The UK market has long been blessed with a vibrant newspaper scene, a cacophony of voices that ranges from upmarket broadsheets such as left-leaning The Guardian and conservative The Daily Telegraph to a raucous tabloid press. Even with all the doom-and-gloom prognosticating about its slow, inevitable decline, the UK newspaper scene is still a relatively robust one.
But the economic crunch is inflicting a heavy toll, with significant belt-tightening and redundancies across the board. The Times reduced its Thursday film section two years ago, The Independent is running roughly half the number of film features it was a year ago and The Daily Telegraph cut columnists, salaries and editorial budgets before Christmas. Even the seemingly impregnable Guardian has culled its arts pages: according to film editor Andrew Pulver, the number of features he commissions has dropped from four or five per week to two or three since the start of this year.
Confer with UK distributors, though, and while none would dispute that page counts and column inches are being pinched, securing newspaper coverage for their releases has not become mission impossible, thanks largely to the sheer abundance of media outlets available in the UK. With nearly every national newspaper publishing separate Saturday and Sunday editions, each containing their own corresponding magazine supplements (some two or three), UK distributors have a vast playing field in which to manoeuvre.
“The UK is lucky - it's got a seriously large amount of media to work with,” notes Lawrence Atkinson, executive vice-president of PR agency DDA. “For any important studio or independent release, there's always space for interviews and features. Even if the film pages are squeezed, other areas of the paper can be just as excited about movies, like the fashion pages.”
Even for niche or arthouse releases, which by their very nature have always had to fight for space against the onslaught of star-fronted blockbusters, UK distributors claim they have not witnessed a drop in coverage since the economic crunch kicked in. That may be due to a recent bumper crop of headline-worthy films. Slumdog Millionaire hit the papers running as soon as it picked up heat in Toronto last year, The Works generated ample newspaper editorial for documentary Anvil! The Story Of Anvil and Vertigo Films' campaign for Bronson, about real-life UK convict Charles Bronson, has been equally successful.
“With the right film, you can get coverage across the board,” says Jonathan Rutter of Premier PR. “Slumdog's a perfect example - to pick up (tabloid) The Sun and to see a double-page profile of Danny Boyle is amazing. It was a good strong British story.”
It boils down to the product - if the bait is tasty enough, the UK media will follow. “If a film has a particular story to tell, the interest is there,” says Lorna Mann, publicity director for Lionsgate UK. “When we released My Bloody Valentine 3D in January, instead of the usual hesitancy to give an 18-certificate horror film mainstream coverage, our column inches increased - outlets were keen to peg onto the 3D phenomenon.”
Zena Howard, head of marketing and publicity at Artificial Eye, who has spearheaded the UK campaigns for The Class and Waltz With Bashir, cites the preponderance of cineastes working on broadsheet arts desks, as well as vociferous critics and film writers, for creating a receptive atmosphere in which niche titles can thrive, or at least fight to be heard above the Hollywood din.
“We have allies who like to cover our product,” says Howard. “But pages are shrinking so what becomes most important is programming your films' release at a time when there isn't too much competing with it. If you can date it well, you're almost safe and home.”
It is not a fail-safe formula - Howard has found editorial coverage on her releases squeezed out at the last minute to make way for a Hollywood release that is suddenly dropped into the schedule. And commissioning editors are reluctant to guarantee the space for arthouse releases as early as they once did. “They are more selective and less committed now,” says Atkinson. “If you have a 10-print Iranian film, wonderful though it might be, you can't guarantee editorial coverage on it in the same way you used to be able to when you could just sail into the broadsheets. You have to find champions at the paper early on.”
Pressure can also come in the amount of ad spend when it comes to studio versus independent coverage. “Big studios who spend a large amount of money advertising with any of the big publishing houses still carry an element of power in terms of generating editorial off the back of that,” claims Atkinson. “Commerce - particularly in this day and age - can take over from editorial integrity.”
Over the last couple of years, both distributors and journalists have observed a trend towards filling pages with more A-list celebrities and reality-TV stars. One independent distributor which occasionally farms its releases out to the UK's leading film PR agencies claims agencies have been better able to barter for editorial space on their behalf in return for guaranteeing access to an A-list name on a separate release.
Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, a Tom Cruise or Daniel Day-Lewis interview would be considered a genuine media event, now it is possible for outlets to obtain an interview from a number of sources (with tabloids, who often cannot gain access otherwise, known to accept publicist-approved pieces, according to one leading PR). It increases the breadth of A-list coverage, but dilutes the concept of the true media exclusive. As a chief film writer on one newspaper supplement observes of his outlet's increasing celebrity favouritism: “Why do a feature on Japanese animation when you can easily run an interview with Jennifer Aniston?”
That attitude has been a death knell for first-time film-makers and new faces, with youth-oriented US indies suffering particularly badly. “It used to be easy to get coverage of first-time directors, where now it's damn near impossible,” says Rupert Preston, partner at Vertigo Films. “On the original Pusher, we got mass coverage for (Bronson director) Nicolas Winding Refn. Now we'd struggle to get anything.”
Another high-profile UK film journalist notes he has had difficulty placing an interview with Chris Pine, the star of JJ Abrams' upcoming Star Trek but an unknown quantity for UK arts editors. “Two or three years ago, people would have taken a punt but people are less risk-averse than they used to be,” Preston observes, noting newspaper supplements are no longer willing to gamble their covers on anyone who is not a household name.
When it comes to reviews, everyone can see the space shrinking compared to what it once was, particularly affecting the independent and arthouse sectors. “You can have some wonderful independent movies which 10 years ago would have got (The Observer film critic) Philip French devoting half a page,” says Preston. “Now it's one paragraph.”
But critics can and do still frequently dedicate their lead review to smaller independent releases over Hollywood films, although one broadsheet's critic laments the encroachment of advertising pressure. He notes that when his paper ran a blitzkrieg of pre-release marketing hype on Mamma Mia! The Movie, his review - a pan - was buried on the page, receiving less prominence than other lead reviews.
Another area being curtailed is film festival coverage. This year's Sundance Film Festival was hit hard by the lack not only of UK press but of any overseas media, while The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian opted against sending their chief film critics to Berlin this year. Venice and Edinburgh are also looking vulnerable, with only Cannes likely to be unaffected - though as one journalist notes wryly, “Lots of papers will pay their writers to go out there to report on how there are fewer people going out there this year.”
The times are indeed a-changing, but no-one is despairing - yet. If the US's rash of newspaper closures is exported to the UK, however, then the alarm bells will ring. There may be a wealth of media but losing one or two national newspapers would have a huge impact.
“If we lose a mid-range and we've only got the Daily Mail to work with, or if we lose a couple of broadsheets and we're left with The Times and The Guardian, then you're in a tough situation because everyone's competing for the same space,” says Atkinson. “No-one wants to see that happen.”