The decision by Vue Cinemas to pull Blue Story from all of its venues following an incident in Birmingham on Saturday night is worrying, and has drawn a big backlash.
On the quiet, there’d been a momentum building for some time behind Rapman’s debut feature as director, Blue Story. Backed by Paramount Pictures in the UK (notable not least for Paramount once again funding a UK production), the trailer for this film has done more hits than any other we’ve ever posted on the Film Stories website. In part because lots of others didn’t cover it, but primarily because people were searching for it.
Last week, I was speaking to an industry insider who revealed that whilst the big release of the weekend just gone was set to be Frozen II, they were recording far bigger than expected pre-sales for Blue Story. And then, over the weekend, I kept getting messages from Film Stories writers attending their local multiplexes, reporting that screenings of Blue Story were packed out.
But that’s not the narrative that ran over the weekend. Instead, the film found itself dragged into an unsavoury tale of gang violence at a Birmingham cinema.
At the Star City venue the Saturday evening just gone, five teenagers were arrested after a brawl broke out at the Vue cinema there. Some youths armed with machetes were caught on camera, and police offers with tasers and dogs were brought in to break up the violence, putting themselves bravely in the way of harm doing so.
The cinema was closed in the aftermath of the incident, and reopened on Sunday morning. The BBC has a full report on what was reported to be a gang-related incident, here.
But an unfortunate consequence of the morning after the night before appears to have been the search for a scapegoat.
I’m from the Birmingham area, and the Star City venue has had no shortage of problems in the past, although clearly not on this level. However, then came the news that Vue Cinemas in the light of the events, had pulled Blue Story from every single site in its chain. Every last one. Showcase Cinemas also pulled the film from four of its sites (although it’s returning it to its screens from today).
Blue Story itself is a rarity, a film made by an exciting emerging black filmmaker getting a wide UK release. It’s a film that few had on their mainstream radar, but we’ve been here before. Every single film in Noel Clarke’s Hood trilogy was described as a surprise hit, when in fact Clarke knew his audience, and wanted films that would have talked to him when he was growing up. Blue Story was on its way to becoming a similar success.
Crucially – although you wouldn’t believe it from reading some of the news reports – the violence that broke out last night didn’t take place in a screening of Blue Story. It took place in the queue outside according to reports. Not, as some had reported too, during a screening of Frozen 2. Rather, in the line at a cinema. Yet Vue has pulled the film, sending a message – whether it intends it or not – as to where it points the blame.
In a classy message posted on his Instagram account, Rapman – real name Andrew Onwubolu – posted the following…
View this post on Instagram
It’s hard not to see his point, and his post is a measured reaction to a very messed up situation.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel for Vue at Star City, whose staff found itself in positions that nobody should be in. Yet for the broader Vue chain to yank a film is knee jerk at best, and, well, a lot worse at worst.
A Twitter campaign to boycott Vue quickly gathered pace, drawing not hard to draw conclusions as to why Blue Story found itself in the firing line.
After all, why this film? Incidents have taken place, as others have pointed out, around screenings of Mary Poppins Returns and Joker in the UK over the past 12 months. Why is it Blue Story that finds itself removed from cinemas? Is this the start of a precedent where others films that have violence in, for instance, are going to be pulled? That when there’s an incident at a cinema, a film is going to be taken from a screen as a reaction?
This time next year, another film that features gangs as part of its story – Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story – is in cinemas. Can you imagine that film being pulled in the aftermath of a similar incident?
The further knock on of this is that Blue Story – which had picked up good reviews, and was finding an audience who clearly wanted to see it – will see its box office hurt. And the problem there is that cinema chains examine the numbers of an opening weekend to decide what to book for a second week. The numbers for Blue Story will have been depressed as a consequence of Vue’s decision, and a British independent film with clear mainstream appeal finds itself fighting an even tougher battle to get screen space as a consequence.
Vue for its part has given a statement to reading “we can confirm a decision was made to remove the film. The safety and welfare of our customers and staff is always our first priority”.
Meanwhile, talking to the BBC, the commander of the Birmingham West neighbourhood policing unit, Steve Graham, said that “I understand there is a lot of speculation on social media and people are citing that film. At this stage we are not jumping to any conclusions. That will form part of our investigations as it carries on”.
But the problem is that by pulling the film, and doing so in such an abrupt manner, Vue has planted it as part of the problem.
Long term it can’t hurt the movie’s profile, but a film that its director describes as about “love, not violence” now finds itself unfairly tagged as ‘controversial’ and linked to a major violent incident. All because a small collection of people went to a cinema to do something other than watch a film, and brought fear, distress and violence to a venue where people were wanting a night out at the movies.
There are no winners here, especially the many who were injured in brawl, that was said to have attracted 100 youths. Furthermore, the people who ran towards the incident to try and keep people safe have a level of courage that feels pretty much off the chart.
But the treatment of Blue Story in the aftermath of the incident feels raw, wrong and extremely unfair. The movie is making headlines now around the world, for reasons entirely out of its control. And a Monday morning when we should have been able to celebrate the success at the box office of an exciting, emerging black filmmaker now finds itself dominated by a very different conversation. Pulling a film from an entire cinema chain has consequences, beyond people not being able to see a film they want to see.
The headlines you see from around the world this morning is one such consequence.
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