‘We’re excited’: arthouse hits draw young UK filmgoers to a summer of subtitles | Film

This time last summer, British cinemas were holding their collective breath, looking forward to the biggest box office weekend of the year. “Barbenheimer” came to the rescue, with the doubleheader of blockbusters jointly chalking up an initial total of £30m when released in mid-July.

This summer is a different story. There may be no lucrative Barbie or Oppenheimer at hand, but the holiday months at the cinema look potentially more interesting, if not downright weird – at least when it comes to Sasquatch Sunset, this weekend’s new, grunting, wordless tale of mythical Bigfoot folk, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough.

As the impact of last year’s Hollywood talent strikes combines with streaming habits formed during Covid lockdowns, a window of opportunity has been created for film-makers’ wilder imaginings; for smaller-scale, arthouse fare. The franchise machine has slowed down and more original, risky features have slipped in. “I feel quite positive about the moment we’re in,” said Isabel Stevens, managing editor of the film magazine Sight and Sound, “although I do appreciate it’s still a very difficult for cinemas.”

So far, 2024 has seen a box office slump, but is being brightened by breakthrough independent productions that dodge commercial templates and are often in foreign languages (that aren’t Sasquatch). Prominent among them is Italian film La Chimera starring British actor Josh O’Connor. Out for over a month now, it is still drawing audiences and has taken over £700,000 at the British and Irish box office. Director Alice Rohrwacher’s film is pulling off a trick that big-budget title The Fall Guy could not manage: it has become a hit beyond its own ambitions. It must also be quite a surprise to Rohrwacher herself, since her last film, Happy as Lazzaro, brought in just a fifth of that.

Perfect Days: Veteran director Wim Wenders’s story about a happy Tokyo toilet cleaner was nominated for an Oscar. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Stevens said: “It’s amazing that anything that is not a big-budget, mainstream vehicle can push through,when everything out there is clamouring for our attention.” She believes the strikes in the film industry were “the big factor that has opened up a bit of space”.

Phil Clapp, head of the UK Cinema Association, recently told Screen International that a “slightly thinner slate of the familiar franchises” had created an intriguing opportunity. “Stories that are something the audience hasn’t seen before, and makes them want to go back to the cinema, are vital for us,” he said.

In the relatively quiet period before the next action juggernauts trundle in, British cinephiles can celebrate the joys of a film such as Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days, the tale of a Tokyo toilet cleaner that has taken more than £1.3m in receipts. Or The Taste of Things, a quiet, kitchen-based French love story with Juliette Binoche, which took just under £700,000. And now there is the sentimental appeal of There’s Still Tomorrow, a black-and-white melo­drama that trounced Barbie at the box office in its native Italy and is distributed here by Vue Cinemas. It has taken more than £300,000.

The trend should be solace to Wenders, who told the Observer last year that the string of action franchises and remakes that dominate studio output made him “nauseous”. Speaking before the Cannes premiere of Perfect Days, the German director of arthouse landmarks such as Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire added gloomily: “All the imagination has now gone only into ‘How do I vary it?’ and not ‘How do I come up with something new?’. For me, this is not storytelling.”

An early sign of a fresh thirst for originality came with the foreign-language hits of the latest award season, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest, the latter made in German by British director Jonathan Glazer.

Charles Gant, box office editor at Screen International, points out that these apparently niche films are attracting a wide audience. Glazer’s film took £3.4m – a healthy figure in comparison with his 2013 cult horror film Under the Skin, despite that film’s A-list star, Scarlett Johansson. “When I watched the premiere of Zone of Interest in Cannes, I thought it was going to be a hard sell, but it went on to take quite a lot of money,” he said. “And you really have to see it in the cinema.”

