Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Naive Open letter to Cinema Theatres

Dear Cinema Owners:  

Over the last weekend I went to see two very different films in two very different cinemas. Both the type of films and the cinemas they were shown in attracted a completely different kind of crowd and yet the experience on both cinemas was appalling. This was the last drop of fuel in a fire that started when I first saw the Odeon's commercial for their Lounge Cinema and brought me to write this open plea to the powers that be of cinema exhibitors.

I used to have a dream to open my own cinema, where people will have to deposit their phones into a secure place before going into the screen to watch a film, where staff members enjoy working in because they care about films and not only will they keep an eye for interruptions during the films, but will also encourage the audience to cheer, clap or sing along with any film that made you want to do it. A cinema in which watching a film would be different.

Working at a cinema as a staff member and later a manager was a bit like a slap on the face which woke me up to the harsh reality of not just opening cinema, but trying to keep it alive. Even if I did ever manage to get my hands on the huge fortune that getting a premise would require, I would still have to fight an already losing battle  against the distribution companies, who are, let’s face it, the bullies of the film industry. 

The sad truth of cinema theatres nowadays, yes even the evil corporate chain ones, is that for a long time films are not what makes money for them and with the number of cinema goers constantly dropping, it is no wonder that cinemas are finding it hard to stay open, let along invest in the film experience.

I wrote before that unfortunately the government and/or the bodies who fund the UK film industry give very little if any thought for the exhibitors' side of the industry and it is up to them to come up with ways to make enough money to stay in the business. This is why the prices of snacks in cinemas is so ridiculous and why they keep trying to come up with new and “exciting” ways, one of the recent ones is the Lounge Cinema, to bring people to the cinema and spend money on more than the film.

Though sober now from silly little dreams and realising that not everything that cinema theatres are often accused of is necessarily their fault, I still can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way cinemas have lost sight of what really matters when it comes to watching a film at the cinema and with that lost their audiences and I believe, their chance to make better profit.

Everything that cinema theatres have come up with to try and keep people coming is either the kind of technology that can and has been transferred into home entertainment: surround sound, digital and HD of all kinds, 3D (peh, we shall speak no more of this evil) and even a big size screen, or, like the Lounge cinema, tries to make you feel at home by convincing you to pay extra money to seat comfortably, eat and drink while watching a film, something I personally have perfected for less money and higher quality at my own home.

Well, dear cinema owners, I have news for you, these are not the things that make the cinema experience unique and special and it may bring the audiences for a short term, but probably won't bring them back. It is the togetherness, the collective laughs, cries, gasps and the ooooohhhhhsss and ahhhhhhhhsss that makes the cinema experience a unique one and one which home entertainment, sophisticated as it may be, can't replicate. Moreover, investing in the audience, rather than the technology, the special chairs and the extra food, will cost less for cinemas.

True, after spending the weekend watching one film in which the woman sat next to me wouldn’t stop chatting like an idiot to her friend, and in another the person on the row in front of me blinded me throughout the film by playing with their phone every other minute, one would be inclined to lose faith and abandon this whole togetherness notion, but to be honest I can’t really point the finger at these people, because if a cinema theatre doesn’t care enough about the film to have someone insuring this kind of things don't happen, or as I have learned recently, to actually have a projectionist projecting the film, why would anybody else show any kind of respect for the film and the cinema it is showing in?

Apart from its magnificently huge screen and quality of projection, what sets the BFI IMAX apart and for me above other cinemas, is the respect it has for the films it shows, good or bad. This is why I and I know many like me, would pay the extra money to watch even a non IMAX film at the BFI IMAX. Unfortunately the BFI IMAX does not offer 2D screenings for 3D films, but I have been known to surrender and compromise on that issue simply because the cinema experience was still worth it, in most cases.

A staff member would come up and present the film before it starts, also asking people to turn off their phones and give safety instructions, often they receive cheers and claps, going to the bathroom in the middle of the film is done through the back door, so as to not cross the screen and interfere with the film, late comers are also admitted through the back door (if it was my cinema there will be no admission at all for late comers) and often the BFI IMAX cinema celebrates films with special screenings and allnighters for which people come dressed up and full of cheers.

In the many times I have been to the BFI IMAX people got involved with the film, cheering, laughing getting excited and not once have I ever been interrupted by the light or sound of a mobile phone or the mindless chatter. It just doesn't happen there, not necessarily because of the size of the screen, because the BFI IMAX[1] puts the cinema experience first. And no matter how bad the film can be (cough, Avatar, cough) or how addicted people can be to their phones, when a cinema shows that kind of respect to the viewing experience the audience is captured and has no choice but to let go of everything else and let the films work their magic (or not. Cough, Avatar, cough. Must do something about this cough).  

