Lots of films were caught up trying to get into UK cinemas at the start of the 1990s – and one of them was Oscar-winning hit The Silence Of The Lambs.

In the year 2018, the number of films getting some kind of release in UK cinemas hit a record level. According to figures from the Film Distributor’s Association (FDA), 916 films were released into British moviehouses in just 12 months. Now alongside your Marvel blockbusters this included one-day only presentations, films getting a dual video on demand release and even theatre shows being beamed to the big screen. Still, that’s 18 films a week on average: even full-time film critics could only realistically watch half of them: the general public had no chance.

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Yet go back to the early 1990s, and the UK film distribution scene was struggling to cope with just a third of that number. And there was a significant bottleneck, putting the release of Best Picture Oscar-winner The Silence Of The Lambs under threat.

I happened upon the story going through some old issues of Film Review magazine. The long-running, now defunct publication picked up the tale in its January 1991 and February 1991 issues, which its news section opened with the alarming news. Describing the problem as a “release crisis”, it noted that too many films were competing for a release slot in UK cinemas.

This was an era, it’s worth noting, where a film didn’t as a rule come and go in a day. It also was far less about the opening weekend, and there was space in distribution for a film to build its audience over a number of weeks. However, a logjam was being caused by the lack of what were described as ‘prestige London cinemas’. If you think UK film is London-centric now, just 30 years ago it was even slowing down the speed films could be released at.

Some background. In the UK in the early 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for a film to open in the West End of London a week or two ahead of its broader nationwide release. Furthermore, films were a long way away from getting simultaneous release dates around the world. Disney animated films were routinely a year behind for instance, and even something like Ghostbusters II would follow its US release by nearly five months: a summer 1989 release in the States, a Christmas movie in Britain.

Going back to the early 90s queue then, the established path of a London debut followed by a nationwide roll-out leaned on a small collection of West End cinemas. What threw the release calendar that year into chaos was – bizarrely – just two major venues. The Odeon West End and Warner West End were both undergoing refurbishment, and that left distributors scrambling for slots for their films. All at a time when the number of planned cinema releases was climbing.

The Film Review report noted that consumers were staring at a future where release dates were going to be increasingly uncertain, where the wait for a release was going to be even longer, and it also cautioned to expect a growing number of films to debut on video and bypass the big screen altogether.

One distributor alone – Rank – was said to be “currently sitting on the prints for 12 top films, none of which has yet managed to secure a showcase opening slot”.

Three of those 12 films were named. It’s easy to scoff in hindsight at the Charlie Sheen-headlined actioner Navy SEALs, not least because Sheen himself has taken aim at the movie himself (he and its director probably aren’t swapping Christmas cards). Still, this was a solid-looking release that also had a computer game tie-in planned around it. A mismatch of star and helmer killed it in the end, but at the time of planning a release, that wasn’t known.

More promisingly, there was Cher’s return to the big screen in Mermaids, a movie we looked at separately here (not least for the number of directors it got through). Co-starring Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci, the film was ready for release at the turn of 1991, but wouldn’t land screen space in the UK until May, six months after it had debuted in America.

Highest profile of all was, staggeringly, The Silence Of The Lambs. The film debuted in America in February 1991, and to be fair, nobody could have predicted that a year later such a horror-tinged movie would snare all five of the main Oscars and bank over $100m at the American box office alone. Yet Rank wasn’t able to release it that February, even if it wanted to: there wasn’t the capacity. On top of that, the distributor also complained of a 40 film pipeline coming up behind the 12 movies it had stuck.

“Film distributors like to showcase their films in the West End”, the article explained. “But for the foreseeable future, the only ones that won’t have release problems are those who own their own showcase cinemas”.

Warner Bros did, Universal and Paramount did via UCI. Everybody else? Get in the queue.

“It’s a bad situation”, Rank press officer Brian Burton is quoted as saying. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better”.

As it happened though, things started to ease a month later. It helped enormously that the Odeon West End’s refurbishment, perhaps surprisingly, went entirely to schedule. Furthermore, studios did some bartering and worked alongside each other to share out the release date slots for the first half of 1991. It’s down to this odd spirit of comradeship that Rank could get The Silence Of The Lambs out in the UK as early as May 1991 (just over three months behind America). Without the deals being struck, it would have struggled to get it out in time for the summer.

Over time, the logjam would lessen, and in fact by the end of the decade, the idea of huge gaps between the US and UK releases of bigger films was well on its way to ending. More pertinently for the UK release system, the reliance on putting films through West End cinemas was in decline. Heck, we even got premieres of huge blockbusters as far afield as Leicester and Birmingham (more on those here).

Which made the early 1990s a snapshot of the future and past of theatrical releases in the UK. On the one hand, way too reliant on one city to get a film out into the world, a practice that’s been in decline since. On the other, a hint as to the growing number of films trying to get shown across the country. That number would only continue to go up. And when Hannibal Lecter returned to the big screen on three further occasions, there’d be no trouble fitting in him…

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