The Circulation of Italian Cinema in the UK: Challenges and Opportunities

If contemporary Italian cinema struggles to circulate abroad (Holdaway, Scaglioni 2018), this is even truer in the UK, where the film market is traditionally resistant to the penetration of audio-visual products from Europe.

The UK’s linguistic and cultural closeness to the United States, as well as its supposed Euro-scepticism, impinge on the distribution of European foreign language films. However, industrial reasons are crucial too: the country has a stronger bond with US studios than any other film industry in Europe – the production volume of the British film industry is worth on average 1 billion pounds a year, of which 70% is funded by the United States. The latest policy document produced by the British Film Institute – Supporting UK Film – addresses the need to strengthen the privileged role of the United Kingdom as the first commercial partner of American cinema.

Within such landscape, the space for independent productions (not supported by studios) in the UK gets narrower every year. The market share of independent cinema averaged around 10% over the last 10 years. Similarly, the theatrical distribution market, displaying the highest costs in Europe, is extremely polarized: in 2017, the top 10 distributors – including studios such Walt Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox (now Disney) and strong independents including Lionsgate, StudioCanal and Entertainment One – gained 96% of the takings. Predictably, European foreign language titles struggle to find their place into such competitive market.

Research by Huw Jones for the MeCETES project in 2014 explains that Britain has Europe’s lowest market share for foreign language films. On average, European films distributed in the UK between 2002–2014 corresponded to 17.4% of the total releases in the period, but they amount to only 1.8% of the box office. European titles gaining theatrical distribution in the UK are mostly international quality films, namely art films displaying high production values that relying on a set of elements – e.g. the prestige of an internationally-acclaimed auteur, international cast members, film festival participation – which contribute to their cultural status. Distributors traditionally associated to European cinema are small independent players, such as Curzon Artificial Eye, usually reach a limited number of screens (on average 14, compared to the 168 for productions in English language).

The distribution of Italian cinema in the UK is deeply affected by these dynamics. According to the data collected from launchingfilms, the Film Distributors’ Association database, the array of Italian titles distributed theatrically since 2004 include in total 66 films (excluding Italian minority co-productions), which span from internationally viable big-budget quality films – such as Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (2008), distributed by Optimum Releasing (now StudioCanal), Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (2013) and Youth (2015), distributed respectively by Artificial Eye and StudioCanal – to smaller arthouse productions and first and second films – e.g. Le meraviglie (A. Rohrwacher, 2014), L’attesa (P. Messina, 2015), A Ciambra (J. Carpignano, 2017), distributed respectively by Thunderbird Releasing, StudioCanal and Peccadillo Pictures.

Since 2004, only 5 Italian titles have reached more than 100,000 admissions in the UK, according to Lumiére Database; the best performing title was Luca Guadagnigno’s Call Me by Your Name (2017) distributed by Sony Pictures, with 236,580 admissions. It is thus safe to argue that the few Italian titles distributed theatrically in the UK predominantly belong to the quality domain.

The UK Poster of Youth (2015, P. Sorrentino)

However, exceptions can be found. They include, for instance, top-grossing comedy Quo Vado? (G. Nunziante, 2016), which was distributed in 2016 by Vue Entertainment – the third cinema circuit in the UK. The dynamics leading to its release are quite unusual. Codie Entwistle, former film buyer at Vue, explains: “Releasing Quo Vado? in the UK came about because Vue owns The Space cinema chain in Italy, so they had first-hand experience of how well the film had performed there”. Since the film had no UK distributor, a deal was stuck between Vue and the film’s producers, Medusa and Taodue, to release it in the UK. Entwistle provides further details: “As there was no distributor involved, this meant the budget for releasing and marketing the film was very small and relied on some targeted marketing to the Italian communities in the UK. With the humour in the film really playing to Italian sensibilities and bureaucratic situations restricted to Italy and mainland Europe, the film didn’t translate to a UK audience, which is why it wasn’t picked up for UK distribution in the first place”.

This explains the poor admission figures (only 1,369), hardly surprising for a territory where foreign-language entertainment cinema seems to have no place – even more sophisticated global hit Perfetti sconosciuti (P. Genovese, 2016) did not make it to British screens. Checco Zalone’s comedy generated a baffled reaction from film critic Peter Bradshow, who commented on The Guardian: “As for the title, Jesus’s reply to the question Quo vadis? (where are you going?) inspired Paul to return to Rome and Checco returns to Italy, too. Maybe Quo Vado? should never have left it”.

Outside the market, alternative grounds where Italian films increasingly circulate and are consumed include specialized film festivals and events, targeted to Italian-speaking niches, which are organized by institutional bodies as well as non-profit organizations. Film festivals include IFFC (Italian Film Festival Cardiff), now in its fourth edition, organized by the Italian Cultural Centre Wales, and London-based Cinema Made in Italy, co-organized by French and Italian Institutes of Culture together with Istituto Luce Cinecittà, now in its ninth edition. In addition, London non-profit CinemaItaliaUK, has screened, since 2014, a variety of mainstream comedies and middlebrow films – e.g. Smetto quando voglio (S. Sibilia, 2014), Viva la libertà (R. Andò, 2013), Noi e la Giulia (E. Leo, 2015), Il tuttofare (V. Attanasio, 2018), Io sono tempesta (D. Luchetti, 2018), amongst others. Lorenzo Tambruni, programmer for CinemaItaliaUK, explains that the focus on popular cinema is deliberate, and has allowed the organization to establish stable business partnerships with Italian sales agents like True Colours, whose library displays many mainstream comedies, as well as Fandango and Intramovies.

To conclude, as British film distribution is a highly studio-driven business, the few Italian titles picked up for theatrical distribution mostly belong to the realm of international quality cinema, while more mainstream types of contemporary Italian cinema find a vital space only outside the market.