I may be one naive little girl who has watched Cinema Pardiso one too many times, but I still, despite of everything, love cinemas with all my heart and I think more people should watch more films at the cinema and I want cinema theatres to continue to exist and flourish. Since it is unlikely that I will be able to open my dream cinema all I can do, at least for the time being, is write and plead and perhaps foolishly hope to convince the powers that be of the films' exhibitors that the love of film is infectious and is the key to a successful cinema theatre and before the next chain opens a cinema where you can rent a bed to watch a film from, perhaps someone somewhere will remember how wonderful cinema can be when it's not trying to pretend it's your home. 

Faithfully yours, with love





[1] This is specifically the BFI IMAX experience and is different to all other IMAX cinemas.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Hobbit, The Rings and Other Animals

I now have had time to calm down and let my rage about one of the most pointless and appalling 3D displays I have come across in a long time, die out, I think I can have a go at trying to share my thoughts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, without letting the above mentioned cloud my judgement too much.

I think I was probably slightly more disappointed with The Hobbit than I should have, because I really wanted this film to be wonderful. Everything building up to it looked so promising: the trailer looked fantastic, brilliant cast and a much needed sense of humour that was missing for the Lord of the Ring trilogy, I had good reasons to look forward to the kind of great film I know Peter Jackson is capable of making, which is why I broke my 3D rule and gave in to it thinking the film would be good enough for me not to care about it so much. Alas that wasn’t to be and for days I could think of nothing else regarding The Hobbit, but that shambolic 3D and no 48fps would make it any better. 

I was never a great fan of the Lord of the Ring trilogy. Though I did like the books slightly better than the films, I was never really into them quite as much, even less so with the films. Everyone told me I don’t know what I’m talking about and that apart from visually stunning the films are wonderful and magical and I don’t know what I’m talking about. The Hobbit’s trailer thrilled me so much more than any of the films did and I actually thought I should give The Ring trilogy another go. I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves and commenced the project of re-watching the trilogy in preparation for The Hobbit.

I am sorry to say I only barely survived the two films and have not yet managed to bring myself to watch the third. Not only have I not changed my mind about this trilogy, but the more I think about it the more annoyed I get with it and if I think a bit longer than I even get angry.

Thanks to the Lord of the Ring trilogy we have all discovered by how beautiful and wonderful New Zealand is (personally I find Flight of the Conchords a much bigger Kiwi attraction and a better publicity for NZ, but that's me). I could never understand this amazement of scenery in films. Call me crazy, but foolishly, when it comes to fiction films, I’d like the scenery to play a part in the film, other than the characters just walking through them. Surely if basking at the views is what rocks your boat, it'll be so much better to travel, or for a cheaper alternative watch a National Geographic film shot in NZ, why bother with all this story telling and character nonsense? 

One of the most wonderful uses of scenery and landscape in a film I have recently seen was in Lawrence of Arabia. I was bit worried about watching a four hours film set in the desert, I come from the desert I don’t necessarily relish the thought of looking at it for four hours. I was wrong. Every landscape shot of Lawrence of Arabia plays a part in the story: the burning son plays a major role in increasing suspense and tension, the wilderness, the neverending sands and its presence everywhere all contribute not just to the story and the general feel that there is no escaping or hiding from it, but also to the building and development of Lawrence's character. I can go on, but I think one has to see it to understand.

Another example is the latest Bond film, Skyfall, every location James Bond goes to is so vividly present in the film and is used to its full potential. Every country has its own nature and vibe to the point that even when it is an interior scene in Shanghai or in London, one gets the feeling it could never have been shot in any interior anywhere else in the world.

The Lord of the Ring trilogy, and for that matter The Hobbit as well, never once made me feel that there is any significance to the scenery other than to show the characters walking through it, which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the inflation of landscape shots in these films in comparison to other films of this kind. This journey could have just as easily been made out of some of the rural parts of Europe (I don’t see why Middle Earth couldn’t have been made out of the Tiroll parts of the Alps for example or Nottingham forest even), America or South America or anywhere with mountains and forests, and it would have been just as stunning on camera, believe me. It just happens to be that Peter Jackson was born in New Zealand and either he was feeling patriotic or it was the simplest of solutions The point is, if you’re going to make a trilogy made out of three hours film for each of its parts, and make at least 50% of it if not more landscape shot, maybe you should consider making the landscape work for the story and not just for the country that funds your film.  

