An open letter to The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP

Dear Dr Cable,

I am writing to you as a concerned Huntingdon constituent with regard to the recent decision by the Competition Commission to enforce the sale of one of Cambridge’s cinemas owned by the Cineworld chain: either its main multiplex or the Arts Picturehouse, which it acquired when Cineworld purchased the owners of the Picturehouse group, City Screen Ltd, last year.

No decision has yet been taken by Cineworld as to which cinema it will divest, but the likelihood is that the Picturehouse will be the one sold off, given its smaller profit margins and (thanks to its central location) higher running costs. In Aberdeen and Bury St Edmunds, the other two cities that have been forced to sell either a Cineworld or Picturehouse cinema, Cineworld have already chosen the Picturehouse as the one to be sold. It is therefore urgent that the case be made for reviewing the Competition Commission’s final decision, which I and many other cinema-goers believe to be fundamentally flawed (the well-publicised petition to save the three Picturehouses was signed by over 14,000 people – http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/competition-commission-stop-the-enforced-sale-of-three-picturehouse-cinemas).

Though Cambridge is outside Huntingdon’s constituency boundaries, the potential sale of the Arts Picturehouse will be keenly felt by those of us who live across the region. Huntingdon has a Cineworld multiplex of its own, but there is no nearby alternative to the Picturehouse. Contrary to the Commission’s ill-informed findings, the Arts Picturehouse offers a distinctly different programme and experience from major multiplexes like Cineworld or Odeon.

For cinema-goers keen to look beyond standard Hollywood blockbuster fare to more artistically daring films from Britain or abroad, or just any film that isn’t backed by a gargantuan marketing campaign, the Arts Picturehouse represents the only local venue to find such content. Rising cinema talent need opportunities to have their films shown to the public, and cinemas like the Arts Picturehouse are often the only outlet willing to take that chance. Likewise, films with more limited appeal, such as that from overseas or the BFI’s archives, would struggle to find an audience without the backing of a substantial group of cinemas that have the expertise and savvy to invest in them.

The Picturehouse chain makes use of a diverse programme of films, some of which do admittedly overlap with Cineworld, to run a profitable business. But the Commission have failed to take in to account the fact that far less profitable films are only shown at Picturehouse cinemas, many of which might never have otherwise been screened. Indeed, cinema-goers would have to travel to London to see the kind of films shown at the Arts Picturehouse if it were to be replaced by a standard multiplex.

The type of films physically capable of being shown at the Arts Picturehouse also distinguishes it from the Cineworld. The ability to project 70mm films is now limited to a tiny number of cinemas across the UK, and Cambridgeshire should be proud that we have one such venue. There is no guarantee the technical setup would be retained under new management.

The Picturehouse experience is very different from a customer perspective too. The atmosphere and surroundings are much more appealing to an older audience than that of a Cineworld: less brash, more inviting and relaxed. The bar is excellent and the staff are always friendly and helpful. Alcoholic drinks purchased at the bar can be taken in to screens. Special screenings, for over-60s or parents with babies for example, cater for groups often excluded from the usual cinema experience. Local cultural events are often promoted inside, and there are active links with local businesses.

The Arts Picturehouse also provides support for local ventures such as the Cambridge Film Trust, which runs the annual Cambridge Film Festival – one of the highlights of the region’s cultural calendar – and the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium, which runs educational activities related to film. There is no provision for these activities being safeguarded or continued in the event of the Arts Picturehouse being sold off.

The film industry itself has rallied support for the affected cinemas. Letters from Lord Puttnam and Amanda Nevill, Chief Executive of the BFI, to the Competition Commission attest to the damage that the sale of the Picturehouse cinemas will do to their respective localities. The BFI in particular single out the Arts Picturehouse as

“an exemplary regional ‘arthouse’ cinema. It is host to a well respected annual film festival, carries out strong educational work and is one of a handful of venues in the UK with the facility to show 70mm film.”

It is clear to me that the Arts Picturehouse is a pillar of the region’s cultural and economic activities. Without it, the city of Cambridge and the surrounding area will be materially worse off. I would urge you in your capacity as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to determine what action can be taken to overturn or review the Commission’s findings, with a view to finding a way forward that doesn’t compromise the quality of life for Cambridgeshire’s residents or risk one of the area’s major cultural providers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your response.

Yours sincerely,

Gavin Midgley

Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Round-up

Cambridge Film FestivalIt’s astonishingly late, but at last here’s a round-up of my reviews for TAKE ONE from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival. There was, as ever, a fine selection of films and special guests; when there are several movies you want to see all being shown at exactly the same time, then you know it’s going well. Two of the reviews below are actually of my favourite films in the whole line-up: the re-release of NOTHING BUT A MAN and the Middle Eastern western MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, and I was chuffed to be able to introduce the latter. Neil Brand’s two appearances – brilliantly accompanying the restored print of NOSFERATU and his NOT SO SILENT MOVIES family show – were also a highlight. The bar was always humming with activity and chatter, and the staff and volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly (not always easy when the inevitable last minute hiccups pop up). Not even the stinking cold I caught at the midway point could keep me away.

A pity then, that the excitement and atmosphere was somewhat dampened by the unsettling prospect of a death sentence being handed to the Arts Picturehouse by the Competition Commission, in its inexplicable bid to wreck one of Cambridge’s cultural pillars. We’ve yet to learn which of its cinemas Cineworld will sell in Cambridge, but the signs aren’t promising: the Picturehouses in both Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen have already been given their marching orders, and Cineworld don’t appear to be interested in appealing the Commission’s decision. So what becomes of the Festival next year is anybody’s guess.

