Interview: Jason Wood On The Failure Of London Cinemas

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HOME-Manchester cinema and cultural centre

HOME Manchester – PIcture: Mecanoo

Jason Wood is a man that deserves your respect, he’s brought some of the most interesting independent films to these shores in his time at Artificial Eye and in his programming roles at Picturehouse and Curzon.

Championing film’s most cutting edge filmmakers, he recognised ‘Gummo’s cultural importance whilst distributing the film during its original release and pushed cinemas to take difficult films like ‘Gerry’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘The Duke of Burgundy”.

Now currently at Manchester’s HOME, the multi arts venue as the artistic director, he’s looking to take on London’s perceived cultural dominance by providing disruptive film line-ups and affordable ticket prices.

I caught up with Jason to talk film passions, creative battles and how HOME is bringing the excitement back to film line-ups.

How did you first get involved in the film business?

I started off as a documentary filmmaker actually. Along with Eileen Anipare I co-directed a film on Kieslowski. The director sadly died shortly after and the film took off on the festival circuit. Eileen and I went on to co-direct two more films; ‘Trouble and Desire’ (about Hal Hartley) and then ‘Formulas for Seduction’ (about Atom Egoyan). The films are a bit rough and ready but I still like them. After that I went to work for Entertainment Film Distributors and mainly looked after their independent releases, starting with ‘Gummo’.

What film are you most proud of distributing?

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) film

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

I’m tempted to say ‘Gummo’. Watching it again [at the LSFF Harmony Korine Weekender]it just felt so fresh. I also really liked working with Philip Ridley on ‘The Passion of Darkly Noon’ – a very underrated British director. I was also involved in re-releasing ‘Pink Flamingos’. This played at the old Metro (also known as The OTHER Cinema), which was the first cinema I programmed. Sadly, the BBFC took a dim view of Divine eating dog shit and insisted the scene be cut. It made re-introducing it to the to cinema audiences slightly pointless.

Biggest battle you fought as a distributor?

I did try and get the Waters’ through uncut. But I lost that one. At Entertainment we were convinced by ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. The cinema programmers largely hated it, it was a real fight to get it shown initially. Thankfully that was a battle won. I later did some consulting for Film4 in their final days as distributors. They had put all their efforts into releasing films such as ‘Charlotte Gray’ and didn’t have the time to give to their independent titles. I worked on Svankmajer’s ‘Little Otik’, which was a pleasure and then on van Sant’s ‘Gerry’. The film really got under the skins of the exhibitors, they loathed it, nobody wanted to play it at the time. In the end, if I recall correctly, the company went bankrupt before they could release it.

Is the British film industry in good health creatively?

I think it is. The BFI are very supportive of emerging talent and have backed and funded some great projects. Lizzie Francke has a real eye. If you look at some of the directors that work fairly consistently we have Peter Strickland, Joanna Hogg, Clio Barnard, Andrew Kotting, Steve McQueen (at the higher end of the spectrum) and Hong Khao. And that’s not forgetting Ben Wheatley and Andrew Haigh! In Berlin I saw a co-directed film titled ‘Notes on Blindness’ – it is sensational. We also have more established directors who operate very effectively in a more commercial realm. There seems to be a good balance. And of course Mike Leigh and Ken Loach continue to produce interesting work and challenge the establishment.

You’ve been firm on offering affordable ticket prices for HOME, do you feel filmmaking has become the preserve of the middle classes or are there still working class voices?

I think there are still working class voices and it is important that there are. It is also important that cinema is diverse and reflects the experience of everyone, not just the white middle classes. We recently had a Jim Allen season. Pretty much every film was sold out. You don’t get more working class than Jim Allen.

What films/events are you most excited about bringing to HOME this year?

Son of Saul (2015) film

Son of Saul (2015)

I am really looking forward to the Chris Petit season, ‘Reversing Into Tomorrow’. The Ballard season is also exciting, it’s titled ‘Always (Crashing)’ and I have even directed a film in collaboration with Simon Barker to accompany it. ‘VIVA!’ Is always good and returns to our screens in April. In July we partner with the Manchester Jazz Festival on a series of jazz related film titles. In August Barry Adamson, one of my heroes, curates a season titled ‘Soundtrack’. It will be terrific. In October we offer our own variation on the BFI’s Black Stars season looking at notions of black stars and stardom.

In terms of new titles, ‘Son of Saul’ is exceptional and not to be missed. ‘Notes on Blindness’ was the most remarkable film I saw in Rotterdam, a spectacular synthesis of sound and vision. I was also knocked out by Whit Stillman’s ‘Love and Friendship’. Finally, I must quickly mention Mark Cousins’ ‘I Am Belfast’, a poignant city symphony, Peter Greenaway’s ‘Eisenstein In Mexico’ and Pablo Larrain’s ‘The Club’. Cinema is alive and well.

What risks can you take in the Manchester film scene that you can’t in London?

I think that it is very disappointing what has happened in London. Most of the cinemas are now owned or programmed by three companies who I won’t mention here, they regard themselves as ‘boutique’ cinemas. This means high-ticket prices (which only people on certain salaries can afford), good wine and the same films that screen in the multiplexes, with a few exceptions. In some ways it is understandable. They are businesses, not cultural institutions and are there to make profit. The fact is though that these companies – two of whom I worked for – started off as being truly independent, introducing exciting directors from all other the world to UK audiences. Now they mainly play ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and ‘Dad’s Army’. It’s fine to do that (and their right entirely), as long as you try to balance it with a more diverse programme at other periods. My opinion is that they don’t. It’s a false economy as the terms are so high on these films and you can often achieve higher occupancy with more specialised titles (on lower rental terms) from independent distributors. Specialised and foreign language films are in danger of disappearing from screens in London. Again, there are exceptions and venues such as BFI Southbank, The Barbican and the excellent Close Up, which provide a real alternative.

In Manchester, and other key cities outside London, such as Bristol and Glasgow (and others who I apologise for leaving out), ticket prices are lower which makes convincing people to take a chance on a film they may not know less of a battle. Cinema isn’t seen as a privilege only afforded the wealthy but the right of all. Everyone should have access to culture. At HOME we don’t play too many mainstream titles (though I would be a hypocrite if I said we played none). We concentrate on the films that may find it tough to screen elsewhere. And we, and other cinemas like us, are proving it is working. Recent titles such as ‘Rams’ and ‘The Assassin’ have been a success on both an economic and a cultural level.

What annoys me is the way everyone still looks towards London as setting the cultural agenda. It isn’t. Not anymore.

Keep up to date with what’s on at HOME.

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