What does Metrodome's demise mean for UK film?

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 18 Aug 2016

UK distributor Metrodome, whose recent films include Tangerine, Frances Ha and What We Do in the Shadows, have been placed in administration, with most of their staff made redundant. What does this spell for British film distribution?

Yesterday, the UK film industry was dealt a hammer-blow with the news that distributors Metrodome had entered administration. What was so disheartening about the news is that this particular distributor had been one of the most daring around. Since springing up on the British film scene in 1995, Metrodome’s niche has been inventive indie cinema and foreign-language film; two foreign-language Oscar-winners – The Secret In Their Eyes and The Counterfeiters – were among their releases.

They also championed talented directors, as evident with the brace of films on their slate for later this year: Terence DaviesA Quiet Passion (due 18 Nov) and Olivier AssayasPersonal Shopper (due 28 Oct), likely to be the Frenchman’s biggest hit in the UK given Kristen Stewart is in the lead role.

Metrodome were interested in bold new talent too. The film they have on release this week, The Childhood of a Leader, the directorial debut of 27 year-old American actor Brady Corbet, is evidence of that. Other films released by Metrodome this year include London riot docufilm The Hard Stop and beautiful horror Evolution. The question many film fans will be asking themselves is why would a distribution company with a sharp eye for quality titles be struggling to balance their books?

Lucile Hadžihalilović's Evolution – typical of the kind of bold and brilliant cinema picked up by Metrodome

Is indie cinema in decline?

For those inside the industry, Metrodome’s fate isn’t all that shocking. “I think for a number of years indie and foreign language film has been in a decline, with the exception of those areas with strong cinemas and curation, like Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, etc,” notes Allison Gardner, head of cinemas at Glasgow Film Theatre and co-director of the ever-growing Glasgow Film Festival. 

The numbers back up Gardner’s assessment, particularly in terms of foreign-language cinema. As laid out in Charles Gant’s review of 2015’s UK box-office in the February issue of Sight & Sound, there were no significant foreign-language breakthrough hits in 2015. The biggest box-office success was Argentinian portmanteau film Wild Tales, which took a reasonably healthy £728,000 at the UK box office, but that’s peanuts compared to 2001’s Amélie ($6m in the UK) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($13m in the UK). Those arthouse hits, notes Geoffrey Macnab in essay Way of Seeing (Sight & Sound, Aug 2016), “were accepted by British audiences as mainstream films, and their language hardly seemed to be an issue.” 

Foreign-language crossover hit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have been rare in recent years

What has brought about this change in attitudes? The TV successes of The Killing, The Bridge and recent Channel 4 hit Deutschland 83 confirms British audiences haven’t suddenly lost the ability to read subtitles. Jason Wood, director of film at Manchester's HOME, suggests that Metrodome’s demise is illustrative of how hard it can be to get strong support for arthouse films from the majority of the independent UK exhibition sector.

“Unless you are an independent chain with your own distribution arm, it can be a closed shop for other distributors,” he tells us. “If an integrated company opens one of its own films in one of its own cinemas [for example, a Curzon Artificial Eye title in a Curzon theatre] it can keep it on even if the opening weekend is weak. Metrodome, and other companies like it, won't have the same option.”

That’s assuming that the film makes it to your local cinemas at all.  “It’s hard to see these films if you live in an area of poor cinema access, where only the top ten Hollywood films screen,” notes Gardner, and she’s not just talking about small towns and rural areas. Even in a great metropolis like London, which dictates much of the release schedule, access to the type of films Metrodome would distribute is limited. 

“There are really very few truly independent cinemas in London nowadays,” she adds. Scan the programmes of London cinemas that were once bastions of foreign-language film (or other indie cinemas around the country that have become part of chains like Picturehouse and Curzon) and you'll find their mains screens playing the likes of Suicide Squad or Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, pushing indie and foreign titles to their smaller cinema spaces – or out of their schedules entirely.  

Reasons to be hopeful

The news was met with doom and gloom from many corners of the British film industry, who see Metrodome’s financial failure as speaking to the growing challenge of arthouse film distribution brought about by the rise of streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, and, as noted above, the dwindling space on UK screens for daring cinema.

Wood is quick to point out that it would be foolhardy to immediately equate the collapse of Metrodome to the overall decline in foreign-language and indie film box-office. “Metrodome have had successful titles in recent years but it could be that a number of more recent acquisitions were costly and didn't perform to expectations,” he suggests. “Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden is a strong example of this.” 

Recent Metrodome titles like Eden have been critical hits but underperformed

In our discussions with Gardner and Wood, what’s heartening is that they don’t see this news as a sign of the times – not yet anyway. “We are feeling positive at Glasgow Film,” says Gardner. “We’ve invested money to improve what our cinema offers at GFT [adding an additional screen, improving access and revamping their foyer and bar areas] and with the growth of GFF we feel there is an appetite [for indie cinema and foreign-language film] that we can and do tap into.”

Wood is also of the mind that reports of the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated. “The success of a cinema like HOME and compatriots such as The Watershed in Bristol show there is a strong appetite,” he says. “Look at the recent success of Rams and Embrace of the Serpent to name but two. Things always look worse in the summer, traditionally a tough time for independent companies and independent film.” And it's worth remembering that it's not just indies that are struggling – many of this year’s summer blockbusters have under-performed too. “Perhaps people are tired of paying excessive ticket prices to watch repetitive garbage?” suggests Wood. The hope is, great films will still win out.

Film fans with access to indie cinemas like GFT and HOME, as well as other sharply curated arthouse cinemas like Edinburgh’s Filmhouse and Bristol’s Watershed, shouldn’t get complacent, though. A handful of quality cinemas can’t prop up an industry. As Wood notes: “There does need to be a renewed vigor for foreign or indie film from the independent sector though, otherwise we really will have a fight on our hands.”

Recent successes like Icelandic comedy Rams show hope for the future

This fight has already begun. "You can see it in the rise of smartly programmed film organisations such as Club des Femmes, The Black Atlantic Cinema Club and Come the Revolution," says Wood. These grassroots organisations have been growing of late, bubbling under the traditional commercial cinema distribution chain and fulfilling audiences' appetites for original and bold cinema. “These organisations are reaching diverse audiences in quite strong numbers, and also challenging traditional male, white patriarchy. It's quite bracing.”  

Gardner is similarly hopeful. “Cinema is more relevant now," she reckons. In these politically dark times, “it lets us come together in a safe, shared environment and have our lives changed, enhanced and entertained.”

Metrodome’s contribution to British cinema

Right now, however, our thoughts are with the great staff at Metrodome. The Skinny has been proud to champion many of the company's films over the years, titles as diverse as Tangerine and Frances Ha, White God and Mommy, The Tribe and Eden, The Falling and Sunset SongWe are the Best! and What We Do in the Shadows. “It’s always sad when a company such as Metrodome closes,” adds Wood. “They contributed a huge deal to film culture throughout their many years and should be applauded for it. Their support not only for foreign language film but also for British talent emerging and established – Carol Morley, Terence Davies, etc – earns them a place in UK film industry history.”

A great supporter of British film: Terence Davies' Sunset Song was among Metrodome's recent releases

Gardner calls the company “pioneers”. “Metrodome brought us Donnie Darko among many other great films and I am truly saddened to hear that their business has folded," she says. "We must remember, however, that it’s the people who ran it that are important and that their passion and vision hopefully lives on. As you know, no-one in our business is doing it solely for the money, it’s for the love of film.”

In short: thank you for the great movies, Metrodome. You'll be missed.