

I don't completely agree with what seems to be your overall theme in this chapter, ie: that Hollywood blockbusters predominate and this is bad and more foreign films should be shown in UK and US cinemas. I think that American blockbusters fill a need - a need for American-style blockbusters - which is a very real need. The
US film companies have the money to make huge exciting films and that's fine. Nothing wrong with that. These days, China is trying to make its own huge big blockbusters (did you see Red Cliff?) and generally producing a load of expensive-looking crap. I think US-made blockbusters should be encouraged so that local film makers can concentrate on making local films, for local people.

Yes, this sounds a bit like The League of Gentlemen! But it rings true. Having lived much of the last 10 years outside of the
UK, I've experienced a lot of "local cinema". In general, it's pretty dull unless you are a local. And that's how it should be. I know you're a fan of HK cinema, but I suspect you've mostly seen the universally-appealing films like those of Johnnie To (the bullet ballets) and kung fu films. Here in Hong Kong there is a still quite active industry producing films that are chock full of Cantonese verbal gags, references to local celebrities and news figures and local customs that are at best incomprehensible to anyone other than local HK-Chinese, and at worst rather alienating (I doubt you've seen All's Well Ends Well 2012 or Summer Love Love, right?). I would not recommend these films for international distribution, but I'm glad that local film makers don't feel the need to make huge Sci-Fi epics all the time and can concentrate on providing this kind of film for local people.

But there are "international" films out there too, right? Yes, but I've fallen completely out of love with them. I went to see Maria Full of Grace a few years ago at the Curzon and that was the last nail in the coffin for me for this kind of film. I realised that these international films have their own tropes. Their own tropes? What's happened to the world when you can say that? The tropes are:
1) Non-professional actors
2) Wobbly "documentary-style" camera work
3) Very long takes
4) Realist narrative (often a quite miserable story)
5) A certain National Geographic view of the world, where rat-infested hovels are as aesthetically pleasing as beautiful landscapes (and plenty of both those things in the film too, please!)
6) A certain liberal left wing middle-class sensibility, like "this is the film we should be watching - let's go out and buy the Guardian and feel outraged about the injustice of the world while we eat falafel and drink South African chardonnay" - which I think objectifies and glamorises the issues that are presented, sort of the equivalent of going backpacking with a copy of Lonely Planet and an i-Pad.

China is getting in on this too (ever see Lost in Beijing?). These films are hugely popular at European film festivals, but don't seem to be watched much by locals. What do the local Chinese prefer? Blockbusters, of course. And quirky local films that make them feel GOOD. With these two types of international cinema in mind, it's hard to think of films that genuinely cross over from the local to the international. You mention Infernal Affairs, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino and a few others, and I can scarcely think of more.

Oh, and I've seen Il Mare and it is, like 50% of Korean films, a vomit-inducing slush fest of romantic sentimentality and soppy piano music (the other 50% is vomit-inducing flag-waving war propaganda).

Conclusions - More complaining is needed - The ticket price should include the whole experience

Overall, you're probably right that the best way to improve cinema is to patronise the right kind of cinemas and the right kind of films. I think also that people should complain more, a lot more. There should be website set up to name and shame specific screenings of specific films in specific cinemas. If the cinema companies realised that people were concerned with the entire night out at the cinema (everything from booking, to refreshments, to the screening and leaving the cinema), then perhaps they wouldn't lean so much on gimmicks like 3D to draw people in. 3D is arguably a means to separate the cinema experience from the TV experience, much as widescreen and surround sound both were (although I'm inclined to think that Hollywood doesn't really feel threatened by TV any more and just cares about maximising profit), but if that's true then a better way to go would be to make the entire experience memorable, with truly knowledgeable and caring staff (this would mean giving them the full wages they were expecting when they were given their schedules - not sending them home early - and letting them see all the films at their cinemas for free, all the way through - something which Odeon dropped while I was there), and generally improving the experience. Having adult-only showings to get rid of seat-kicking teenagers, etc. Bringing back cartoons or short films before films. I think that a lot of films are too long these days because people want to get their money's worth and for some reason feel cheated by shorter running times. Why not have short films shown after the main feature, if the main feature is less than two hours? That way people could get their money's worth (if they directly equate "time spent" with "money spent"), and just leave if they don't. What a great way to showcase new talent that would be! People could take a toilet break during the end credits.

You mention that music piracy actually reinvigorated the music industry. In
Korea, where there is a lot of film piracy, it worked for DVD sales too. All Korean DVDs are nicely packaged and loaded with extras - just as they should be. There are no vanilla DVDs in Korea. (Unfortunately, people in HK are famous for their miniscule attention spans, so all DVDs are vanilla over here, but there is a healthy rental market and we have the Film Archive and plenty of film festivals, so it kind of balances out). Again, piracy should lead the way for cinemas to up their game and provide a truly better experience for their patrons. Once the 3D bluray code has been cracked (maybe it already has), then they will have to think of another way to get people to pay to watch films.

I think the damage will be hard to reverse. Diminished expectations mean that people expect to see crap on the screen in a crap cinema with crap service, and they feel annoyed from the outset because of paying through the nose for all that crap. But British people never complain about things, so it just gets worse. A quick trip to almost any Asian country will show you that you don't have to accept crap from any retail company, and they can still turn a profit whilst providing good service. Mark, it's up to you to lead the way!

SCC Overton

PS from Aya: I just want to add, and I think Mark and I may disagree on this, but I think the cinema experience is not only the visual, audible, special effects one, but something more basic: the togetherness. You’ve mentioned Cinema Paradiso, one of my favourite films, and a film that shows going to the cinema as a social experience. No 3D, HD whatever D can compare with the fun of a full house watching The Muppets, laughing together, crying together and clapping enthusiastically together. Alternatively, I went to see Inception four times at the cinema and in four different cinemas, including the Wood Green Vue, which is renowned for its rough audience, and in all of them the tense silence and the collective gasp at the end was like no other experience, popcorn or not. This is also the only thing cinema can offer that home entertainment can't compete with, and shouldn't.

I also think it is wrong of us to expect everyone to be the same cinema goers as we are. A lot of people go to the cinema to just pass the time, get a laid or cause that’s what everyone else do, and they are not better or worse than us “film educated” snobs, and not everyone care that much, that is the honest truth. Yes there should be better cinemas, yes there is all sorts of change needed, but we should also know where the problems are and what causes them, and that very few people, even amongst those of us who care, are willing to bother with.

Most importantly, like the French film critics of the 50s, who didn’t like the French films of their time and decided to make their own, perhaps instead of complaining, like Simon suggests, offer an alternative: open the cinema you’d like to go to. That was my dream and to a certain extant it still is.     

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