Press pass

However, that didn’t stop Tony Jones and his seemingly tireless team from putting on a great show. All sort of new discoveries, old faithful friends and other intriguing oddities were given the big screen treatment. If this does prove to be the last festival in its current form, then at least it bowed out with grace and pride intact. Well done to all.

So here are my reviews:

My Sweet Pepper Land
A satisfying blend of Middle Eastern drama and spaghetti western homage, MY SWEET PEPPER LAND is a flavoursome brew to savour. Director Hiner Saleem (himself a Kurd) has created, in some ways, a rather old-fashioned drama which frequently raises the expectation of violence in one form or another, but mostly backs away from the bloody retribution normally associated with the genre. The result is a film where tensions remain bottled and passions are kept in check, with the outcome feeling slightly unsatisfying as a consequence.

My Beautiful Country
A new spin on the old biblical story of The Good Samaritan, MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY delicately explores a tentative romance between a young Serbian widow and a wounded Albanian soldier against the backdrop of the 1999 Kosovo War. Whilst there may not be anything dramtically fresh or new in Michaela Kezele’s film, it does wield plenty of emotional heft in its focus on a forbidden romance and the unforeseen consequences of helping someone who has suddenly become the enemy. It also attempts to raise awareness (none too subtly) of the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO in the conflict, through a sub-plot centred on children’s wartime experiences.

Machete Kills
Danny Trejo’s indestructible federale returns in this amusing if nonsensical sequel to the original 2010 grindhouse-inspired parody. Changing tack from the down-and-dirty revenge movies that drove the earlier plot, the inspiration this time around is late 70s/early 80s action films; and director Robert Rodriguez takes his cue from Roger Moore’s Bond era, when gadgets and fantastical action came to the fore. This entry is basically Rodriguez reconfiguring his family SPY KIDS movies for adults, adding lashings of violence and saucy humour to the mix.

Nothing But A Man
A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.

Google and the World Brain
Just how much intellectual property should be placed in the hands of a single entity? And who exactly should profit from it? It’s a moral dilemma that Ben Lewis’ compelling documentary attempts to pick apart through an investigation of Google’s digital books project. Inevitably it fails to explore the issue in as much depth as the subject truly deserves, but given the importance of the debate, Lewis should be applauded for getting it this far into the public eye. After all, the decisions being made now about how far one company can go in publishing any book it chooses may have far-reaching consequences for us all.

Hawking
What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.

In the name of sanity, save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

Cambridge Arts PicturehouseI’ve been tweeting like mad the past few days about the campaign to save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse from sale or closure. This monumentally stupid predicament has been forced upon it by the UK Competition Commission who, in a fit of extreme diligence, have decided that having two cinemas with differing aims and audiences but owned by the same business in the same city is a social evil that must be prevented at all costs.

In fact, in their provisional findings, the Commission have recommended that either the Picturehouse or the Cineworld in Cambridge must be disposed of by parent company Cineworld Plc. Given that the Picturehouse, with its more adventurous programming and smaller number of screens, is surely the less profitable, it would seem likely that it is the one in imminent danger of eviction, which would be a huge loss to Cambridge as a city, not just its loyal customer base.

A coalition of local writers and cinema-goers have urged the Commission to think again. In a press release, we have set out the reasons why their findings are fundamentally flawed:

  • The Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas have strikingly different programmes and settings, making them very different propositions with only minor audience overlap (which was the reason cited by Cineworld for purchasing the Picturehouse chain in the first place)
  • The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse is home to an array of in-house skills and screen technology (like the much-valued ability to run 70mm screenings), the likes of which are almost impossible to access outside of London
  • The Arts Picturehouse hosts renowned events like the Cambridge Film Festival, is the base for long-term community projects like the Cambridge Film Consortium, and stages other cultural events such as exhibitions, school activities and film education
  • There are many audience members who, if deprived of the quieter ambience of the Picturehouses under threat, would simply stop going to the cinema altogether – this is especially true of older audience members
  • Local independent competition still exists in the form of the VUE cinema in Cambridge’s The Grafton shopping centre
  • The social atmosphere engendered at all three Picturehouses under threat, from the welcoming and knowledgeable staff to the variety of food and drink available in the bar, is one that would irrevocably disappear under new management

Please sign the petition to indicate your support for a cinema that deserves to be protected, not sold off. And by all means write to the Competition Commission too.

Thanks for reading. You can find further coverage on TAKE ONE, the official organ (as they used to say) of the Cambridge Film Festival, which may well find itself homeless this time next year as a result, and The Movie Evangelist, who has done sterling work in breaking down the report and revealing it to be useless bilge.

We can only hope that common sense prevails. Whichever cinema it loses, Cambridge will be worse off. Consumers are the only losers here. Let’s make the Commission see that.

Cineworld-Picturehouse vs. the Competition Commission

On TAKE ONE’s website, I argue the case for why Cineworld’s buyout of the Picturehouse chain might be a good thing:

Now that Cineworld’s purchase of the Picturehouse chain has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading, we all have an opportunity to have our say on an issue with the potential to affect filmgoers up and down the country. Initial fears from Picturehouse customers (us among them) that their cinema-going experience was about to be compromised, or worse, removed altogether in a round of “cost-savings” and “streamlining”, have so far proved to be unfounded. It has been, as promised, business as usual. Assurances from Cineworld that Picturehouse Cinemas would be run as an entirely separate business unit under their corporate umbrella, and that their independence would be maintained, appear to be true, though admittedly it is still early days.

Full article: Cineworld-Picturehouse vs. the Competition Commission | TakeOneCFF.com