On a quiet Tuesday in late July, 11,500 people left the comfort of their sofas to see “Goldfinger” at 136 cinemas across the U.K. Not bad for a 43-year-old movie most Brits know by heart.
The pic was re-released for just one night by Park Circus, the only U.K. company that specializes exclusively in the theatrical distribution of classic films.
Thanks to the magic of digital, Park Circus is playing a leading role in the revival of repertory cinema in Blighty.
The company was founded four years ago in Glasgow by two former exhibitors, John Letham and Nick Varley, who are defying the convention that theatrical reissues are just a loss leader for DVD. Park Circus doesn’t even have a video label. Its business stands and falls by whether people want to see old movies as they were originally intended — on the bigscreen.
The box office may not be huge, but costs are low, and it’s enough to make the majors take notice. Buena Vista, MGM/UA, Icon and Granada, which owns the Rank library, have all struck deals with Park Circus to mine their vaults for re-releases, and to handle theatrical bookings for their back catalogs.
Park Circus has 11 pics on its slate this year. It’s releasing three in August alone — “Brief Encounter,” “Henry V” and “Raging Bull.” Then in September comes a potential blockbuster, at least as far as reissues go — “The Sound of Music,” getting its first proper cinema outing since the 1970s.
After the huge TV ratings for the talent show “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” and the subsequent boffo takings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End revival, the original Robert Wise movie could well be the biggest hit yet for Park Circus (it screens in 150 theaters for two nights only, Sept. 26-27).
That crown is currently held by “Casablanca,” which has taken $180,000 since its relaunch on Valentine’s Day. The Park Circus slate grosses about $3 million a year, roughly half of which comes from re-releases. Catalog bookings comprise the other half.
What’s making this all possible is the U.K.’s new Digital Screen Network. The U.K. Film Council spent $28 million to install digital projectors in 200 theaters. In return, the exhibs must screen a quota of specialized pics.
This has transformed the model for reissues. Traditionally, a distrib would strike a new print, book a London showcase for a week or two and then send it slowly around the country. Any publicity was long forgotten by the time the print reached the sticks.
Now, instead, a classic film can go day-and-date everywhere, bolstered by a barrage of national press. “Goldfinger” was the first Park Circus release to exploit the full potential of the network. Varley argues that opening a film as a special event on a single night sells more tickets than it would if the energy were dissipated across a weeklong release.
Once a film is sitting on a cinema’s server, it’s an easy transaction to unlock it again whenever the exhibitor wants. Letham says he’s seeing many examples, such as “Bugsy Malone,” where a film has a modest launch, but then improves in the months that follow.
The back catalog is where Park Circus earns its bread and butter. The splashy reissues serve to remind bookers what else is available. Digital represents a challenge to exhibitors to be more imaginative in their programming.
And auds are starting to respond, not just in urban arthouses but in provincial multiplexes, too. What’s fascinating about Park Circus is that it’s driven neither by DVD nor by a cultural agenda, but purely by identifying which old movies the public will pay to see again in the cinema.
So expect more Bond movies. Eon and MGM are already mulling with Park Circus which one to relaunch next.