The second major problem of the Lord of the Ring trilogy is that it simply did not keep me interested for the length of each film, there is hardly any interesting development, the lead character and the actor that plays him are so vanilla that it makes me want to give up desert altogether and the dialogues are bland and tiresome. Nothing in these films justifies their length and I often found myself losing concentration and doing maths in my head to keep myself from complete numbness and boredom. 

At first I thought that maybe the problem is with me, that I have grown to old, too impatient and I get easily distracted. Am I really incapable of maintaining concentration for that long? Is my commitment to films so fragile? I don’t think so. Once again I remember Lawrence of Arabia that kept me so engaged and mesmerised that the interval took me by surprise. The fact that I gave two out of the three Lord of the Ring films a second chance and watched them in full despite my previous aversion to it, which meant I spent 15 hours on that trilogy, was my final proof that my commitment to films is pure and it is the films that didn’t work for me and not me for the films. Unfortunately very little has changed when it came to The Hobbit and I found myself watching Lord of the Ring 4. 

Despite its title the film is not really the Hobbit’s story, in fact it’s everybody else’s story in which Bilbo Baggins, who is suppose to be the main character, is only a side kick to. 

Martin Freeman is one of my favourite actors, even though I'm probably the only person alive that while liking The Office, didn’t really like Freeman’s character in it, Tim, I knew, however that he is one hell of a talent. Needless to say he is probably the best Doctor Watson I have had the pleasure of watching, but even in small role like in Love Actually or a silly film like Nativity, Freeman leaves his mark and is a good enough reason to watch and he gives excellent performances. 

In The Hobbit, sadly, Freeman just falls into his usual tricks and much like Hugh Grant and Ron Atkinson create a clich├ęd and chewed up character the Americans like rather than show his true talent, and while Freeman does it with much grace and is still lovely, it is to me a waste and contributes to his blending into the background amongst the array of talents and characters around him. Shame.

Many things that would normally win me over, like the dwarves singing (I'm a sucker for musicals and musical moments in films) and the whole scene with the dwarves at Bilbo's house, for some reason annoyed me. They felt forced and unnatural to the film, as if Jackson is trying to score points with as wide an audience as he possibly can. Sorry Jackson, just because it worked for Indiana Jones doesn't mean it will always work, not everyone is Steven Spielberg.

Not everything is bad in The Hobbit, there are some excellent scenes and a wonderful array of characters, namely Sylvester McCoy’s Radgast, the magician who has a questionable relationship with animals, Barry Humphries’ Great Goblin (though we all know David Bowie is the true Goblin king) and of course the master of all things CGI, Andy Serkis’ Gollum, who has reached new levels of awesomeness in this film. Sadly, it takes a lot of excruciatingly long nothing in between to get to those moment and the result feels more like some sketches roughly patched together with, oh what a shock, it's New Zealand's scenery again, than a cohesive film.

Upon reflecting the issue a bit further, it had occurred to me that I may have an issue with fantasy films. I cast my thoughts and tried to remember all kinds of fantasy films and wondered could it be that I don’t like fantasy films? Then I remembered that Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Fantasia and many of the great Disney films as well as many sci fi and adventure films are amongst my favourite. I have noticed, however, that I am not amongst the Harry Potter films fan, The Neverending Story is considered the worst crime against a book ever in my eyes, I’d probably prefer spending a day watching a wall without even paint drying on it than watch or read any of the Twilight series and as you may have figure out by now, I am not amongst the Lord of the Ring trilogy fans.

It seems to me that when it comes to fantasy in films I prefer it to be an original script, or if it has to be a book adaptation, like many of the Disney films, it has to be so unique and wonderful that it will make me forget there was a book. 

The thing about fantasy books is that they create things and places that don’t exist in reality and so free your mind to imagine them as wish. Films on the other hand chain the fantasy to a certain reality, which as beautiful as New Zealand may be, it will never come close to how I imagined Middle Earth when I first read it. Admittedly it was much more upsetting for me to have two wonderful and complex kids like Bastian and Ateryu from The Neverending Story reduced to a cute well behaved Hollywood style kids as they were in the film, than to have New Zealand made into Middle Earth.

It really saddens me to think that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first part of yet another trilogy, made of a story that never merited one (all those lost parts you found Peter Jackson, I think there was a reason why they were lost). When considering the shoddy 3D, and no I’m not impressed with 48fps solution, I can’t help but wonder if now that George Lucas is nursing his midlife crisis (yes I know he’s long past the age, but that says something don’t you think?) is Peter Jackson the next to take his place in milking that cash cow until her udders shrivel and fall, then chew it a bit longer and spit it out in our faces until we are all smothered by Hobbits, Elves, dwarves and Gandalfs?