Kenneth Branagh

Source: Johan Persson

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh gave a rousing keynote address on the opening morning of the UK Cinema Association’s annual conference, extolling the necessity of truth, heart and risk-taking in drawing audiences back to cinemas.

“Any story that hopes to cure a nervous cinemagoer has to have the hallmark of something honest and true,” said Branagh, to a sold-out conference held at London’s Picturehouse Central venue.

He also urged promoting and programming films with “an element of heart…that divert and entertain” audiences. The challenge was to get them to “swap the cinema in their living room for the one they share with others”, said the filmmaker.

He revealed that he refused to send screeners of early footage for Belfast to potential partners and distributors, instead requesting they come to see the footage in a cinema.

“When I attempted to sell Belfast based on an 11-minute sizzle reel of early footage, I insisted that the footage be viewed in a cinema or screening room,” said Branagh “‘Couldn’t I send a link?’ said many possible buyers. ‘Come on, send a link for Christ’s sake!’ Yes, I said, I could. But I have designed this film to have a life that exploits the distinct and unique possibilities of the larger screen, and that’s where I’d like it to start its life.

“If you feel differently, I respect that, but I don’t want your first exposure to be one that may also be interrupted by the common interruptive occurrences of watching from home.”

“Quite a few possible distributors chose therefore not to see it,” revealed Branagh, “and therefore significantly reduced my chances to sell it.”

This formed a gamble for the director, before Focus Features acquired worldwide rights in December 2020.

“I mention this only to say that our survival, our revival and if I can make up a word, our ‘thrival’, our possible thriving, also depends to some extent on risk-taking,” continued Branagh. “With this project I decided I had no choice but to bet on myself as a filmmaker, in part because I decided that I could eventually bet on myself as a film watcher.”

The gamble has paid off in many countries, with the film having reached £15.4m in the UK and Ireland to become the territory’s highest-grossing black-and-white film of all time.

Physical space 

Branagh cautioned against exhibitors abandoning physical marketing in favour of purely digital operations. “I love anything extra and physical in the cinema itself. Digital displays are fantastic, dynamic and wonderful. But by Christ, I love standees,” he laughed. “I look behind them, I wonder how they’ve been put up, I wonder how they got into the cinema.

“Physical interventions in the space are part of the whole package of making the cinema a distinct, exciting experience and environment from the minute you walk in the door. So not just digital content but stuff! Stuff that you can watch, touch, be photographed with, have your attention drawn by.

“Can we continue this with planet-preserving imagination? Yes, I think we can. The physical space of that foyer is so critical.”

He also noted the necessity of audiences who are not just present but also engaged. “We know that ’attendance’ means more than one critical thing,” he said. “If we want attendance in every sense, we need to continue reconnecting with that same primal experience of a community reacting to the stories of our lives; we need to continue finding our way through it with realism about change; pragmatism about survival in a ruthlessly competitive world; but also with pride in the distinct and original offering of this industry.

“I believe that the very experience of cinema is at its best a timeless classic – human beings around the projector light, attending to stories that are part of the rebuild of our shared human experience and its particular size and scale and sound and vision, and in the company of others it remains unique.”

In full showman mode, Branagh began his address by quoting Gloria Gaynor’s pop hit ‘I Will Survive’; went on to reference the Dalai Lama in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and 1989 film Field Of Dreams; shared his choice of ice cream when at the cinema – “two scoops, usually chunky monkey, sometimes pistachio, depends on the film”; and adapted lines from ABBA hit ‘Thank You For The Music’ to thank the gathered exhibition professionals for their persistence throughout a troubled two years.

Branagh ended his speech with his own ‘thank you’ list, to everyone in the cinema industry, from cinema workers, distributors, “trade publications and writers”, and even – in language that delighted the room – “to the critics who have on occasion, metaphorically, plucked the hair from my testicles; but have also regularly given me small doses of moisturiser to cope with the damage.”

The cheery address was well-received, with many attending exhibitors grateful for the audience provided by Death On The Nile (£8.1m) and especially Belfast as cinemas continue to emerge from the pandemic.

The UKCA conference continued with presentations by Lucy Jones, executive director at Comscore; and a discussion about harnessing streaming to drive cinema audiences, led by Natalie Ralph, director of distribution, Europe at Mubi.