The awards season may be over, but can I nominate Neil White for a gong anyway? He genuinely deserves one. After all, he’s the chap from Nottingham who watched all of the 600 or so films that were released into British cinemas last year — and then blogged about them at www.everyfilmin2011.com. You might question his sanity, but you cannot question his dedication: hours and hours spent in the dark of cinemas across the country, and then further hours translating his thoughts on to the internet. And now? He is repeating the process for the current year.
The rest of us would find it difficult to follow Mr White’s bleary-eyed example. After all, 600 films in a year equates to roughly 12 films a week, or nearly two films a day. Stir in the everyday commitments of a family and a job — as Mr White had to — and the feat is all the more impressive. As the man himself put it in a recent interview, ‘It’s my Everest.’
And this is the point: it really is an uphill slog to keep up with the films appearing on our screens each week. What’s more, the incline is gradually getting steeper. The number of films released last year for a week’s run or more in a cinema surpassed the 557 released during the year before that, which surpassed the 503 released the year before that. Only the Hollywood writers’ strike of 2008, and the downturn in film production that accompanied it, has managed to upset the recent trend towards more, more and more. Nowadays, some weeks feature as many as 15 to 20 new releases. Tuning into even a small portion of them requires shin-splintering effort.
This is not necessarily a complaint. Politically speaking, I am all for choice and diversity. Cinematically speaking, I and thousands of other film fans have benefited from this Age of Availability, during which there is always something on somewhere to excite your optic nerve. But it’s also true that this cascade of new films is changing how we view and appreciate films, and not always for the better. That thing they call ‘progress’ often comes with a price tag.
Take film critics. These are people with a preternatural ability to consume film after film, yet even they are reaching bursting point. ‘There are too many movies and not enough column inches,’ complains one in between screenings. ‘I don’t feel I can do my job properly. Unless it’s the main release of the week, a film is lucky to get a postage stamp’s worth of coverage. Some very good films are ignored this way.’
And if this sounds like ungrateful whining from someone who watches movies for a living, then consider what it means for filmmakers and viewers. A director and his team can put months, even years, of work into their film, only for its merits to be lost in the small print. A cinemagoer might have loved that film, and then spread the word, if only they had noticed it. This is, of course, particularly cruel on those smaller films released by smaller distributors. They were always going to struggle against the commercial muscle of the big studios, but now they face this other impediment too. It’s not so much a competitive market as a skewed one.
Then there are the cinemas themselves. It’s no surprise who prospers out of the multiplex that can show 15 films at once and the small local cinema that can show only one. The multiplex can screen the majority of any week’s releases, and attract diverse audiences as it does so. The small cinema, by contrast, is stuck with stark choices about which films to focus on and how much to charge for them. Many independent cinemas that might once have screened more specialist fare are now favouring the latest blockbusters for a very simple reason — that’s where the demand lies. And demand means money, which means a way to keep going. As one cinema programmer put it to me recently, ‘We have to show stuff like Avengers Assemble, often at the expense of smaller films, because we couldn’t stay afloat otherwise.’
And all this at a time when things are difficult enough for smaller cinemas. It’s not just the number of films, but also the nature of them: 3D and digitally-projected, which require the installation of expensive equipment. And while independent cinemas are slowly making progress on this front, it is still the natural preserve of the multiplexes. Anything that the former can do, the latter can do quicker, glitzier and more cost-effectively.
Intriguingly, there are signs that even Hollywood is catching on to the difficulties caused by the abundance of its own product. Earlier this year, the rules that determine whether a documentary can compete for an Oscar were changed so that only those that have been reviewed by the New York Times or the LA Times can be considered. This, it is hoped, will cut the number of contenders to about 60, which is half the number of documentaries that qualified last year. And that, in turn, will make it easier for the judges to grapple properly with all the films.
There are some potential problems with this plan, and they come down to this: the New York Times has a policy of reviewing every film that is screened theatrically, for at least one week, in New York. So if you want your documentary to be considered for an Oscar, then just occupy a one-week slot in a New York cinema. Oh, and don’t bother about the side effects, which would include more work for the Academy judges and a further lengthening of the release schedule. Indeed, some films use the same tactic even without the promise of awards consideration — by inserting themselves into a cinema for just one week, they avoid the unseemly fate of going ‘straight-to-video’.
The final truth is that nothing is likely to turn back the tide. Digital cameras and other techniques mean that films are, on the whole, easier and cheaper to make than in the past, and so they’re proliferating. The moneymen will have their own reasons for keeping the boom going, too. It’s choice! It’s change! It’s the future! As has been demonstrated across a hundred years of upheaval, cinema is very capable of surviving such developments. But spare a thought for those who may lose out. One day, the mountain might be too tall even for Neil White.