This year’s Best British Independent film BIFA nominees include a surprise breakout hit and two directors achieving career bests for cinema admissions. Charles Gant reports on the year in British indie film at the UK box office
In 2018, the total UK and Ireland box office was pretty much level with the year before, even though admissions (number of tickets sold) rose by 3.7%, and in fact reached their highest point since 1970. This surprising outcome can be explained by a declining average ticket price – the impact of cinema unlimited cards, aggressive price discounting at select regional venues and two-for-one offers such as Meerkat Movies.
In 2019, it’s a similar story of admissions numbers performing better than box office – indicating further erosion in the average ticket price this year. As for British independent films, once again there have not been the breakout debut hits this year to match the astonishing success of 2017 when we saw both Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth crack £800,000 at UK cinemas. But there has nevertheless been a range of encouraging outcomes to shout about.
One of these, without question, is Bait. This first feature from Mark Jenkin to achieve a UK theatrical release – previous features such as The Rabbit and Happy Christmas played only at festivals – has stunned many industry practitioners with its £429,000 box office to date.
Vital to that success has been the response of audiences to the film – which is set in a fast-gentrifying Cornish fishing village – in the South-West and West regions. Typically, those regions together contribute just 4.9% of a film’s UK box office. In the case of Bait, that number is 33%.
At Bristol Watershed, where Bait is the second-highest grossing film of the year after The Favourite, head of programme Mark Cosgrove couldn’t be happier about the success of a film that is so unconventional in form and subject matter. “Two years ago, who would have said, ‘Let’s make a black and white, Academy ratio, 16mm, post-synch-sound, hand-processed film about second homes and the decline of fishing in Cornwall, and, trust me, it will be a huge international critical success and take over £400,000 at the UK box office’?” he says. “Bait demonstrates that there is an audience for authentic, individualistic, distinctive films.”
Bait has earned four nominations at this year’s British Independent Film Awards, including for Best British Independent Film. It is nominated in that category alongside Armando Iaunnuci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield, Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ For Sama – respectively achieving 11, ten, eight and five BIFA nominations.
Iannucci’s film has yet to open – it is set for UK release on January 24 next year. Tom Harper has earned career-best box office of £2.92m with Wild Rose – although it’s worth remarking that the filmmaker’s two previous features (2009’s The Scouting Book For Boys and 2014’s War Book) were relatively modest releases.
Also earning career-best box office this year is Joanna Hogg with The Souvenir. Despite considerable critical acclaim, the support of festival programmers and some success at awards, this filmmaker has never been very commercially successful in her home market. With The Souvenir – her most personal film to date, starring Honor Swinton Byrne as a young film student and Tom Burke as the enigmatic man under whose influence she falls – she has now achieved that breakthrough. UK box office of £534,000 is more than all Hogg’s three previous features (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition) put together.
For Sama achieved an impressive £132,000 at UK cinemas. That is strong for a film concerning Middle East conflict – and more than double the lifetime totals of such acclaimed films as Restrepo and 5 Broken Cameras.
The Big Hitter
Among titles that won big at BIFA last year, but only reached UK cinemas in 2019, chief among them is The Favourite. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film earned a virtual sweep at last year’s BIFA ceremony, winning ten awards including Best British Independent Film. Distributor 20th Century Fox had reason to be optimistic about the box office, given the buzz on the film, but even it may have been surprised when it finally achieved £17.0m, buoyed by further success at the BAFTA Film Awards and Oscars. Lanthimos’ previous biggest hit The Lobster grossed £1.53m at UK cinemas – less than a tenth of The Favourite’s number.
One film that achieved a significant chunk of its success thanks to Q&A screenings is The Ponds, chronicling a year in the life of the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath. Beginning its life with a showing at the Dartmouth Park Film Club, which is near the Heath, and then one-off screenings at similarly adjacent venues such as Everyman Hampstead, the film gradually rolled out across London and further afield, connecting with the burgeoning wild swimming community. Many were supported by Q&As with one or both of the film’s directors Patrick McLennan and Samuel Smith – and the Q&A screenings delivered more than 60% of the final box office totalling £86,000.
Not every quality independent film is a box office hit – and Jason Wood at Manchester cinema HOME is one programmer who cautions against the commercial yardstick being given too much attention. For Wood, it’s the richness and depth of the audience experience that should be primarily considered.
After a sellout Q&A screening at HOME with Dirty God actress Vicky Knight, for example, “People were coming out, really talking about it, really discussing some of the issues.” Dirty God is nominated for four BIFAs this year, including for Knight in Best Actress and Most Promising Newcomer. Similarly, “People were really moved by Ray & Liz,” says Wood, referencing the film that won both the Douglas Hickox Award for Debut Director and Best Breakthrough Producer at the BIFAs last year. “It did genuinely touch people,” he adds – an apt reminder that box office success should be seen as the icing on the cake for a film, and not be confused with the main ingredient.
Top 20 British indie films at UK/Ireland box office, 2019
Box Office takings
|2||Stan & Ollie||£10.60m|
|3||Mary Queen of Scots||£9.30m|
|6||A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon||£6.70m|
|7||Fighting With my Family||£5.87m|
|8||Blinded by the Light||£3.28m|
|10||Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans||£2.87m|
|17||The White Crow||£1.25m|
|18||Mrs Lowry & Son||£1.22m|
|19||Sorry We Missed You||£1.14m|
|20||All is True||£1.04m|