Cinema v the London 2012 Olympic Games

Dave Calhoun investigates the summer's battle between Batman and Bradley Wiggins

Ed Marshall

Danny Boyle did a great PR job for British film with his Opening Ceremony for London 2012. The film industry, however, could have been forgiven for cursing his Brit love-in, which emptied cinemas on a Friday night – one of their busiest slots. And looking at the bigger picture, with Olympics fever gripping the nation, is anyone actually going to the cinema?

This summer has been tricky for film distributors. Euro 2012 was an early obstacle, and the season’s first blockbusters, ‘Battleship’, ‘Avengers Assemble’ and ‘Prometheus’, opened in the UK at least a week before the US. After the football left town, Andrew Garfield arrived with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, which began previewing just two days after the Euro 2012 final. And then, of course, the Olympics came hovering on the horizon.

‘We’ve been nervous about this summer for a year,’ admits Clare Binns, director of programming at Picturehouse, the chain that in London includes the Hackney and Clapham Picturehouses and the Gate in Notting Hill. ‘We’ve been racking our brains about how to deal with it.’

The ‘lifesaver’, as Binns puts it, was Warner Brothers releasing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, one of the surefire hits of the summer – a week before the Olympics. Christopher Nolan’s film had a storming opening weekend in the UK, taking £14.36 million and going on to make another £7.28m on its second weekend – the weekend the Olympics opened. Clearly, Bat-fans weren’t going to be to distracted by grown men running around in white flouncy two-pieces carrying flames

But not every film carries the weight of anticipation of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. So far, two other big Hollywood films, ‘The Lorax’ and ‘Ted’, have opened during London 2012 (and the signs are that both are doing well) but studios have mainly preferred to position their summer hopefuls away from the sport. Smaller distributors have reacted by filling the gap with esoteric films. StudioCanal took a bullish approach by releasing the music doc ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ the day before the Opening Ceremony. Their reasoning was simple: if no one else was doing it, they would.

‘It was a clear date,’ says John Trafford-Owen, head of distribution at StudioCanal. ‘The market for independent films was not being served that weekend, and it meant we could hope for lead reviews in most papers – which we got.’ Trafford-Owen knew Friday night would be a wash-out, so he opened ‘Sugar Man’ on Thursday. ‘We assumed everyone would watch the Opening Ceremony. As it turned out, on the Saturday, people were still watching sport, but then Sunday outstripped Saturday.’ The film took £69,000 over the weekend – a good result – and Charles Gant, the Guardian’s box-office analyst declared that StudioCanal had ‘played a blinder with the release date’.

Other companies have been releasing even more niche films into cinemas – several of them specialist docs on subjects such as the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei ('Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'), the Spanish restaurant El Bulli ('El Bulli: Cooking in Progress') and designers Ray and Charles Eames ('Eames: The Architect & The Painter'). The Curzon chain spotted a marketing opportunity and bundled together a dozen of these films under the label ‘Curzon Twelve’, offering a Starbucks-style loyalty card for filmgoers (giving the sixth and twelfth films away for free). ‘It was a good opportunity to think about a quality “counter programming” offer to the Olympics,’ says Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon Artificial Eye.

Other cinemas, such as Cineworld, have decided to go with the flow and show the Olympics for free. ‘We were curious how they would affect business, so we decided to give people the opportunity to watch it in our cinemas,’ says Roy Gower, head of film at Cineworld, which has been showing sport at 27 cinemas.

He adds that his company’s screens were at 70 per cent capacity during the Opening Ceremony. Gower is sceptical that the Olympics is killing filmgoing, and reckons that the party atmosphere has actually brought people to cinemas. He also points out that, on the day we speak, Seth MacFarlane’s comedy ‘Ted’ has been previewing at Cineworld’s cinemas for several days, and is currently their tenth biggest preview ever. (‘Ted’ went on to take £9.3m in its first five days – Universal Pictures’s biggest opening in the UK since 2007, beating even the likes of ‘Mamma Mia!’. This mirrored the film’s opening in the US, where, in late June, it took $54.1 million (£35m) on its opening weekend. So the Olympics have clearly done little damage to this blockbuster.)

Back on the indie circuit, Binns admits she ‘missed a trick’ by not showing the Opening Ceremony in Picturehouse’s cinemas. But all is not lost: less than 24 hours after Boyle’s show ended, she had booked the Closing Ceremony for some of her screens. The Ritzy and the Hackney Picturehouse also screened the 100-metres final. Both were planned as free events, with the cinemas ‘hanging out bunting’ and stocking up on food and drink.

And if you’re still doubtful that the Olympics has turned the filmgoing world a bit sideways, if not upside-down, take a look at the big films coming out on August 10th 2012. Films usually open on a Friday, sometimes on a Wednesday. But ‘Brave’ and ‘The Bourne Legacy’ are both, unusually, opening on a Monday. And no ordinary Monday: it’s the day after the Olympics Closing Ceremony. It’s the day the world gets back to normal and Hollywood executives and cinema programmers breathe a sigh of relief and start crunching numbers in anticipation of Rio 2016.