The Government see this sector as a key element of the film industry. It attracts substantial audiences and is an important part of cultural cinema-going. That is why the British Film Institute—BFI—which is funded by the taxpayer and the National Lottery, has three strategic priorities: to connect the widest possible range of audiences with the broadest range of films; to support film; and to preserve film heritage.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Reply. Does he agree that the Competition Commission’s ruling following the Cineworld-City Screen partnership—that Cineworld should sell one each of its cinemas in Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen—is misguided and culturally insensitive since it puts at risk the picture houses, including the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, which hosts the Cambridge Film Festival, and which the BFI calls,
“an exemplary regional ‘arthouse’ cinema”?
Will the DCMS use all its influence to intervene to have this ruling overturned?
My Lords, I entirely understand and, indeed, sympathise with the noble Earl’s concerns, but responsibility for regulating mergers falls to the independent competition authority. The Competition Commission has decided that Cineworld, having bought the Picturehouse chain, should sell one of its cinemas in a number of towns. I know that the BFI has already communicated its concerns to the commission, and it is open to concerned parties to apply for a review of the decision to the commission appeal tribunal.
The question actually asked was whether the Government will take up this case because it is a grievous and terrible thing to contemplate the loss of three such picture houses. Will the Minister answer the question: will the Government take up with the Competition Commission their concerns, as so adequately expressed by the Minister?
I have to repeat to the noble Lord that the Competition Commission is an independent body. The Office of Fair Trading has asked the Competition Commission to look into the matter. Although there is concern and sympathy from many in government, this is now a matter for the Competition Commission, having been instructed by the Office of Fair Trading.
My Lords, my noble friend has hit upon a problem, which is the precise definition of art picture house. There are independent cinemas as well as the mainstream ones. The problem is that a lot of art-house cinemas show mainstream films as well as the more cultural films. However, I think that we are talking about 300 independent cinemas.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a filmmaker and a recent governor of the BFI. A report last week, Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, documented the way in which arts funding has shifted towards the capital over several decades. The benefit to a Londoner is now three times that of someone living elsewhere in England, and I think that it is in this context that my noble friend asks the Question. Does the Minister agree that if we are to address this cultural imbalance, we must build on the success of existing art venues, such as the excellent art-house cinema in Cambridge that does so much more than show films? Could the DCMS, through its relationship with the BFI, perhaps find a way of distinguishing between commercial screens and the added cultural value that art-house cinema provides?
First, I think that the British Film Institute is doing a great deal of important work, with many programmes. The one that I will mention to the noble Baroness is the BFI Neighbourhood programme, which is part of a programme to help establish and develop up to 1,000 community venues for films across the UK. That is an important feature of what the British Film Institute is seeking to do. In addition, there are of course many other initiatives that the BFI is particularly concerned about, to ensure that there is the broadest range of opportunities for people to see films.
My Lords, these so-called art-house cinemas are very important to the health of the British film industry. They are sometimes the only place where our films ever get shown. Does the Minister fully appreciate the importance of their survival, particularly outside London and the major cities?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The picture houses are very important, particularly outside London; in particular in Cambridge, which of course is the venue for the Cambridge Film Festival. There are many reasons why these establishments are particularly important. They are part of our global reach, and all film industry is very important for the British economy. That, of course, is why the film industry has the tax relief it does, which is an indication of the Government’s support for it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular patron of the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. Will the noble Lord consider that perhaps the Government have more of an interest in this issue than he has yet indicated? These picture houses often show live performances of work—for example, from the National Theatre—which is a way in which the public funding that goes into our major theatres is made to work much harder than it would if it depended simply upon people coming into the theatres to see the shows. There is a serious interest here for the Government to consider, which is why it would be a good idea for them to put some pressure on whoever needs to have pressure put upon them to make this happen.
The noble Baroness is a champion of Cambridge; I know that Bury St Edmunds in particular also has this feed-in from opera and theatre. I am well aware of the importance of that to many parts of the regions, where it is vital. I have to repeat that there is a procedure that has to be undertaken. Concerns have been raised and, as I said, it is open to interested parties to appeal on this matter. However, the problem is that when we have independence, we must mean independence.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s restatement of the mission of the BFI. Nevertheless, has he noticed that it remains the case that across town the multiplex cinemas all show the same few films, whereas other films that have had excellent reviews are nowhere to be seen? What more can the Government do to support the better distribution and availability of high-quality films that are not expected to be money-spinners?
That is where the BFI very much comes into the equation and precisely where the experts, as I call them, are leading on this particular point—to ensure that the broadest range of films is available to the public. That is one of the key priorities of the BFI, and I hope that it is successful in that quest.