There’s Still Tomorrow, a bold melodrama about domestic violence in a Rome family, topped the box office in its home market. Photograph: Luisa Carcavale

Still more heartening for Britain is the success of the homegrown films Aftersun, How to Have Sex, Rye Lane and All of Us Strangers, especially in the face of reports that UK independent production has been falling off a cliff. Only in February, Mike Goodridge, producer of the recent Palme d’Or-winning satire Triangle of Sadness, told BBC’s Today programme that it was “essentially on its knees”, with skilled actors and crews all working for big American companies.

Since then, the impact of enhanced tax reliefs for British productions has been felt. That is a measure that might encourage the kind of shake-up spelled out for the Oscar crowd in March by the award-winning screenwriter Cord Jefferson, when he pointedly called on film backers to think smaller. “Instead of making one $200m movie, try making 20 $10m movies. Or 50 $4m movies,” he urged.

As far as Gant can tell, there is no big shift in Hollywood as yet, where franchises still rule the roost. “But studios do now understand they need a mix. Just look at a surprise, smaller-scale hit like the romcom Anyone But You, which has cut through.”

Indie cinema booms ebb and flow. The heyday in the late 60s and early 70s of stylish, brave films such as Midnight Cowboy, The Long Goodbye and Five Easy Pieces soon became a distant dream, until a brief flirtation with European cinema took hold in the 1980s with films such as Au Revoir Les Enfants and Cinema Paradiso. Things changed again, perhaps more permanently, with Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs in 1992: a big financial triumph with a small budget.

So what is making a difference this time, apart from the strikes? Well, the availability of foreign TV dramas has helped, acclimatising viewers to subtitles. But it was probably 2019’s Parasite, the dark Korean comedy that won both the Palme d’Or and the best film Oscar, that truly opened things up.

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For Gant, the question is whether we are witnessing a prolonged trend or a series of coincidences. “Zone of Interest was a real one-off,” he said. “It had challenging content and a challenging form, but somehow the stars aligned and it really crossed into the mainstream.”

He suspects La Chimera might have done fairly well even without Hollywood’s industrial action. Britain’s independent cinemas would have given it a good run, although he believes the film has been aided by a policy change at both the Picturehouse and Curzon chains that has afforded it a full ­theatrical release window.

All of Us Strangers: Paul Mescal stars in an emotional drama about love, family and childhood trauma. Photograph: 2023 Searchlight Pictures

Speaking to Gant for Screen International, Curzon’s managing director, Damian Spandley, said much of the recent appeal of independent filmsmay be down to newly engaged, younger customers galvanised by discounts and cheap ticket schemes. “We’re excited about the growth of our under-25s membership, and we’re hearing similar stories from the independent operators,” Spandley said.

“Films like Saltburn, Poor Things and All of Us Strangers are bringing in a younger audience, and that’s very exciting for us in terms of the future of our business. Under-25s are embracing arthouse cinema in a way we haven’t seen before.”

A young audience is crucial, Gant believes: “I didn’t become a world cinema and independent cinema fan overnight. I started out liking a few indie American films and I got drawn in. Not everyone comes out of the womb wanting to watch a three-hour Portuguese epic.”

Film writer Geoffrey Macnab has emphasised the significance of the young cinemagoer in new a piece for Screen International. David Sin, head of cinemas at the Independent Cinema Office, tells him that “a number of the highest-grossing films in that [arthouse] space in the post-pandemic era have been films that are aimed at a younger audience than traditional arthouse cinema”.

Sin cites titles such as the Korean crime drama Decision to Leave, Triangle of Sadness and “a slew of British independent films like Scrapper and Saint Maud, aimed primarily at millennial and gen Z audiences”.

These features, along with others including The Zone of Interest, La Chimera and the tennis romance Challengers, had played very well in university towns, he said.

There are blockbusters coming, of course. Many of them are children’s features, such as Pixar’s second Inside Out outing, or Paddington’s $40m trip to Peru. And the Gladiator sequel arrives in November. But Stevens’s tip for the discerning cinemagoer is the Mumbai-set Cannes hit All We Imagine as Light. It’s the first Indian film selected to compete at the festival in 30 years, and is likely to arrive in Britain later this year.

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